One reason I love travel is that it not only exposes me to the rich tapestry of different cultures and their unique approaches to life, beauty, time, etc., but it also reminds me of how much we share. And not all of what we share is the good stuff.

It is extremely embarrassing to me that despite all the time I spent living and working in Taiwan, traveling in Japan and mainland China, studying spoken Chinese, I still find it very difficult to distinguish between not only different individual Chinese (unless I know them well), but the various ethnic groups as well.

But during my tenure in Taiwan I learned that this failing is not, as I assumed, a simple reflection of my Euro-centricity, but that Chinese suffer from a similar issue when distinguishing between those of us of European origin.

My boss in Taiwan was married to a Swiss-American. She and I were similar in height and weight. But I at the time had dark auburn hair and a ruddy complexion with freckles. My boss’ wife had porcelain white skin and pale blond hair. To our Western colleagues we were very distinct. But after two years and multiple meetings — both official and social — the mayor of the city where I served could not tell the difference between us.

Towards the end of my stay, I commented on this fact to my assistant, someone whom I saw daily. “You’d think he’d at least notice we have different color hair.” I said.

Now here’s the kicker. “You do?” She answered.

That’s when I realized that Westerners filter certain characteristics when they look at someone. We automatically consider hair color, skin color, eye color. We then move on to type of hair — straight or curly, and other distinguishing features. Chinese use othere differences: shape of face, width of cheeks, and other facial structures. After all, there’s no point in noticing hair color — always black, eye color — always dark, type of hair — always straight. Similarly we generally won’t notice shape of face, width of cheeks, etc.

Not sure what the lesson in all this is, but I’ve learned to be less judgmental of myself (and others) in this regard and to humbly realize that I’m only as individual as the person looking at me notices.