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No, my Chinese daughters do not look alike

Yes, both of my daughters, Grace Shu and Julia Qiao, were adopted from China. Yes, both of them lived in orphanages in the Zhejiang Province. But they are not biologically related, nor do they look anything alike.

Lynette Lamb
Lynette Lamb
Grace is 23, Julia 19. Grace wears glasses, has a tattoo, and sports multiple facial piercings. She has distinctive full lips, golden skin, roundish eyes, and a heart-shaped face. She is 5 foot 3, outspoken and highly articulate. She’s heading to graduate school soon to study cultural anthropology. Julia is 2 inches taller, has a pale, oval face and almond-shaped eyes, and she is soft-spoken and reserved. She is an artist, a chemist, and a rock climber.

Some of you have known these girls since they joined our family as toddlers. You have traveled with us, dined with us, attended church with us. Your kids have attended the same schools as ours. You have seen Grace and Julia’s pictures on my Facebook page for a decade. You have attended their birthday parties, confirmations, and graduation celebrations.

So why are you still mixing them up? Why can’t you tell them apart? Why don’t you even bother to try?

In the last few months, half a dozen people — two of them quite close to our family — have confused Julia for Grace or vice versa. These two people, both men, have known my daughters since they were tiny. The look on Julia’s face when she realized that a longtime family friend had confused her for her sister made me sick. The hurt and anger Grace felt in the same situation was devastating.

No, Asians do not all look alike. No, Chinese women do not all look alike. In fact, I would assert that my daughters look a hell of a lot less alike than many of your white, blonde, blue-eyed offspring. Yet why am I consistently able to distinguish between your daughters? And why am I quite certain you would be appalled if I could not?

So here it is: When you address one of my daughters by her sister’s name — or you say something to her about her life that makes it painfully obvious that you have mistaken her for her sister — know that you are insulting her, hurting her, and showing yourself to be careless, thoughtless, and yes, racist.

I know you consider yourself to be a committed liberal and a proponent of diversity and racial justice. So please start proving your politics closer to home. Please show all of us that you are a friend worthy of our trust. Please learn to tell my daughters apart.

Lynette Lamb is a longtime Minneapolis writer and editor who has worked at Utne Reader, Minnesota Monthly, and the alumni magazines of Macalester and Carleton Colleges, among other places. She lives on the Mississippi River across from downtown Minneapolis.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 07/23/2019 - 06:35 pm.

    Lynette, to me remembering names is a basic social skill that has nothing to do with being a good liberal or good conservative. It’s basic manners.

  2. Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 07/23/2019 - 09:16 pm.

    I think this is a case of oversensitivity. You can’t assume there was malicious intent. It’s certainly possible, but it is also quite possible that these people just aren’t very good with names and got them mixed up, even if they have known the daughters for a long time. I’ve seen it happen many times before with people of various races that don’t look alike. As long as the parent gives them pride in their background and has given them the strength to deal with insensitive people of whatever race or ethnicity, that is much more important than the mixing up of names.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/24/2019 - 09:40 am.

      During one of my college teaching jobs, my department chair asked how I could possibly tell my two Japanese teaching assistants apart.

      I was astounded. True, they were both the same height, but one had a face that made me wonder if she was part Ainu, and she wore her hair in the permed “big hair” style of the 1980s. The other had the kind of face found in woodblock prints and wore her hair in a straight, chin-length bob. In other words, they looked nothing alike. (I pointed out the extreme difference in hairstyles to my department chair.)

      True, I had lived in Japan, but I never had trouble telling East Asians apart even before that.

      My hypothesis is that those who have trouble telling people of other ethnicities apart see race first and individual features second.

      But this deficiency is not limited to white Americans. When I was about a week away from leaving Japan for the first time, I was walking through a busy train station in Tokyo when a young woman stopped me and said, “I hear that you’re leaving the country soon.”

      I had no idea who she was. I am positive that I had never seen her before, but not wanting to embarrass her, I said. “I’m leaving next week.”

      She sighed and said, “I guess we won’t be able to get together again.”

      “No, I guess not. Too bad.” I still didn’t know who she was, certainly not someone I had socialized with.

      “Maybe I’ll come and visit you in Florida.”

      “Uh, yes. Please do. Good-bye.”

      (I have never lived in Florida.)

    • Submitted by gene tarris on 08/10/2019 - 12:22 am.

      I agree! Over sensitive why not raise your daughters to be fierce and gracious, instead you are making them victims! And when you use the word “white” in your article that makes you racist as well…. Raise a strong young woman not a victim!

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/25/2019 - 07:43 am.

    I had a friend that had identical twin sisters that, initially, I couldn’t tell apart. It didn’t take me too long to figure out who they were via their personalities, which were totally different. One was outgoing and the other one was quite reserved.

  4. Submitted by Ivy Chang on 07/25/2019 - 09:26 pm.

    Thank you, Lynette. This article could have been written 50 years ago and applied to how Midwestern residents saw Asians. But today, there is no excuse for not knowing more about Asians in the U.S. I still receive comments from Minnesotans saying I speak good English. I hope so because I’ve lived in the U.S. for 63 years and I’m a journalist! To all the white, blond, blue-eyed residents: please learn about people from other countries.

  5. Submitted by Joe Bontems on 07/29/2019 - 02:02 pm.

    I’m a North American of European decent, my wife was Chinese. When we had our daughter, without exception, all our white friends and acquaintances perceived our girl as looking like her mother, while all the Asians we knew felt that she resembled me? And this in a large city, far more cosmopolitan than Minneapolis. Such is the nature of the human species…

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