How to tell if a person is Japanese or Chinese?

Q: Hey Richard,
I just wanted to know, Is there a way to tell if a person is Chinese or Japanese? ‘Cause I don’t wanna walk up to someone who speaks Chinese and start speaking Japanese to them. That would be embarrassing. So how do i tell? – Wendy
P.S. I love your site. Its helped me a lot. Thanks

A:  Hi Wendy,

This is a very loaded question!

Whatever you do, don’t ever try to judge someone by their appearance and try to change what language you speak based on that.  To me that sounds like the pathway to a black eye and a trip to the ER!

When travelling the rule I always use is:

“stick to the language of the country you are in.”

So if you’re in Japan, speak Japanese.  If you’re in China, speak Chinese.   In (most parts of) the US, stick to English.    Then listen to how the person responds.  If they respond in Chinese or Japanese, cool, that’s your cue and off you go!  But if they reply in English then stick to English, unless later you find out naturally that it would be easier for them to speak another language.   Language and identity are a big issue for many people, so it’s always best to play it safe at first!

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