Sangeetha Swaroop meets a cross-section of people who tell her looks can be deceptive when it comes to identifying nationalities

Far East/South East Asia

Yuki Ochiai, Japanese
Did you ever know that the sounds of your language and the food you eat shows up on your face too? Well, for Yuki Ochiai, that is the simple tool by which she identifies certain nationalities - apart from the hairstyle and make-up, that is.

"The Japanese sounds are all very flat, hence, the mouth is very small," says Ochiai, who hails from Japan.

"This is also because the food we eat is light and soft and, to use chopsticks, you don't really need wide mouths. On the other hand, it is the meat-eating habits of the Koreans, which requires lots of chewing, that has made their jaws broader," says this assistant general manager, marketing & sales administration, JVC Gulf FZE.

Another quick way of differentiating between these two nationalities, "at least in business circles, is the way men sport their hairstyle and women apply make-up", she notes.

"The Koreans have closely-cropped hair while the Japanese tend to leave their hair longer. Also, the Koreans use really small spectacles while the Japanese have bigger frames. Korean women tend to use heavy foundation, it is not so for Japanese women, whose cosmetic styles, across the nation, tend to be very similar."

It is more difficult now to identify the women, especially with changing trends in hairstyles and make-up, she says.

"Earlier, the Koreans and Japanese were very different but today, with the mixing of cultures, they all tend to look the same. "I am always asked if I am from the Philippines or China, never Korea ('because they have very small eyes'). I've even been asked whether I am from Kazakhstan, perhaps because of the Mongoloid features. But when a person gets my nationality wrong ... I am not happy about it," she says. "It makes me angry."

Ochiai, whose first exposure to a multicultural environment came about two years ago when she moved to Dubai, has her own methods of identifying other nationalities. Between Indian and Pakistani males, the difference, she says, lies in the way the beard is trimmed.

All it took was one simple 'mistake' on her part to forbid her forever from making wild guesses about a person's nationality. To break the ice, Yuki Ochiai once casually asked a fellow scuba diver if he were German. A glowering look and a curt 'I am British' was enough to make her realise that she had rubbed him the wrong way and therein ended the conversation.

"After that, my husband and I have never asked anyone about their nationalities," she says.

Anjala Bhatnagar, Singaporean
For Singaporean Anjala Bhatnagar, identifying any nationality when she first moved to Dubai two decades ago was just short of impossible.

"My mother first thought that all Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis (belonged to the same country) primarily because of the colour," she says. "Now that I have worked in an Arab organisation for several years, I find it easier to recognise familiar traits among those from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.

"Some people mistake me for a Filipino while many Indians think I am Goan," she says. "Arab nationals presume I am from Morocco or Tunisia while many from the Far East think I am Eurasian. And often, when I reveal my nationality, the response is, 'Oh, but you don't look Singaporean'."

And how exactly does a Singaporean look? To this, the answers she gets are often way off the mark, says Bhatnagar. "'Are they not like the Chinese?' is the oft-asked question. Well, Singapore may have a good number of citizens of Chinese descent but there are plenty of other races too."

Bhatnagar, who is married to an Indian, acknowledges that there is a mix of cultures and races in her genes. "I have a Japanese grandmother and a Singaporean-Indian father ... then there is the presence of Indian blood somewhere along the line," she says.

"But I still do not like it when others try to 'change' my nationality - I am proud to be a Singaporean and prefer to be known that way. And I do not check on a person's nationality because, I believe, it is a rather impolite thing to do."

Dr Chen, Chinese
Echoing a similar thought is Dr Chen from China whose headdress, she says, often fools others into thinking she is either Indonesian or Malaysian or even Nepalese.

"Many people are not aware that there is the presence of a Muslim community in China, in the north-west of the country," she says. "I've now lived in Dubai for a decade and am well tanned, unlike the Chinese who generally keep away from the sun (and use an umbrella when stepping out)."

One guiding rule she adheres to is never to probe a person's age or nationality. "Since I take immense pride in my nationality, I dislike it when people think I belong to another nation. But, I must admit that in the UAE, there is a greater respect for cultures as the nation itself is made up of more than 100 different nationalities."
Middle East

Ayman Alsaleh, Bahraini
It is funny how Ayman Alsaleh gets to play many 'roles' in real life. People almost always confuse him for an Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian ... even a Kuwaiti - all these when he is within the boundaries of the GCC world itself.

When Alsaleh steps into Europe, he is bombarded with questions about his Spanish looks or Italian features.

Yet, Alsaleh, vice-president of Bates Pan Gulf PR, is none of the above. He is a Bahraini. "I guess there are certain expectations of how a GCC national ought to look (like) and perhaps I don't fit into this mould," he says.

It is not merely one's face but the whole persona including the dress and the accent that are clear indicators of one's nationality, he says.

"In my case, I have neutralised my accent and so even when I talk (people are unable to guess my nationality). I tend to group people as belonging to certain regions but it certainly is not easy to identify a person based on looks alone. For instance, there is no way of telling apart an Englishman, a Welshman or an Irishman unless you hear them speak.''

Hussni Chammout, Lebanese
"It is your exposure and interaction with several nationalities that makes you come close to identifying each by their country of origin," believes Hussni Chammout from Lebanon. He has travelled extensively and has lived or worked in the UK, Beirut, Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

His is the classic example of being confounded by the 'all look same' syndrome when he first came to Dubai 10 years ago. "Almost all the vendors I interacted with happened to be Asians and even after individual meetings with them, I realised there was no way I could tell them apart. It felt as if I were speaking to the same person again and again. To me then, they all looked the same."

Today, of course, experience has taught him better. Yet, he admits, "If I meet an Arab, I can store him in my memory far better than if I were to meet an Asian or (any) other nationality."

But in today's cosmopolitan world with a pool of races living together, does it really matter where you are from or who you are mistaken for? "At face value, I believe it doesn't matter," says Chammout, managing director, CompuMe.

"In realistic terms, however, the opposite may be true, because somewhere in our subconscious mind, racism rears its head. (Also), when you live in a foreign country, there tends to be a bias towards one's own race as you attach yourself to people who understand and are part of your own culture - they symbolise a 'piece of your own home' here."

Rabie Al Faqih, Syrian
A PR account manager, Rabie Al Faqih loves to play the 'game of guessing' especially because "almost all the time I am mistaken for another nationality. Seldom does anyone say I am from Syria", he adds. Some feel I am an Iranian or Turk, while many Arabs think I hail from Lebanon, Jordan or Syria, he says.

Those who watch Arab television serials are used to hearing a particular Syrian accent, he says. "But I have a different dialect and hence, this confusion."

More than the face, it is the national dress and body language that gives clues to one's identity, he says. "There are certain facial expressions common to all Syrians, especially the raised eyebrows and tilting of the head upwards when surprised ...

"As for women, the trick is to look at their make-up styles."

And it is here that Faqih's observation skills come into play. "When the make-up blends well with the natural colour of the skin tone, she has to be a Lebanese ...," he says.


Mubarik Jafery, Pakistani
Neither black nor white, the Asian skin colour tends to veer towards a darker shade of brown, which, for most people in the US, is a clear indicator that ... he/she is a Mexican, judging by the experiences of Mubarik Jafery and Naveed Jamal from Pakistan and Ashish Kumar from India.

"In the US, people of 'colour' are almost always referred to as Mexicans," says Jafery, art director, Ink. "Personally, I don't see colour as being vital to a person's background - it is (the person) that counts."

Born and raised in the UAE, Jafery has experienced first-hand from a young age, the diversity that Dubai offers. At high school, he says, there were 71 nationalities and "my closest friends (included) a Pole, an Egyptian, a Dutch and a half-English half-Egyptian". Having roots in this country, this multiplicity of nationalities is what he has grown up with.

Where you are from is a very diluted question today, he says. "Most people have a mixed background and how many of them refer to their country of origin as 'home'?" he asks.

Though the common factor linking all expatriates in the UAE is certainly the fact that "they are all foreigners here", segregation occurs at another level because of the economic background, believes Jaferi.

"At that time, your economic standards, irrespective of your nationality, tend to take on a common colour or shade," he says.

Noor Rizvi, Sri Lankan
Senior graphic designer Noor Rizvi agrees, "At the end of the day, we all belong to the human race, and that is more significant than to which nation we belong to. I am Sri Lankan but just because I can converse in Hindi fluently, I am almost always mistaken for an Indian."

Working in a multicultural environment has exposed him to nationalities from across the world, he says. "This is a positive experience, as it helps you know more about other cultures and is instrumental in removing the labels you otherwise tend to form about people and places that you are not familiar with."

Ashish Kumar, Indian
Another 'Mexican' in the making is Ashish Kumar from India, who has a keen interest in visual communication and how people perceive other people. "In the US, there is a greater emphasis on such issues and most people there have very stereotypical views of how people of different regions look," he says.

Not surprisingly, when in the US, he was often asked about his Mexican or Puerto Rican or Pakistani lineage.

Though there are a few distinct categories of human races, every population shades imperceptibly into another, says Kumar, an accounts executive.

"If you look at visible traits like facial construction and features, it becomes easier to denote who comes from where. But does it really matter?" he asks. "None can deny the existence of these differences but the way in which you interpret them is what really makes all the difference."


Uwe Hohmann, German
He is tall, more or less blonde and has close-cropped hair - stereotypical traits of a German, as some would say. And, indeed, he is. "As I fit the average description of a German, it is very rarely that I am mistaken for another nationality," says Uwe Hohmann. "People often instantly recognise that I am from the German-speaking area of Europe. Even the way I act and react is typically German."

If asked whether he is Swiss, Hohmann says he will immediately clarify but his reaction is vastly different if someone assumes he is French. "Then, it is an outright denial on my part," he says.

Before he came to Dubai four years ago, Hohmann's exposure in the eastern part of Europe had made it easy for him to distinguish Poles, Czechs and Romanians. But, upon arrival in Dubai, "I was initially perplexed by the extraordinary range of nationalities I encountered here", he remembers.

"Today, I am in a better position to identify them. I guess it is the level of experience (of meeting different nationalities) that makes us recognise where people come from."

Apart from physical characteristics, even the industry that people work in can give you a clue about their place of origin, he says. "I have noticed that many Sri Lankans work in accounts while there are a great number of Indians in sales jobs. However, it is when people talk, that their true identity is revealed," he believes.

Ioannis Meletiadis, Greek
Just over five months old in Dubai, Ioannis (John) Meletiadis has a hard time telling certain nationalities apart.

"I am Greek and though I studied in a very multicultural environment in Switzerland, the range of nationalities there were largely limited to those from Europe. But Dubai is a different story altogether and I am trying to gain some experience in this aspect."

Currently, he says he cannot distinguish a Thai from a Filipino nor can he differentiate among Indians, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis. The two criteria that help in discovering a person's nationality are the looks and accent, says this marketing executive with Wafi
Health & Leisure.

"Visual markers like skin colour, dress, facial features, etc. form the first impression while it is the person's accent that gives you a greater understanding. For instance, Germans cannot pronounce certain words while the French pronounce 'r' with a typical French accent."

Despite his very Greek looks - prominent nose, slightly tanned colour and athletic build - people in Europe confuse him for an Italian or a Spaniard, he says. And here, "I am almost always mistaken for a Lebanese."

Kristin Scheffer, German
Although Kristin Scheffer and her husband are German, they are often mistaken to be French, "perhaps because of the way we speak English. Some have even asked my husband whether he is an Arab or a Chinese!"

However, Scheffer too found it rather confusing to distinguish between Filipinos and other Asians, especially when she first moved to Dubai more than a year ago. "To me - at the time - they all looked the same. But now I can see the difference, especially between Filipinos and Indians, chiefly from the eyes and the way they speak."

Even within Europe, she says, it can be difficult to correctly identify all nationalities. "The Northerners tend to be fairer and have lighter hair while to me, Italians and the Spanish have almost similar characteristics."

Dubai is a mix of nationalities, she says. "And I am amazed at how it is so peaceful and quiet here despite the existence of so many cultures, beliefs, customs and traditions. My three-year-old daughter has already picked up words in Arabic and Hindi from her playmates and this, I believe, is truly one of the best advantages of living here."