Asian, Brunette, Blonde

Asian, Brunette, Blonde: that’s the order. A friend of mine recently explained this to me.

Most people with any China experience know that when there’s an Asian among a group of foreigners in China, Chinese restaurant/hotel/etc. staff will naturally approach the Asian in the group. This is very understandable; there’s no way of knowing that one of the white people has been in China 10 years but the Asian has lived in Idaho all his life and doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. It’s still a fair enough assumption.

A friend of mine (who is dark-haired) explained to me that she has two friends she hangs out with frequently in China: an Asian and a blonde. When the Asian friend is present, Chinese staff all approach her for any communication needs. No surprise. The funny thing is what happens when the Asian friend is not present. The Chinese staff all naturally go to the brunette rather than the blonde. Never mind that the two girls are “equally white”; apparently subconsciously, darker hair equals higher likelihood of speaking Chinese.

Funny stuff.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. great story. In the States, the exact opposite order.. hahahaa… blonde, brunette, asian.

    My cousin in Hong Kong, whos is half Brit half Chinese, looks completely white. Almost all her features are western. She says she gets superior service by not speaking a single word of Chinese. But when she get’s overly pestered by sales ppl, she busts out with Chinese and scares the heck out of the sales ppl.

  2. funny… i think i would never meet someone white but speaks fluent Chinese until i was approached by two (handsome) british lads asking something in Chinese…. it was really a surprising experience.. actually their Chinese and accent was not bad at all.. they said they had lived in China for one year in Beijing, so that’s why..

  3. I am laughing my ass off now… I don’t think we’d ever get that over here in singapore.

    It’s just like ken hirai (Japanese singer) who bore the looks & features of a mix-caucasian and get mistakened by japanese (that was before he became famous) for being a foreigner. ppl (japanese) got surprised that he could speak the language so fluently. Like duh~

    I’d been to this Chinese restaurant at the Chinatown in Melbourne. Believe it or not, all the staffs there were Caucasians (Australians) dressed in cheongsams, qipao type of uniform serving customers. And I was contemplating whether to make my orders in English or Mandarin and I was extremely shocked that they spoke fluent Mandarin. I was totally speechless…. I mean, I was so stunned by the fact that they speak better Mandarin then I do… lol!

  4. Greg Pasden - John's cuz Says: October 6, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    An interesting observation. Maybe you could add some other factors into this as well. Attractiveness, waist size, bust size, heighth, etc. This could be interesting. What if you had the 3 girls go out again and see what the results would be if some padding was added to certain individuals. Do you think this would skew the results of your original observation? This could be fun and humorous. Make sure you have your video camera to get some facial expressions. This might even be a good idea for a PODCAST. What do you think?

    Take care

  5. Hmm . . . maybe I should can the books and just dye my hair black.

  6. See, they even believe the ‘dumb blonde’ thing in China. There must be something in it! 😉

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: October 7, 2006 at 12:51 am

    Interesting. But does it matter what kind of brunette it is? What if the brunette is not a white woman but an Indian one? Would the Chinese approach her then over the blonde? Or if you put a black woman in there; where would she be in the hierarchy? Or a Mexican woman? There are like endless combinations to try out on Chinese sales clerks! (I wonder also if the Chinese differentiates between different types of white people or are they all “laowais”? I mean, if they look at, say, Al Pacino and Robert Redford, would they think their ancestors come from totally different places?)

  8. This post makes me laugh, could not help leaving a message. Haha! Very funny. I guess Brunettes have one more thing in common with Chinese, which is brunette. Blonde is too foreign to aproach. I like to read your blog, very interesting. Your observation is sensitive, unique but true.

  9. It can work in reverse, too. I was visiting my girlfriend who is spending a year on a fellowship in Bordeaux. At every cafe we go to, the French waiters look at us–white male with brown hair and brown eyes and a Chinese woman–and invariably address me in French. Now. my French makes Chevy Chase in “Vacation” sound like Proust. So I just point across the table and my girlfriend then orders for us in fluent French. Scares ’em every time.

    Along the same lines, with brown eyes and black hair, in China I get the inevitable “you’re not a real American” which leads to me explaining that my family came over to New England about the same time Taiwan was annexed by the Qing…so, what are you gonna do?

    I had a father and young son follow me down the hutong one day and listened as the father explained to the young lad why he KNEW I was either French or Russian. Or Italian. Or possibly Spanish. He had no clue.

    Great post.

  10. Da Xiangchang Says: October 7, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    J at Granite Studio,

    “. . . either French or Russian. Or Italian. Or possibly Spanish.” Haha. One of these categories doesn’t belong to the others. I mean, the stereotypical French, Italian, and Spaniard look alike–but RUSSIAN?!! Your post also reminds me that in most of the world, the idea of “American” is strictly tied to people of Northern European stock. I have similar experiences being Asian traveling in countries with like NO Asians. I remember when I lived in Romania, NOBODY would believe I’m American (but unlike you, I didn’t bother trying to convince them otherwise). Mostly, they believed me either Chinese (which I also am, of course) or Japanese or once in a great while Filipino–and even once by a homeless gypsy-looking guy as being French (which is funny cuz I’m like wayyy Oriental-looking). The funniest response though as to be the Arabs in Tunisia. Several would look at me, and then as a joke, bow to me like I was Buddha or some shit!

  11. I could never understand why, but people would always guess I was French straight off the bat. I’m American with dirty blond hair and brown eyes.

  12. I live in a very small town in northern china, so the presence of any foreigner is quite a surprise to all the locals. I have a friend here that is Filipino. One time we went on a trip by bus. The expressions on the faces of several fellow passengers was priceless when us two foreigners began to talk. They were utterly amazed that this Asian looking person could be speaking English with the blonde foreigner. There was this one guy directly in front of us that would turn around and stare like a zombie every time we would talk to each other. This went on for the entire four hour trip. Absolutely hillarious.We still laugh when we think about it.

  13. “Go for the Asian face,” I call it. Experienced it many times in Korea and China.

    I had a Filipina friend who didn’t know more than five words of Chinese, and we’d have a good laugh every time we’d go out because the staff would always start off communicate with her. Once a stubborn middle-aged waitress continued looking at her while I was speaking. I finally got her attention by saying, “My friend is not Chinese, she doesn’t speak Chinese.”

    I was seated between two Korean adoptee friends in a Bennigans restaurant in a hip Seoul neighborhood. A young waitress came to take our order. She kept glancing between the two Korean faces and literally jumping over mine. The one adoptee spoke very basic Korean and the other had been in Korea as long as I had and her proficiency was the same as mine. She finally acknowledged me afer I told her, “I can speak Korean, too, so please look at me when you speak.” And this was in a Bennigans.

    Daxiangchang, Chinese who work with Westerners become aware of differences in face and color among Westerners. I worked with a Brit whose father was Moroccan. His skin was light, but he had black hair, big dark eyes, and a prominent nose. One of the Chinese staff confided in me that they doubted whether he was really British because of his appearance.

  14. Hahah, lucky Brunettes then. No matter in which situation, they will be treated as normal… 😛

    @enenmon, you shocked me as well!! Which resto in Lt Bourke St has Caucasian stuff?

  15. typo… should be staff…

  16. My sister, who is brunette (and 1/2 chinese, although looks 100% causcasian) tried an experiment for a research paper in college, in Los Angeles. On two different nights she walked into the same bar, once as a brunette, and once as a blond (with a wig). She had MANY more guys approach her as a blond!

  17. Ha this really is amusing…..
    Being a brunutte in BJ with bright green eyes (natural i hasten to add!) i get funny stares when i take my sunnies off – and have women in the steet asking about my eyes and “fake” lashes and yes people don’t believe i’m not Irish.

    Also following some of the other threads, I ljust love it when you get in a taxi and get a double take from the driver when you speak to them in Mandarin or get a giggling waitress who laughs taking your order because it is so unexpected from a Gweilo!

  18. I don’t think it has any thing to do with where you are, I think some how a blonde just has this thing that most people are afraid to approach to in general.

  19. This type of thing happens a lot. When I went back to the Philippines, my dad told all his friends I was American. Of course they were amazed. Then they look at me funny, talk to me in their accented English, then talk to my father and ask if I knew the language. Each one of them did that. It’s like being American automatically makes you unable to speak the language. Unbeknownst to the them, I’ve already lived in the Philippines for the first ten years of my life. I guess just saying you are American changes everything.

  20. I have similar experience. Im Canadian with Filipino background. Europe is fun specially the small towns people who’ve never seen little brown people. The trick is to get to know locals and become friends with them ASAP. They will protect and love you because you are different (of course you connot act gooffy) I remember one instance when I was at a club, this dude wont even make me leave unless i picked-up a girl! LOL.. He even eventually offer me everything when he gained my trust, even his little sisters. LOL. And what do know, I even ended up talking to a drunk neo-Nazi all night trying to convert me white! LOL. A thing I learn about people is that we are all the same. Im sure White people can relate to this when travelling in Asia.

  21. “I don’t think it has any thing to do with where you are, I think some how a blonde just has this thing that most people are afraid to approach to in general.”

    I’m inclined to disagree. My hair’s about as blond as one can get, and when I traveled to China there was a girl with light brown hair in my party about the same age as me. But whenever we went out on the street a bunch of Chinese would usually approach me rather than Melissa to take my picture I think it’s really just that the blond gene just… isn’t Asian. In any way, shape, or form.

  22. I get asked if I’m Chinese sometimes even when my hair is showing (my hair is reddish brown). I’m Caucasian but kind of small, so the mistake is easy enough to understand if I’m wearing sunglasses and if only a little hair is showing, especially when you factor in all the dyed hair that is so popular with Chinese young people these days. I guess instead of looking foreign and dowdy (plain old mouse colored hair) I can sometimes pass for young, Chinese and hip? 🙂 That’s what I would like to think, but it’s probably not the right interpretation.

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