When I entered university, I became friends with a group of Asian women, who had banded together to form a closely-knit and welcoming circle of friends. From among this group, one Japanese woman, a future teacher of English as a second language, became my closest friend.
In terms of age, my Japanese friend was about three years my senior. In our relationship, I helped her navigate the dicey waters of English idioms and grammar. She invited me to help her with the selection of her very first pair of eyeglasses, which was no small feat because her facial structure (lack of a significant bridge to her nose) made it difficult for her to find appropriate frames–States’ side. I also acted as an ad hoc “cultural consultant.”
For her part, my friend was always gracious, patient and generous with me which, given the age difference at the time, was a significant kindness. She invited me to dinners with her local host family, who were Italian-Americans, capable of putting on a formal, five-course-meal extravaganza worthy of rave reviews, with specialty items “imported” from Chicago. She granted me large, caligraphied characters of inspiration and almost scraped the tip of her nose on the floor several times the first time she met my mother. (My mother quietly protested, “But, I am not that old.”)
Our bond grew deep enough that communications often seemed to transcend culture. Then, one day, my Japanese friend was trying to describe a situation involving a female student who was unfamiliar to me. I was not following the account very well and, in an effort to understand who the other woman was, I broke into her narrative to ask about the appearance of the other female student, so that I could attempt to place the stranger visually.
That is when my friend blurted out in frustration, “How am I supposed to describe her. You all look the same.”
I bent over with laughter, asking, “How can you say that? Although most of us are of European descent, we have different colored hair and eyes.”
Then, some form of internal clarity came to me. If my Japanese friend comes from a culture where virtually everyone shares similar hair and eye color, then, the Japanese people must cue off of different facial features to describe one another verbally. This would impact how a Japanese person sees other people.
I tried to consider the students I was watching from my friend’s perspective. And, I realized that “we”–the European American students surrounding us–do all look alike because we have fairly uniform, pronounced noses, long narrow faces and light complexions. Thus, I had just exposed my own cultural bias by naming hair and eye color as the most distinguishing facial features.
In the end, I had to ask, “How do we see?”