Sunday, February 19, 2012

All Koreans do not look alike. Except to me, sometimes.

The other day I was talking to a coworker about the boy band Super Junior (long story, but it wasn't because I'm a fan), and I mentioned that I couldn't tell them apart because they all looked the same. And then after the words came out of my mouth, I realized how unintentionally racist that sounded, and I had to backtrack to explain what I meant, although I'm not entirely sure she doesn't now think I'm a closet bigot.  Let's face it, usually if you have to explain why what you said doesn't make you racist, no one is going to believe you aren't.

What I meant was, I can't tell members of boy bands apart.  Or girl bands, for that matter.  When I was a kid, New Kids On The Block was huge, and all my female friends had crushes on one member or another, but I had no idea who was who, and I didn't care. I didn't get the appeal.  Then when I was in college, there were boy bands everywhere, and I couldn't tell the bands apart, much less their members.  They are all generically pretty in a bland, unappealing (to me) kind of way.  They were like models in print ads: I could see that their features were supposed to be pretty but in a very generic, "could swap one for another and no one would know the difference" kind of way.  They were about as appealing to me as wallpaper.

But when I go to Korea, I'm a little worried about potentially offending some of my friend's family and friends by being unable to tell them apart, for reasons that have nothing to do with them looking like they belong in a boy band or with them being Korean.  It's more that I have a very hard time sometimes with recognizing people's faces.  I don't think I have prosopagnosia because I can totally tell my family members apart, for example. And generally I can recognize friends and coworkers.  But sometimes I can't recognize people that I have met on multiple occasions.  Once when I was home from college on Christmas break, I ran into an old classmate at the store. I'd gone to school with this guy for seven years, but suddenly when I was in the middle of my conversation with him, it was like I was seeing his features for the first time. I spent the rest of the time I chatted with him worried that I was in fact not talking to my old classmate and was babbling on to someone totally different, only I had no idea who. He clearly knew me, but I wasn't sure that he was who I thought he was.

I have that problem with other things, too.  Like, when I was younger, it was very hard for me to learn to tell time. The best way I can explain it is to say that when I'd look at a clock, I'd only see the whole image and could not break it down into its constituent parts. I could not tell you where the big hand and little hand where, because I didn't see them that way, I just saw this image. I'm not describing it very well, but it was very frustrating.  After a certain point, I learned to not look at the clock as a whole and just look first at the little hand, and then at the big hand.  And over time, I became faster at it. I can tell time now pretty easily, but I still do it slower than most people because I cannot just glance at the clock and know the time. I still have to say, "Ok, the little hand is at the three, and the big hand is at the four, so it's 3:20."  Even just the other day I had to deal with this when I had to sign in at the doctor's office.  The form asked you to write down what time you signed in, and for one very tense moment, I just couldn't figure out the time.  But fortunately no one was looking at me, so I could take a deep breath and take my time. 

I used to break into a sweat at the idea of meeting friends at, say, a restaurant.  Just like with the clock, when my friends became a part of a group (in this case, of restaurant patrons), they just blended in and became indistinguishable from everyone else there.  What if they were already seated at a table when I got there, and I couldn't find them because I couldn't recognize them? Un!Comfortable! And in fact this happened on more than one occasion.  Once they were even waving at me, and I still didn't see them at first.  And if you think high school friends won't make fun of you for that, then you were never in high school.  

After that I started arranging to meet my friends at one of our homes, or at a smaller venue like a coffee shop.  But eventually, I got comfortable with doing a version of my time-telling technique. I'd start at a table on one side of the room and look closely at each person at the table: "That's not my friend. And that's not my friend on right left. Next chair--that's not my friend," and so on, until I find the person I'm meeting.  Plus, I stopped caring so much about whether or not I seemed weird for not being able to spot someone, so I have less anxiety, which helps.  Because when I start worrying that I won't be able to distinguish someone in a crowd, I pretty much won't be able to.

But that only works if it's a face I'm very familiar with, and if I'm not anxious about recognizing the person. I'm a little worried that in Korea, when I'm meeting so many people I've never met before, I'll be overwhelmed. And then I'll feel anxious, which will make it hard for me to concentrate on recognizing, "oh, yeah, this is the guy I met at dinner last night." The added pressure of not embarrassing my friend by not being able to tell who is who among her friends and her extended family, I'll definitely have extra anxiety.  And combine that with me being bad at names, the potential for looking like an "all Asians look alike to me" kind of person is high.

To compensate for that, I'll have to concentrate on trying to distinguish features. "This guy has a scar on his eyebrow. That lady has a crooked tooth. That girl has a very unflattering bowl haircut.  That guy is -really- good looking."  Which means I'll be staring at people with a higher level of intensity than people normally find comfortable. Which means I'll be weird in a different, non-racist way.  But at least I won't look like a racist, which, for your average white American, is all I'm shooting for most days.  But I will look very strange.  But I'm planning on telling people that I'm originally from Canada, so don't worry America, I won't embarrass you.

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