I am the kind of guy who is often mistaken for someone else.
It has been happening to me since I can remember, but then, I am the sort of person who doesn’t remember much from before the end of high school. My girlfriend Tanya is pretty much the opposite that way, claims to remember everything from (and including) the first wrenching moment of her own birth. I think it has to do with the meaning she puts into events. Every moment is unique, significant, original.
Strange then that she is jealous of me and my Everyman’s face.
Tanya’s mother is Chinese-Canadian and her father is from Russia. You wouldn’t think Tanya’s mother was Chinese if you just spoke to her on the phone. I think she is something like third generation. She doesn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, but she studied Russian at university. When she met Tanya’s father she fell in love with his accent. Tanya is an only child and she grew up very lonely. She started out studying music, but then changed to be a dental hygienist. When we first met, she dressed sort of artsy – these retro dresses, white boots, a furry little hat she said was called a pillbox.
Before I met Tanya, I didn’t know beautiful people could be lonely. She has a wide round face like the moon, blue almond shaped eyes, and a big red mouth with a little heart-shaped thing happening on the top of her upper lip.
But she just wants to look like everyone else.
When I was in university I had a job at a record store. It was okay, sort of amusing how every single customer looking for a CD seemed to get the name of the band wrong. We got asked for everything from Earth, Wind and Water to the Bananarama Disco Club.
Another thing that consistently happened at least once a week is that someone would stare at me while I was going about my duties as a cashier, punching in keys, slipping CDS in bags, and finally, when I turned and smiled, ask me if I were someone’s brother, friend, old roommate or whatever.
Tanya was envious each time she witnessed one of these encounters. I thought she was going to burst with excitement when one of our neighbours told her that she looked exactly like a model that she used to know. For Tanya it wasn’t so much the model thing that impressed her as the idea that she had a twin out there somewhere. Of course that her twin made money just looking at a camera did get her thinking as well: I could be recognizable.
But then when our neighbour, a skinny woman in her sixties named Gillian Guest, finally stopped Tanya in the hallway with a picture from a magazine, Tanya went silent with disappointment: the model, the supposed Tanya-double, was sitting in shadow. Her only identifiable traits were long straight brown hair and a pair of glasses. Tanya doesn’t even wear glasses!
When we went to Mexico last winter I went into a store to buy some sun block and I noticed that the teenage girl at the cash was both smiling and trembling as she counted out my change. I smiled back at her and started to say a few clumsy words in Spanish but she interrupted me to tell me she knew who I was.
“Yo te conosco. De la telenovella.” I know you. From the soap opera.
She was so sure and so happy that it never occurred to me to contradict her.
When I told Tanya, she whined, “Why doesn’t anyone ever tell ME who I am?”
Things got weirder in May, just after we both finished college and started working. In May, Chinese people started staring at me.
On a Thursday in the middle of the month, we borrowed Tanya’s mother’s car and drove to Costco to stock up on cereals and canned tomatoes and stuff. Tanya drove, competently but uncertainly, as she doesn’t drive very often and isn’t used to it. She parked, and as we got out of the car, a Chinese woman and her teenage son got out of theirs. Then, as soon as they saw us, they froze and just stood looking at us.
“Did I park funny?” asked Tanya, frowning and examining her wheels and the lines around the parking space.
“No sweetie, you did fine.” We were speaking to each other but we kept glancing back at our observers as we crossed the parking lot and went into the Costco.
Then, inside the store, in the cereal aisle, it happened again: this time it was a Chinese couple in their forties. Tanya was off in the feminine hygiene section so she didn’t see them, but they gave me a startled look, looked questioningly at each other and then stared at me again.
Then the following evening my friend Steven and I went to get a hamburger and watch the hockey play-offs at Martha’s, this place downtown where they make their own beer. At one point, after the first game was over, I ran upstairs to use the men’s room. As I came to the top to the stairs I found a group of Chinese people sitting around a U-shaped table, and every one of them was staring up at me. Everyone except one guy at the far end who was engrossed in his food, but then when the person next to him nudged him, he looked up at me and the blasé expression on his face quickly changed to one of complete amazement.
I used the men’s room and as I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror. Twenty-five, could pass for either twenty or thirty. Brown hair, glasses, slightly wide nose, pale face, thin red beard. Maybe a little thick around the waist. I could be anyone. But who am I to the Chinese?
On my way back downstairs I managed to stop their conversation again. They looked at me with shy, happy surprise.
“Hello?” I heard myself saying, like someone answering a telephone.
“Hello,” came the polite choral response. Some of them had problems with the double l, but most of them managed it okay.
“Uh…how are you guys tonight?”
There was a silence, and then a couple of them said, one chiming in a little late, “fine, thank you. How are you?”
I smiled at them, but I really couldn’t think of another thing in the world to say. Or rather, the question. What would the question be? How to form it?
I went back downstairs. Steven and I discussed the hockey game for a while, and then our new jobs, his as an accountant, and mine as a studio technician. We ordered another pitcher of beer. Gradually, I began to feel normal again. At one point I thought of mentioning the people upstairs, and the people at Costco, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that you tell Steven. I realized I had to pee again.
I ran up the stairs and thought of continuing to trot past the table where the group was speaking loudly in Chinese. But as I arrived at the top of the stairs they abruptly stopped talking and all looked in my direction. I gave them a smile and a half wave, and then, for some reason, I held up my finger in an international wait a minute before I went into the men’s room.
Now the bathroom smelled of Lysol. The mirror seemed a little cleaner. I looked up at my face again. I had gotten new glasses recently, and Tanya said that the new lenses made my eyes look bigger. I washed my hands and examined my fingernails, which were neat and square. Nope, nothing to be learned from my fingernails.
The sound of the hand dryer seemed too loud; I thought of the Chinese people whispering about me, and I decided to get to the bottom of it. I strode out of the bathroom like an actor arriving on stage. The diners didn’t clap, but they stopped whispering and looked up at me with expectant half-smiles.
“So how are you guys doing?” I asked again in my jolliest voice.
“Fine, thank you,” they all said on top of each other.
“So…are you guys Chinese?” I heard myself say.
“Yes,” they all chanted back.
I pulled up a chair from an empty table across the room and asked all of the other polite questions that came to mind.
“Are you students?”
“Are you foreign students?”
“How do you like Montreal?”
“Well, that’s good.”
I thought of Steven waiting for me downstairs and of Tanya, at home in bed reading a novel, probably. I started to go downstairs when someone yelled something in Chinese.
I turned around but just got that friendly, expectant stare again, so I kept going.
The next morning when I told Tanya the story she responded by furiously washing dishes. She even took my cup of coffee, which was still pretty full, and plunged it, coffee and all in the basin of soapy water, turning everything brown and muddy.
As usual, I filled her silence with my own commentary.
“Well, to be fair, I don’t really know if those other people in the parking lot were really Chinese. The ones in the store, yeah, because I heard them say something to each other and it really did sound like Chinese, but those other ones in the parking lot, well they could have just been, you know, Asian or something. What do you think?”
Clank. Crash. Bang. She was getting pretty rough with those dishes.
Finally she looked at me and said, “Maybe you’re like a ‘Talento’, those white guys in Japan who are famous for doing idiotic things.”
She wiped her hands on the tops of her jeans. And then she set her mouth in an expression that seemed to say I don’t see why you get all the attention.
And then, as if nothing had just happened, as if everything was completely peachy between us, she said, “let’s go out to supper tonight. It’s Saturday. A lot of couples go out to eat every Saturday night.”
“No problem, Tan. Where do you want to go?”
“Chinatown,” we both answered, but we didn’t smile or anything.
Tanya is allergic to MSG and she knows I know but I wasn’t going to go there. We’ve been together two years now, and that still seems a miracle to me. Tanya has got it all—brains, creativity, magnificent body and an incredible singing voice. I work in a recording studio and I also have a little garage band; Tanya sometimes sings with us. I know she knows fame for our band is not in the cards, and that a career in dental hygiene is a respectable choice, but when she sings she really gives it her all.
My life was a little messy before I met Tanya. Cigarette butts, empty bottles and the smell of bad breath, my bad breath, used to fill my apartment before she started drop by. Now everything feels right. Thanks to Tanya even my breath has improved and my teeth feel clean most of the time. Sometimes I lick the outer surface of my top teeth and enjoy that clean feeling and just feel lucky that Tanya is in my life.
All this to say, I am the kind of guy who knows not to argue; I’d be risking way too much.
So all I said about going to Chinatown was, “you know, I can’t guarantee anything’s going to happen.”
The staring thing started on the bus about six stops before we got there. A mother and her little boy both gave me The Look, and then when an old man got on he glanced at me, smiled knowingly at me, and then smiled in the same way at the mother across the aisle.
I looked at Tanya. Tanya looked pissed off.
A block into Chinatown she nudged me and we got up and rang the bell. As we got off the bus, I followed Tanya to a restaurant she knew, the Dragon Room. We turned quite a few heads. A teenage couple quickly snapped pictures of us on their mobile phones.
Tanya opened a door and gave me a sarcastic “After you, sir” wave. We climbed a pleasantly greasy smelling staircase. I wondered if anybody from the street would follow us upstairs, but apparently they believed in keeping a respectful distance. I thought that was admirable, and thought of saying so to Tanya, but the set of her jaw kept me silent. The place looked less Dragon Room than Linoleum –on- Special. I wondered which would be harder for a Chinese person to pronounce.
A young man was sitting next to the Please Wait to Be Seated sign, apparently dozing.
The walls were papered with panoramic pictures of an unidentifiable European city, all churches and canals.
A tiny woman with a hairstyle like a teacup suddenly appeared. She smiled at us, and then something changed in her smile. And then it got bigger. She began to speak very fast in Chinese. She had us follow her to a table. She went over to the guy who was asleep and shook him awake. They both began exclaiming over something. Then he came over to me and asked me something in Chinese.
I wished I knew even one little word. Well, there were the names of foods. I began listing all the food that I could name, and then Tanya added a few too. Egg foo yung, chop suey, chicken chow mein, you know. The woman, watching from the counter, laughed merrily and then came over and gave us a menu. She said something else in Chinese, and then Tanya said, “Uh, do you speak English or French?”
The woman’s smile disappeared. She looked at me as if I would have something to say about this question. When I didn’t say anything, she smiled at me anyway as if we shared a secret.
“Flench. Flancai. Go ahead please.”
The restaurant gradually began to fill as we ate our dinner. People pointed at us, sat down, and stared at us as they waited for their food. The food tasted wonderful to me but I knew Tanya was already starting to feel the MSG. She frowned as she ate; she approached eating her noodles as if it was unpleasant work to be completed.
At the end of the meal the formerly sleepy young man returned and asked me a question in Chinese. I said “pardon?” and he repeated “pardon?” and walked away laughing. He returned with a little brown teapot and a plate with two fortune cookies.
I poured the tea as Tanya opened her cookie and read aloud: “If we do not change our direction we will likely end up where we are headed.” She grunted and raised her eyebrows and nodded at me to open mine.
“You will be the best.”
That was too much for Tanya. She actually said it; she said, “That was the last straw.” She pulled back her chair and stood up and grabbed the bottom of her sweater and started to lift it over her bra.
Before she could lift it over her head, though, I reached over and pulled it back down. A few people had gotten their cell phones out and were aiming them in our direction.
“Go ahead. Post your pictures on the internet. My name is Tanya, by the way.”
“Tanya, think of what your father would say.”
“My father is an old man. He rarely goes on the net.”
“Tanya, he’d find out. Tanya, we don’t live in that kind of world where we can just do things anonymously …”
My voice trailed off as both of us thought of the same thing.
Tanya took her iPhone out of her handbag, her sweater now firmly back in place over her belly. She googled famous white guy in China. After less than a minute she showed me a picture of a guy with my hair colour, my high forehead, and a pair of glasses not much like mine at all. Mine are large and round with dark frames; his were narrow, almost rectangular, with light frames. Also, he had a sharp pointy nose, thin lips, a long skinny neck. There was something decidedly birdlike about him. And he had no beard.
We both shrugged.
“He doesn’t look like you.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“He really doesn’t!”Tanya was clearly delighted. “Not to me anyway.”
“Not to me either. But to other people, at least to some Chinese people, I am…”
“I guess you are Dashan.”
“What does that mean?”
“Big mountain, apparently.” Tanya said, reading aloud.
“So I’m fat?”
Tanya giggled now. She kept reading.
“So why is he famous?”
“He speaks Chinese.”
“That’s it. He’s this white Canadian guy who speaks Chinese.”
“Flawlessly. Apparently he speaks it flawlessly.”
“He speaks it frawressry, does he?”
We looked at each other. Tanya was smiling at me and it felt so good to see that again. She has got the most beautiful smile. She has these full red lips and nice straight white teeth. If you saw her smiling you’d swear she was the most gorgeous woman in the whole world.
I told her, not for the first time, but for the first time in a long time. She continued to beam at me. I also said, this time in a Russian accent, “but you know, if you went to somewhere like Mongolia, faces like yours is dime a dozen.”
Her smile got even wider.
“Okay, so let’s go home and finish taking off that sweater.”
She didn’t even notice when the whole restaurant seemed to move and flash with all the people taking pictures on their cell phones.
As she leaned over the table and kissed me.
Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada. Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
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