Chinese woman calls out coworker who claims he can tell at a glance whether a person is Chinese or other Asian descent

Tracey Folly

*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I experienced firsthand; used with permission.

I don't know whether either of the women in the preceding photo is Chinese. All I know is that I searched for a photo of a Chinese woman, and that was one of the photos I found. If I had to guess, I'd say the lady on the left is not Chinese, and the lady on the right is Chinese. Am I correct? I have no idea, and neither do you.

For that matter, I don't know whether one, both, or neither of the people depicted in that photo identifies as women. Either or both could identify as men. Either or both could be nonbinary. I can't know for sure unless they tell me, and I'm not in a position to be able to ask them.

When my father was hospitalized with heart failure two years ago, my mother and I met one of his nurses. She was Chinese. We know this because she told us so; we hadn't asked.

While I was in the room with my father and two hospital workers, I overheard an interesting conversation involving his Chinese nurse.

"Can you tell I'm Chinese by looking at me?" she asked her coworker.

"Yes, absolutely," he replied. He sounded confident.

"Can you always tell whether someone is Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese, or ... "

"Yes," he replied. "I can always tell when someone is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese by looking at them."

"Wow," she said. "That's impressive because I was born in China, and I can't even tell for certain whether someone else is Chinese."

He didn't back down, but I got the distinct feeling she didn't believe him. I felt like she was trying to teach him a lesson in making assumptions, but he wasn't picking up what she was putting down.

I understood the point she was trying to make. My family is Portuguese. My parents were born in the Azores.

Many people correctly assume we are Portuguese. Even more incorrectly assume we are Spanish. I've been mistaken for Italian and French.

Likewise, I think I can spot a Portuguese person, but experience has taught me that my guesses aren't always accurate. Not all Portuguese people look alike. Some of us have dark skin and dark eyes. My cousin was a fair-skinned redhead with freckles. My father is a dark-skinned Portuguese with blond hair and blue eyes. His father had green eyes. My grandmother was dark brown the color of burnt toast.

Cameron Diaz is half-Cuban. Does she look half-Cuban? What does being half-Cuban look like? In at least one case, being half-Cuban looks like a leggy blue-eyed blonde.

Charlie Sheen's real name is Carlos Estévez. Does he look like his name is Carlos Estévez? Well, he better, because that's exactly what it is.

These things are all arbitrary, and none of them tell me who someone is or where they came from, and quite frankly, that's okay.

What do you think? Comments are welcome.

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Ordained Minister, Universal Life Church

Massachusetts State

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