This is tricky. Do I begin with the story about being on the train with three teenagers, who pointed at me from the other end of the carriage and yelled, ‘Look, it’s Björk!’ Or would it be better to start with the one where whenever my cousin-in-law says goodbye to me, she shakes her head and says to no one in particular, ‘Doesn’t she look like Lucy Liu?’ Poor Shannyn Sossamon – not only was she in A Knight’s Tale, but apparently we could practically be sisters. (She did name her son Audio Science though, so perhaps she deserves it.) Once, I even had someone tell me I looked like Bruce Lee.
I have a lot of face twins. I don’t remember when it began, but for all my adult life I’ve been continually likened to this person or that celebrity. And I’m here to tell you: Please stop it. It’s really annoying.
I know such utterances are never meant in a cruel spirit. Those who notice a resemblance are usually so excited by the idea that they have to get it out in the open immediately. New acquaintances often blurt it out as soon as they meet me, and I know the feeling: I once unthinkingly said to a six-foot-plus ex-colleague, ‘Wow, you’re really tall!’ She responded, justifiably, ‘You’re really short.’
It might seem churlish to complain about being likened to these extremely beautiful women. I’m sure all angels have the same cheekbones as Lucy Liu. I can even see the resemblance in some cases. For instance, Björk is diminutive and dark-haired, and has strong, arched eyebrows on a heart-shaped face. We both love swan dresses. Though no one would ever actually mistake me for her, I appreciate that it’s a valid comparison. When people point out that I could be someone’s face twin, I know they’re not saying that I look exactly like Shannyn Sossamon – just that there’s enough in common between our faces to strike the observer.
Now, I have a confession to make. I’ve actually committed this social crime myself. My defence is that it was late at night and I wasn’t sober – and I did feel very bad afterwards. My transgression was that I told a friend that he looked like Adam Sandler. You can imagine how that went down. He looked at me like I had clubbed his pet baby seal to death. ‘Please don’t say that,’ he muttered into his drink. It was awkward between us for a while after that.
In the cold light of day, I understood why he was so horrified. What I meant was: ‘You have brown hair like Adam Sandler and a similar mouth to Adam Sandler. When your face is animated in conversation, from some angles you remind me of Adam Sandler.’ What he heard was: ‘Whenever I look at you, I think of the unjustifiably famous Hollywood hack Adam Sandler. Now go away before you make me sick.’ At a more basic level, I was taking his face away from him. Not in a creepy Face/Off way – but by associating him with another person I temporarily denied him the right to feel like an individual. We all want to feel like our face just belongs to us.
Being told I look like someone else leaves a particularly sour taste in my mouth when my supposed face twin is, like me, Asian. When combined with the next level of faux pas – actually being confused for the person – it gets even more uncomfortable. I attended the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in 2012, and so did Melbourne writer Alice Pung. One night at drinks, I realised a young woman was looking at me in the classic way of a person trying to decide whether they recognise you. I figured the chances of my knowing anyone in attendance was low, so I paid no mind. A couple of minutes later, she came up to me to introduce herself, dancing from foot-to-foot with nervous excitement. ‘Hello, Alice? You’re Alice Pung, aren’t you?’ I politely told her that I was not. Embarrassed, she apologised and went on her way.
Later, it turned out that Alice and I were on the same flight home. I’d accidentally sat in her seat, so I told her the story, joking that I was trying to steal her identity. ‘That’s funny,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘that’s happened before, remember? At the Melbourne Writers Festival.’ Clearly, I had buried this memory out of sheer irritation. How could I have forgotten it? After a session where I interviewed Alice on stage, someone had made a beeline for us – where we were standing, together – and congratulated me, ‘Alice’, on my books and success.
We laughed it off, but this one rankled more than the Björk and mother-of-Audio-Science comparisons because I don’t think that Alice and I look alike. The only thing we might have in common is that we both have long hair and are not very tall. Oh yes – and we’re both Asian. Early last year, Bruce Reyes-Chow wrote on the Huffington Post blog of avidly watching the women’s soccer during the London Olympics. During the United States’ match against the North Korean team, Reyes-Chow followed other fans’ commentary on Twitter, and was disturbed to note an offensive trend amongst the coverage. Many users were tweeting things like: ‘WHY DO ALL NORTH KOREAN PLAYERS LOOK THE SAME.’ Even worse, many of these tweets were prefaced with ‘I’m not racist, but…’ Depressingly, even today, searching Twitter for ‘look the same’ and ‘Asian’ furnishes a whole bunch of tweets expressing similar sentiments.
Reyes-Chow argued that this was the kind of thinking that denies the individuality of people who are not white: ‘While I am not actually mistaken for Bruce Lee, it does give insight into the place where people start and usually stop when first meeting me…my Asian face and an automatic connection to another Asian face.’ It’s the Adam Sandler problem writ large: you’re not just Adam Sandler, now you’re all Jewish males.
People who make these mistakes or comments are not necessarily racist; they may just be less familiar with people from different ethnic backgrounds. In 2001, graphic designer Dyske Suematsu started a controversial website, All Look Same?, where readers can test their ability to tell people of Chinese, Korean and Japanese backgrounds apart. (There are also tests for architectural details, foodstuffs and urban scenery.) After the site’s inception, Suematsu received feedback both negative and positive, and he responded with a personal story on the site about his own difficulty with telling Caucasians apart after leaving Japan for the United States when he was a teenager. He then explained his belief that this could be overcome through experience and attention, which would create familiarity:
I once had a Caucasian hairdresser who told me that he worked for a Japanese hair salon in New York for a long time. He looked at my hair and correctly guessed which region of Japan my parents were from. The more familiar you become with something, the more distinctions you can make.
This is a compassionate take on the issue, and it’s probably true in a lot of cases – heinous hatemongers excluded – that practice makes perfect, or at least better.
As annoying as I find it, I’ve come to terms with the fact that people I meet will continue to bring up my face twins. When they do, I’ll bear them no ill will. For everyone’s benefit, I’m thinking of coming up with a proportionate, polite response that I can reliably trot out: something like, ‘That’s cool – she has a really interesting face.’ But to stem the tide of any irritation that may mount in my breast, I have also crafted an alternative response that I can keep to myself: ‘You know who I really look like? Your Mum.’