Key Points:

A game I used to play with a Kiwi friend was people-spotting or, more specifically, Asian-spotting.

This friend of mine, Greg, who had worked in several Asian cities, prided himself at being able to tell the nationality and cultural backgrounds of people from their features and the way they dressed.

We would dine alfresco at cafes on Queen St or in Parnell and would deliberately look out for Asian faces.

The challenge was to guess which country they came from before they started speaking.

If we differed in our answers, we would check with our subjects and the loser would have to pay for dinner.

In the two years that we often played the game before Greg left for another of his overseas adventures, I was not able to get a single dinner out of him.

He says his ability to tell the difference between Korean, Japanese and Chinese comes from his close encounters with them, having lived and worked in seven Asian countries.

Telling Japanese apart from the Koreans was easy, Greg said. They had sharper features, and Japanese men had smoother skin compared with Korean men, who looked more rough and tough. And Japanese women walked with their toes pointed inwards.

He said Chinese were a bigger challenge because of the diaspora in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. But with careful observation of the way they dressed and their mannerisms it was still possible to tell where they came from.

Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese would be more at ease with the fork and spoon and young people from Taiwan and Hong Kong had distinct fashion trends.

Living in a society where Chinese, Japanese and Korean communities often get mixed up, it was refreshing to have met someone like Greg and I really enjoyed the people-gazing exercises I had with him.

With him gone, I discovered the website www.alllooksame.com, which offered a test quite similar to the Asian-spotting game we used to play. A series of 18 Asian faces are screened one after another and for each you are asked whether the person is Chinese, Korean or Japanese.

I played the game with four of my colleagues, all ethnic Chinese, and not one of us could get even half the answers correct.

We drew the conclusion that by looking at faces alone it was difficult to tell cultural backgrounds, but that if we had the advantage of closer interaction, as did Greg, we would be able to do so.

But what a judge said at the Auckland District Court a week ago may have given the impression that Asians in New Zealand are still often seen as a collective and are subjected to being stereotyped.

Commenting during a bail hearing of a Malaysian Chinese facing drug charges, Judge Thomas Everitt said: "Indeed, to New Zealand eyes, people of Chinese extraction or race are difficult to identify, facially and also by name."

After making a statement that may have suggested that, to New Zealanders, all Chinese looked the same, the judge went on to add that, in being Asian, the defendant may be able to get false passports and travel documents, and "enlist the help of Asian syndicates to whisk him out of the country".

The defendant's lawyer argued that Chinese do not all look alike, that they are individuals, and that police could work out who is who.

The bail application was dismissed.

Some people do suffer from the inability to recognise faces, and while doing research for this column I came across the term prosopagnosis.

Havard academic Brad Duchaine says certain parts of the brain are specifically involved in processing human faces, and a different part is used for identifying things such as buildings, tools and cars. So, prosopagnosics have problems discriminating faces but not other objects.

I honestly doubt that many Kiwis are prosopagnosics, but what many of us suffer from is a lack of interaction with people outside our cultures at the level my friend Greg had with Asians in Asia. So we continue to hold cultural prejudices based on certain generalisations.

Growing up in Singapore, I had found it hard to tell the difference between New Zealanders, English, French or Dutch at first glance, and in Singapore all white people were collectively classed as ang mohs (red-haired people) in the Hokkien dialect, or gweilo (foreign devils) in Cantonese. That changed when some of these "red-haired foreign devils" became my friends and it didn't take long for me to recognise and regard them as individuals.

Responding to my earlier columns, two Herald readers broke out of their comfort zones when they contacted me last week.

Mark, of Grey Lynn, came to meet me at my office after sending me an email expressing surprise and shock at his own anti-Asian prejudices which he says arose from deep-seated fears that Asians coming to New Zealand would ruin the treasured Kiwi way of life.

We spoke for more than an hour and as he was leaving we promised to keep talking and to continue to keep our communication links open.

Rachel, of Meadowbank, was even more direct when she told me: "I never had an Asian friend and never had a real conversation with one."

We met for coffee at Mission Bay and had a nice chat about some of the prejudices she had in regard to Asians.

I think this festive season would present itself as a great opportunity for us to get to know the individual behind someone from a different culture. As a start, and in the spirit of Christmas, we could invite that someone from outside our community to our parties. I am sure we would learn that there is no truth to many of our jealousies and petty prejudices, and that not all Chinese look the same.