My Most Embarrassing Secret As a Traveler and Expat

I am white, and I have an embarrassing secret.

Two decades ago, I had the occasion to travel for several months in Black Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire.

The first few weeks after my arrival, I was shocked at my lack of ability to recognize people; everyone looked the same.  I couldn’t tell people apart.  I thought something was wrong with me.

More than twenty years later, I found an explanation for my problem through watching a television program.  In this episode of The Good Wife, trial lawyers discover through the use of a consultant that it is difficult for most white witnesses to make accurate identification of black perpetrators, and equally difficult for most black witnesses to make accurate identification of white perpetrators.

This problem, as I have recently learned, is called “Difficulty with Cross-Racial Face Recognition.”

Kenya is a black majority country. When I first arrived, I had trouble noticing differences between people's faces.

After spending approximately three weeks in East Africa, I finally became able to recognize people and tell them apart.  I think what happened to me here as an adult was a reproduction of the experience all of us must go through as babies, yet none of us remember.  It is clear that we learn as babies to recognize best of all those we grow up around, most particularly our family, and our own race.  Recent research shows that it is in the extremely precise judgement of the micro-measurements of the face (which vary by race) where recognition takes place.

Burundi

When I traveled in Burundi (four years before the war with Rwanda), one person I spent time with told me, “I could never step over the border into Rwanda, or they would kill me.”  When I asked why, he told me, “They would just take one look at my face, and kill me.”

Tutsi boy

This person was a Tutsi.  At that time, not only did I not believe my acquaintance, but I could not tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi.  Now, many years later, the differences are clear.

Agathon Rwasa, a Burundian Hutu Militia Leader

Now I live in North Africa.  When traveling with my North African husband (who is Caucasian), I find people in certain regions speaking to him in the Berber language.  He doesn’t speak Berber.  My husband explains, “They just see my face and assume that I speak Berber.”

A Berber man with his daughter

I lived in North Africa for many years before anyone pointed out to me the facial differences between Arabs and Berbers.  Sometimes I can clearly tell them apart; other times not.  But even now, my recognition doesn’t even come close to those who were born here.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in a small village high in the Atlas Mountains.  That weekend I noticed something I had never seen before.  Everyone in the village had a very distinctive cranial shape, and a very particular set of ears.  It was distinctive enough that even if I saw someone who looked like that back in America, now I would ask them, “Are you, by any chance, from this particular village in the Atlas Mountains?”

Atlas Mountains

I finally understood why Americans (or maybe just me) are particularly bad at racial face recognition.  In most Old World countries, people have stayed in the same locations, and intermarried primarily with the local group for a long-enough time to develop very, very precise micro-racial characteristics.  Each village, even 20-30 miles away from each other will have very particular characteristics.  People from these countries are quite used to looking at people in this way, and recognizing which area they are from.

In America, we are not at all used to looking at people in this way.   Since we have immigrants from all over the world, everyone is entirely mixed up.  We have unlimited micro-varieties within every race.  If a black African or white European came to America, he or she would no doubt be able to look at many Americans of their own race, and know precisely where many of their ancestors came from.

America - the nation of immigrants

One important difference in America is that most people, even within their own race, have intermarried with others from many different locales.  So many of their micro-features would no longer be the same as might be associated with a particular European or African village.  Americans have always moved from one part of the country to another on a regular basis, as well.  In addition, many more interracial marriages are occurring.  For all these reasons, people are “mixed up” in America, and Americans are not used to recognizing people by looking at their micro-characteristics and trying to categorize where they are from.  But, as babies, they become used to looking at the micro-characteristics of their own race, in order to recognize family members.

Animal micro-recognition is similar.  Years ago, I used to wonder how biological researchers in the field could watch a troop or a herd of animals, and recognize each animal.  They all looked the same to me.

Later, after we got two cats from the same litter as pets, I began to see the subtle differences  in their faces and bodies, especially when there were several neighborhood cats who looked close enough to my own cats that I called to them by mistake.  Now I never make that mistake as I immediately recognize much more subtle differences, even from a distance.

New information is now being publicized about a condition called Face Blindness.  People who suffer from this condition are unable to visually recognize their own family members or close friends.  The short linked-to video on Face Blindness also explains the opposite condition, which is called being a Super Recognizer, meaning that one is able to recognize and remember every face he has ever seen.  These people are able to tell you where they saw a face, as well as being able to recognize a photo of any of those people taken at any point, at any age, during their lifetimes.

Through this new research, I now see that recognizing faces is a learned skill for most people, an impossible challenge for people with face blindness, and incredibly easy for super recognizers.

My hidden secret perplexed and embarrassed me for many years.  But now that I understand why I had this problem, I no longer feel so guilty!  Thankfully, in my older years I’ve now learned to recognize much more than I noticed in my younger years.

–Lynne Diligent

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29 Responses to “My Most Embarrassing Secret As a Traveler and Expat”

  1. the retrospective entrepreneur Says:

    Fascinating, Lynn. Many years ago when I used to travel frequently in Japan, the locals always used to say that they couldn’t tell us Europeans apart.

    Like

  2. Jim Taggart Says:

    Very interesting what you describe.

    If you look at a country such as Canada with its rapidly growing ethnic mix in large urban areas, one could say the same of East Asians. In other words, Canadians who are not exposed to visible minorities regularly probably have the problem you describe.

    In the four Atlantic Provinces, where I lived for 27 years, the population is disproportionately white. Going to Toronto or even Ottawa on a trip is a head-snapping exercise. Toronto is indeed the most ethnically diverse city on the planet. I was in awe the last time I was there, and I used to go there frequently on business. Go into its sprawling Chinatown and everyone looks alike.

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  3. Judy Says:

    I have a Scottish friend who is of (what she calls) “Traveler” descent (Romani Gypsy). She is blonde, fair-skinned and to me looks like any other middle-aged white woman, but she claims she can spot another Traveler and they can identify her. Fascinating topic.

    Like

  4. Expat Alien Says:

    When I first moved to Africa I had difficulty telling people apart. I thought it was because they were so dark skinned, I just couldn’t see them very well. I had heard people in the USA say that all Blacks looked alike. I thought it was some kind of racial slur. Having grown up in Latin American I was not exposed to many Africans. After having lived in Africa for a while, I was able to distinguish them and I never had the problem again. To this day, I can tell tribal differences in the faces of the people from the region. Your article is interesting and enlightening.

    Like

  5. indigosoul77 Says:

    Reblogged this on Ramblings of Everything and commented:
    i have this problem and still do to this day; with white, black, and indians, pretty much everyone lol!

    Like

  6. Paul Garrigan Says:

    I had the same problem when I first moved to Thailand. I did find it hard to tell people apart – it seems crazy now. Mind you, these days my eyesight isn’t great and I struggle to recognize anyone. I nearly took the wrong child home from my son’s school a couple of weeks ago 🙂

    I can usually spot Irish people a mile away.

    Like

  7. aaronjaypoet Says:

    Very interesting. I seriously didn’t know what to expect within the article but it did leave me very satisfied. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. This was a real treat to read. ^_^

    Like

  8. Mona Says:

    Thank you for sharing Lynn. I am originally from Morocco. I know exactly what you mean. When I see North Africans I can spot them easily. I can do the same thing for Middle Easterners but never for Asians for example.

    Like

  9. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from DP on Linkedin Discussion: “I am not sure it is a “problem” – it may just be that people are better able to differentiate between the features of those they are familiar with and particularly when they are of the same race as themselves. I also think it applies to all races and cultures and probably to much the same extent. Here’s an example from my personal experience.

    Scene: 3 people having lunch in a hotel in Accra, Ghana. White consultant (me) his black female Ghanaian colleague and their black female Ghanaian client. Through a large window they can see the pool area where there are several young white people, on loungers, chatting etc. The hotel is used for layovers by several airlines and it is likely that they are cabin crew. Conversation goes something like:

    Client lady (to me): “What age do you think that girl is?” Me: “Probably 25-30, what do you think?” Client lady: “I find it hard to tell the age of white women – beyond old or young” Colleague lady: “Me too – is she English?” Me: “She looks more Dutch to me and I know that both KLM and BA use the hotel.” Client lady “Dutch? How can you possibly tell?” Me: “Well, her height, colouring & features to me look more Dutch than English and the other girl with her looks Dutch too, but I might be wrong.” Colleague lady “Wow, they just look like white girls to me.” Much amusement. They knew what they were saying. I know these two ladies very well and I think they would speak their minds in my company.”

    Like

  10. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from K.J. on LinkedIn Discussion: ” I appreciate your honesty and transparency on this topic. Takes a lot of mindfulness and presence to distinguish differences within people of other cultures.”

    Like

  11. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from J.K. on Linkedin Discussion: “Thank you for sharing Lynne! I had a similar embarrassing encounter with Asians. My Filipino friend was brillant at telling Asians apart and could distinguish Chinese, Japanese and Koreans with little effort. I asked her how she did it. Practice, she said. I confessed that I find they look pretty similar. She just laughed at me and said that I could probably tell Scandinavians apart. True, indeed, I replied. But to her Scandinavians all look the same. It is as you say, a matter of training from early on. Luckily we can all beat our ignorance and improve!”

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  12. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from D.L. on LinkedIn Discussion: “Here in Korea, since I’ve been here for over 12 years, I can see some regional differences but not always just facial features but also ways of standing, conducting oneself… I am better than my friends in hearing the differences within Korean pronunciation too. Slang or “saturi”… And, it is very easy to distinguish between different Asian languages be it Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese… Practice…”

    Like

  13. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from R.H. on LinkedIn Discussion: ” Great post Lynne. It is not just “colour”. As an expat Canadian, I always had a sterotype between English Canadian and French Canadian. When I first moved to Europe I found that everyone seemed to look different from what I was use to seeing most of the time. I described it as more “eastern block” but now I see it as “not american”. My partner and I often joke about who on the Metro is a Brit (tourist) before they open their mouth.

    Is it training – probably this helps but I suspect exposure as you write about is a big help. Perhaps that is why I think Europeans are better at this than North Americans. Since Aussies are big travellers – maybe they’re pretty good at it too.”

    Like

  14. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment fro L.H. on LinkedIn Discussion: ” I agree it is not just color but behavior and posture too, and the more you are exposed to the other “looks” the more familiar you become and the easier it is to distinguish other cultural groups.
    After hanging out with some Korean students I too could distinguish the major Asian features, guess their nationalities and their languages (i could tell Cantonese and Mandarin a part too). it is simply an issue of observation and paying attention.
    i find it fun though that i am often mistaken for a different nationality in my own country (!) and abroad.
    I’m totally Italian and Italians often take me for a German or a British and i can easily pass as a Swiss; in Ireland they think I look like a French but then they hear me speaking and clearly see I am not. In Paris they think I am Canadian because of my look and accent (!!!) but in the southern part of France they can’t precisely locate my origins, yet they are sure I am not Italian (!).
    In the US, it is hard to define the origin of people because with the time everybody or most got Americanized (besides many Americans don’t travel outside the US, don’t know the world geography well and politically correctness doesn’t help either in associating and distinguishing cultural groups) therefore Italians from Italy don’t look or behave like an Italian-Americans, Italian-Americans don’t share much anymore with the Italians from Italy (look, behavior, customs and tastes).

    I was surprised though at one remark I heard from my best-friend once.
    She is Chinese (born in China raised in the US) and one of her sisters is married to a Cambodian and the other one is married to a Caucasian (of Irish origins i think). Knowing how her parents weren’t as “happy” with their American son in law, i commented they must have been happy that the other sister was finally married to a Cambodian who looked more Asian than the Caucasian.
    she replied that no, they weren’t happier because of course he didn’t look Chinese and as such he was considered just like the other son in law: an intruder/a foreigner.
    On the moment i thought it was weird, but now, after spending 11 years in the US, i see how, as an expat, you try to keep your identity and your culture, how you tend to mingle with people who share your values, customs, mentality, tastes and even look in a way.
    surprisingly in fact, the person i had more affinity with looked and behaved like a European (even though he was from San Francisco) and because his perceived cultural difference he was almost always mocked (!).”

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  15. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from PVR on LinkedIn Discussion: “Interesting topic!
    To me, this is one of many examples of how the brain works and how it processes new stimuli: stimuli you have to that point never been exposed to, that you are not familiar with.
    When you are looking for a new place to live for instance, in my experience the first time you go and visit a house you will afterwards be able to recall mostly the general characteristics of this house; for example, the number of rooms, the colour of the walls, etc. (possibly apart from some details that are of particular interest to you personally). On a second visit, you will be able to see and recall more details, the third time even more, and so on. (Therefore, it is always recommended that you visit a house at least two times before deciding to buy/hire it.)

    In my experience, this also goes for auditory stimuli: when I first listened to a cd of klezmer music, for instance, all songs seemed more or less the same to me; I wasn’t able to tell them apart. Each subsequent time I listened to this cd, I was able to distinguish (and appreciate!) more particular features in each piece, and by the 10th time, all the songs had become very different to me. In other words, they have become familiar to me.”

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  16. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Comment from PYB from Facebook: “Great article and very interesting!”

    Like

  17. Ram Says:

    Interesting article. Found you through Mr.Jam page and it was worth spending time reading this page. Learnt something new today. Even, I have heard people say that “All Chinese look the same” and I have come across Chinese friends who say that “its hard to differentiate between Indian faces”. Now I know the reason.

    Though I dont have difficulty in differentiating Chinese people after staying for some years in Taiwan, its quite a challenge to differentiate a Japanese amidst a Chinese crowd.

    Like

  18. 100swallows Says:

    As you say, the ear needs some training too. Accents go unnoticed to the beginner. Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions. Though they all speak Spanish, many of the regions have their own language, which of course colors their Spanish. A Spaniard call tell a Catalan as soon as he opens his mouth, as well as an Andalusian, a Gallician, a Murciano, or an Extremeño, but it took me, a foreigner learning Spanish, years to distinguish them all. Now they seem obvious. It’s always a funny surprise to see that Spanish kids learning English don’t hear the difference betrween my Ohio English and Queen Elizabeth’s!

    Like

  19. Alan Headbloom (@headbloom) Says:

    This funny story from an American friend who used to teach in Korea:

    Our Peace Corps training instructor was a Dr. ___ who had a PhD from Columbia U. One night he was telling us how much he and other Korean grad students disliked many Americans saying, “Oh, you must be Japanese.” Except one night when two of them were bar-hopping. They both had to take a leak, ducked up an alleyway, and peed against the wall. An American women with her hands on her hips on the sidewalk yelled, “You Japanese make me sick.” And they both said, “Japanese, yes, yes.”

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  20. Lynne Diligent Says:

    From LinkedIn Discussion: Alan Headbloom • Awesome blog, Lynne. You’ve gone a long way in reducing worldwide guilt along inter-racial lines! I will share this with both American colleagues and international clients.

    Also appreciated Daniel’s observation that recognition isn’t purely racial, either. Style and behavior (not to mention dialect) also delineate our “tribal” associations.

    Like

  21. Lynne Diligent Says:

    From LinkedIn: Peter Smedskjaer • “Yes, I have. When I studied at IPC, I had some difficulty with learning the names of all the students. While the students from Africa wasn’t a problem for me, the Asian students, apart from hair styles and clothing, presented some problems. Recently, I greeted a pastor from Africa thinking I had worked with him before some place else. I was incorrect.”

    Like

  22. Lynne Diligent Says:

    From LinkedIn, S.B. • “Thanks for this Lynne. I did see the 60 Minutes piece on “Face Blindness” and “Super Recognizers” and found it fascinating. But you have made a really interesting connection between that information and the unique challenges of face recognition across cultures. Even within our own unique ‘tribes’ there is a range of face-recognition ability that I never guessed at. Thanks for getting this conversation out of the closet!”

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  23. Lynne Diligent Says:

    From LinkedIn, D.L.• “I remember a book I read in Canada called, God’s Peculiar People. One of the observations that was intriguing and correlated well for the longest time was religion and voting style. According to what each district was predominant religion was, it was easily correlated to what they voted for… A Canadian cultural difference…”

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  24. Lynne Diligent Says:

    From LinkedIn: S.S. • “I agree that George’s last paragraph is very insighful, but while I agree that the American people are fed lots of propaganda about the American way, what I have found, is that most of my friends don’t want to listen to other points of view.

    Living in Greece during Watergate was quite an eye opener for me as was the ability to hear not only Greek, but French. British, Italian and other European points of view on world affairs–both from the media that was available to me and from friendships with people from these countries. In “borrowing” from the discussion reverse culture shock, one of the things that made me uncomfortable when I returned to the US, was the lack of openness to other ideas and the willingness to see that “the American way” is not always the best way.

    While Americans are very quick to criticize other countries on human rights issues, little is said about how the Chinese were treated during and after the building of the transcontinental railroad, the way the Japanese — both first and second generation were put into prison camps during world war two, or even our history of slavery. While we need to continue to stick up for these rights, we need to recognize that our past and even our present are no less blemished.

    When I moved to Mexico, and even now, when I return to the States for a visit, I am asked how I can live in such a “poor and dirty” country that is filled with drug violence. I find Mexico much safer than most places in the states, and I wonder how often Americans see their neighbors come out and sweep the sidewalks in front of their houses every morning. I am now involved in Medical Tourism to Mexico. Again, in spite of the American believe that our health care system is best, I can tell you that, though Mexicans don’t make as much thoughtful provision for the care of foreign patients as the US does, the private hospitals (unfortunately, not always the public ones) offer as high (or higher) level of care as those in the US for a fraction of the cost.

    Another aspect of American politics that I am much more aware of now is our politicians’ embarassment in “sounding” too educated and therefore separating themselves from the people. While I don’t know any other foreign language well enough to know whether the politicians of other countries do the same, but I certainly have noticed, in the 4 years I have been here, that, though both Obama and his wife spoke beautifully “educated” English, they have been trained to pronounce all “ings” as
    “in” in order to sound more like “the common men” I wonder if European politicians try to “hide” their education as well as American politicians do.

    Yes, my political view have changed. And, I am so glad that I can now get CNN world as well as CNN US and keep up to date with what is happening in the rest of the world!”

    Like

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Wow, Suzanne, VERY impressive comment. My North African husband had quite a shock living in America during the Second Gulf War. Seeing the reporting on TV, he said none of that would have been reported in his country. The basic rule in the Middle East and North Africa is to never report anything bad about any other Muslim country (as if it would be shameful).

      I did not know that about President Obama. I think other countries train “career politicians” who go to school, only in top universities, just for that, studying international relations, languages, negotiations, and the like. Contrast this with Americans who do NOT want “career politicians” and want ordinary people who have done something else first in order to prove their worth to society.

      Thank you for leaving such a detailed and interesting comment, Suzanne.

      Like

  25. Lynne Diligent Says:

    From LinkedIn: Sheldon Austin • “I give no credence to the concept offered in this exchange.
    I am an Afro-American, born and raised in the Lower East Side of NYC. I am an ex Foreign Service Officer and have lived and worked in Europe, Asia, North Africa and South America.
    I have always seen people as individuals and have never experienced this phenomenon of “they all look alike.”
    An enlightening experience that I had when working in Rio de Janeiro: A white Brazilian colleague noted that I had been on the beach and had taken on some more color (and indeed most people of color do tan noticeably unless they are very dark, dark Africans). A white American colleague heard the comment and stated that she did not see any difference.
    To me, it was very clear. When you come from a culture that does not see segments of its population (Ralph Ellison, “The Invisible Man” is a startling commentary on this phenomenon in the US), one is shaped by the culture one is born into. And this is the perfect forum to conduct such a discussion.
    The issue is extremely cultural. If you are not taught to see, then you will never see. My Brazilian example is exemplary of cultural influences on the mind. In Brazil, color differences are inherent in everyday life. In local folklore, there are supposed to be 99 different color and racial attributes for the Brazilian population. As such, people notice color differences whereas that is not the case in the US. And by extension, many of my white friends (not all!) cannot tell that I have gotten darker – and indeed I do take on more color when I spend time on the beach.
    In short, I believe our views come from culture and the resultant expectations we are taught.”

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  26. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Larry Culver • You bring out interesting dynamics of how we as North Americans perceive others based on facial, body, types, etc. After months living in Central America, I began to slowly distinguish between different village types, often with slightly different linguistic patterns. Years later, I was so proud when I began comparing friends from different cultures, telling my wife how a male reminded so much of another friend. I realized that I did not utilize the racial characteristics, since one was Caucasian and the other black. But rather, I was noticing personality types and general communication styles (using different languages), humor in addition to a somewhat similar face. Since then, I frequently notice that visual impressions are not always what make me see similarities in individuals but rather actions, voice inflections, humor and other traits. Relationship building, I discovered, is so crucial in accepting others (and being accepted by them) for personal as well as for business purposes. Self evaluation reveals moments of embarrassment, the occasional “aha moments,” plus the frequent stereotyping that temporarily reverts from my acceptance focus. Oh to see the soul and not the face!

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  27. Ana Gaby Says:

    Ohh my. That still happens to me in Indonesia, once in a while. And I’ve been here for a year!

    Like

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