It can. Especially today.
Last Saturday we had a little chat with a nice lad from Scotland. Jonathan (yay!) happens to be married to an oriental (Taiwanese) and one game they like to play (or so claims Jon) is to guess which nationality some of the many orientals who walk London's streets everyday.
Weird? Of course not. Me and Jennifer plays this very game. We do not think it is racist but merely analysing our skills in stereotyping people then putting them into groups of nations. (Okay so it is mildly politically incorrect but so what?)
Example would be we notice a bunch of orientals on the tube. We would then discuss (in hush voice of course) and debate their ethnicity. Pinpointing Japanese tourists are easy - their (lack of) fashion sense is highly obvious. Koreans is a little tricky but as Jon puts it - Koreans are Japanese minus five years (behind the trends).
Most of the time getting things right would depend on us having to listen to their conversation. This is where things get tricky. My cantonese is appalling so I wouldn't be able to differentiate the accent of HongKong'nese and the South East Asian cantonese crowd.
Mandarin is easier (even though I do not speak the language). Getting the mainland chinese is superbly easy through this. From years of experience dealing with new students from P.R.C. I am always able to single them out by their mandarin accent which when compared to Malaysian mandarin accent - the chinese seems to speak with sliver in their mouth. Yeuch!
Of course most of the time it comes down to clothes, skin colour and hair style. Jon got me as originating from Malaysia because of my tanned skin (and probably my non-chalant non-dyed hair).
Now a darker shade of brown shouldn't be used to judge as my skin is so tanned to an extent that I can be classified as a Brazilian. But experience counts and my experience is most orientals originating from Northern regions (Hong Kong, Taiwan etc.) avoids the sun whenever possible.
Whenever you first visit a foreign country everybody apparently looks the same to you no? Not to me. But I do know many tourists who find it hard to recognise 'those white men' and tend to describe them as 'they all look alike', much like to some all 'chinese look alike' with slit eyes.
Recently we started broadening our game to include caucasians. With EU borders loosening up a little bit we are starting to see an influx of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants into London. Not a bad thing as they are very hard working. (I do know of some idiots who hate em all but fuck em, what do they know?)
One thing based on observation is the way Anglo-Saxons and Eastern Europeans dress. I find that in 80% of the case Eastern Europeans prefer to dress up in 'Americanised' clothing such a bikers jacket and mainly (90%) American sports brand. Not sure why. Perhaps mainland Europe is more 'westernised' than the Brits?
Another game we play (well most of the time it's just me) is sorting the Londoners from the Brit day-trippers. This is highly amusing but extremely difficult because of the diversity in London's metropolitan community. 7 million people. Usually we tend to just sort out the chavvies from the yuppies but that's easy.
Then there are the summer students from Europe. I do not hate them. I despise them. Not for who they are but for the way they treat London. 99% of them are guilty of at least one of the following crimes:
1. Thinking they know more about Londres than us.
2. Thinking they know more about the Tube than us.
3. Thinking that it is okay to crowd along a section of a Tube platform.
4. Thinking it is okay to swipe their pink ticket over the Oyster RFID reader. Therefore wasting time for the rest of us.
5. Thinking it is okay to stare. In the eyes.
6. Thinking it is okay to ask questions in Français (when speaking la langue du diable in Paris is frowned upon).
It is very easy to spot this bunch of little rascals. They tend to group together carrying ruck sacks sporting logos like EFL or ELS. They frequent fast food joints like McDonalds and Burger King despite hailing from culinary sophisticated countries. They talk loudly, are extremely rude and speak in nonsensical languages.
Actually just like my fellow Malaysians I used to school with in the Midlands back in 1998.