Thursday, 5 March 2009

Human Connections

The other day I could have sworn I saw a former neighbor from Tokyo walking past the mosque on the way to the post office. A thin, frail little woman in slacks and a white blouse, she had her back to me, and as I passed her, I couldn't resist turning around as casually as I could, to see her face. And no, she wasn't Inoue-san; I didn't really expect her to be. But with her slight frame, bony shoulders, greying permed hair and hesitating way of walking, she could easily have been her sister from behind. Her Turkish sister. I've seen the woman a few times since that first occasion, and whenever I do, I think of Inoue san. God knows, she might be completely different from Inoue-san, who likes fishing, baseball, and flower arranging, but I can't help smiling at how much these two women resemble each other.

In one of my classes last term, I had a student who was a dead ringer for George Clooney. His smile -- playful, but a little self-deprecating, a certain intelligent intensity of expression -- everything about this kid reminded me of George Clooney. Thirty years younger, of course, and many shades darker: this boy is from Sri Lanka. I doubt that George Clooney can speak Tamil, but if he did, he'd be a bleached-out older version of this kid.

In an intermediate class I taught in Yokohama, I had both my aunt Alice Jane and my Uncle Leon in the very same class. The Japanese Alice Jane had shrewd, canny eyes and a pretty smile; her male counterpart had my Uncle Leon's keen expression, shock of thick white hair, and biting dry wit. The resemblances were so startling that I had to keep reminding myself that these two people were Japanese; they had never met before this class and could not possibly be my aunt and uncle, a couple of Caucasians residing in San Francisco. And yet it always amazed me that they never sat together. Didn't they know they were married?

One of my daughters' nursery school teachers looked so much like my Sunday school teacher, Mrs Hunt, that it was a struggle not to speak to her in English. Takahashi-san, the nursery school teacher, didn't know a word of English, but her laugh -- low and musical -- her pretty face, her kind, heavy-lidded eyes -- all of her features screamed Mrs Hunt. Mrs Hunt was African-American and Takahashi-san was Japanese, but when they were on the great assembly line that installs personalities and mannerisms, believe me: these two got the same package, and lucky them.

If you've ever seen the movie, Wag the Dog, the actor in it who plays Private William Schumann looks so much like one of my young Turks, a thin, blue-eyed boy with a keen, wild-eyed stare, that it honestly freaks me out. I will catch his eye in class from time to time and have to look away. I can't take any chances: I'm middle-aged and dumpy and, in short, entirely crazy Private Schumann's type.

I could go on and on and on here -- and I will, just a little. One of my daughter's nursery school friends, a little Japanese girl, looked just like Martin Sheen -- it was just so obvious I had to laugh every time I saw her, and yet I could hardly tell this child or her parents how closely she resembled a first-rate American actor -- a man in his sixties. The UPS delivery man from my neighborhood in San Francisco bore a striking resemblance to a doctor I once worked for in New York. And every other year, someone entirely trustworthy will claim they've seen my double somewhere. And given what I've noticed, I believe them: there's bound to be a couple dozen mes muddling around out there, in Bolivia, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Germany, and Portugal.

I've been around a little in my time, and it is my firm opinion that we're all related. I don't care if you're from Iceland and every single ancestor you can trace back to Adam and Eve was too; you might just be the dead ringer for someone in Swaziland. If you're from Madagascar, for all you know, your double might be one of my Turkish colleagues. And this is bound to be a widespread phenomenon: if I've seen all these likenesses in my own limited sphere, imagine all the ones I've missed. These resemblances trump everything: race, nationality, class, gender, age. And it isn't just physical features; in fact, sometimes it's not physical features at all. It's the way you talk, the way you smile, the way you duck your head when you apologize or shuffle when you walk. There's no way around it, folks: we are all really and truly one big family.

No wonder we can't get along.

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30 comments:

Mimi said...

This happens to me ALL THE TIME! My friend Heather looks like a caucasian Kristi Yamaguchi. I've lived in 5 different states in the past 10 years an everywhere I go I see someone who has the same mouth or same nose and eyes as someone else.

I guess you can only have so many different facial features, but it amazes me how often people look alike. I have one of those faces where someone always seems to know someone who looks exactly like me. I even had a guy in an elevator in Boston ask me if my mother went to Beverly High School because I look just like she did at my age.

I do feel bad for the kid who looks like Charlie Sheen, though. Yikes!

Christy said...

Ha! Perfect! Ina Garten resembles my mother so much that I can hardly watch her show without getting homesick. I told my mother once and she was less than receptive. Then a few weeks later, someone else said the exact same thing! It's in the hands and the expression.

I wonder if I would recognize myself in someone else, or if I would just find that person vaguely familiar.

Charlie said...

I'm often mistaken for Jennifer Anniston—I don't mind, except I'd like to have her figure too.

A great final line, Mary.

Anne Spollen said...

Ut oh. I don't remember who said it, but I do remember the quote: "When everyone you meet reminds you of someone you already know, you must be middle aged."

What's it going to get like at 70?

Katie Alender said...

In college, a friend of mine sent me a picture from an Italian magazine of a girl who looked exactly like me. Like, looking at the picture, my brain processed it as looking at a picture of myself.

So weird. And there's a waitress at a local restaurant who looks strikingly like a member of my family; I get all awkward and flustered when she serves us.

All Rileyed Up said...

That last sentence was a GEM - a true gem! I was at a writing conference last year and made friends with this girl based entirely on the fact that she was a dead ringer for my sister in law. As it turns out, she also resembled my sister in law in hypersensitivity and didn't like a critique I made of a story she'd written and we haven't talked since. Oh, my dysfunctional lookalike family of the world...

Robin said...

The best punchline of all time!

This post is so true, though. I feel bad for the girl who looks like Martin Sheen.

I am often struck by the way people hold their bodies, which will remind me of people I know. My father has very distinctive posture - sort of spastic physics professor nerd twitcher - and I see a lot of men with that same posture. It's freaky.

Mary Witzl said...

Mimi -- Thank you for commenting, and how glad I am that I'm not the only one this happens to.

I seem to have one of those faces too: I'm often told that I have a double somewhere with my features and personality traits, (poor thing). Now I'm wondering about that man in the elevator and what his relationship was to that woman from Beverly Hills...

And the little girl who looked like Martin Sheen was as cute as can be -- honest.

Christy -- How funny that someone else mentioned the resemblance to your mother too! I once met a woman who looked a lot like me. She noticed it too, and it was eerie. Fortunately, her personality was nothing like mine: she was very self-contained and long-suffering.

Charlie -- I used to be mistaken for Sally Field. Now I look more like James Garner. I'd be thrilled to look like Jennifer Anniston. Lucky you!

Anne -- When I'm 70, I'm going to think everyone IS someone else, I fear. Maybe that's what happens to people with Alzheimer's? Everyone just blends into one familiar face. Rather comforting, in a way.

Katie -- The way you feel around that waitress is exactly the way I felt around my aunt and uncle. It was so weird when they kept having problems with English and saying things slightly out of character. I almost wondered what they were playing at. Come to think of it, they must have thought I was one weird teacher.

Riley -- What a shame that your ersatz sister-in-law couldn't take the heat: I'm sure you could give me some good, stinging criticism -- and I'm pretty sure I could take it. And I say this as a reformed hyper-sensitive type myself. But it is funny that we keep lamenting that as one big family we don't get on, when even in relatively stable, loving families there is an awful lot of squabbling.

Robin -- Now that you've mentioned that, I've seen that kind of posture too: all twitchy and brooding and Einsteiny. (I used to know people who lived in Princeton when Einstein was there. They used to see him in the grocery store with unmatched socks, lost in thought, and he was notorious for going home to the wrong house by mistake).

The kid who looked like Martin Sheen was a living doll: she just had his mouth and way of laughing. And that funny way of putting on a jacket.

Kanani said...

Interesting comparisons Mary!

Kim Ayres said...

I guess I must have a few doppelgangers about. I often get people nodding at me in recognition and I have no idea who they are. I'm convinced they must be mistaking me for someone else.

Mind you, Dr Maroon has been saying on his site the Masterchef winner looks like me. I can't see it, but then, perhaps our Doc can't get past a beard...

Bish Denham said...

I think through DNA research they've pretty much proved we all came from the same mother, same place (waaaaay way back.)

Certainly on the emotional level, we are definitely all the same. We are all driven by two main forces, fear and longing. We all laugh and cry. We all procreate the same way. And almost all of us have some kind of belief system that we came from something "out there" that is larger than ourselves and that we will return to it when we die.

Pretty strong ties binding us all together. Beautiful.

laura said...

For over thirty years now I've been mistaken for a woman named Val. Her friends, hairdresser, etc... have waved me down, yelled to me from across the street, and yet even though this is a small town I've never met her! But my initial reaction is always 'that poor girl'. I've waited on Joe Dimaggio (long after he was dead) Ernest Borgnine, and Jason Robards (who followed me around like a dog after I exclaimed over the resemblance). And if good old Martin Sheen is anywhere near as prolific as Charlie, and if he spent some time in Japan? Hmmmm...

Angela said...

It's funny how this happens. I think it's our way of staying connected to those who have passed through our lives.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- Thank you, but it's not me, really; they're just so obvious.

Kim -- Maybe they all read your blog?

But I think I know what you mean. Some people think guys with beards all look alike. To hear them talk, they couldn't tell Ho Chin Minh from Fidel Castro or Santa Claus from Rasputin. But it takes more than a beard to make a face, and two beards do not a doppelganger make!

Bish -- We're all great-great (etc) grandchildren of Mother Africa, every single one of us. And you'd think that might make us feel a little kinder to each other, but oh no. It would be wonderful if we could all see the ties that bind us and feel some solidarity, but I despair of that ever happening.

Laura -- Wow, you've really served some VIP doppelgangers! I once had Queen Elizabeth sit a few cars down from me on the train. Too bad she wasn't dressed a little better, but with the likes of me about, maybe she was slumming it.

I never thought about what Martin Sheen might have gotten up to in Japan! In our town in Scotland, you'd be amazed at how many guys look a lot like Robert Burns. And he really DID get around.

Angela -- That is probably true in some respects. But sometimes the resemblances just defy logic or rationale.

Eryl Shields said...

I am constantly saying to my husband and son 'crikey doesn't s/he look like so and so' only to have them tell me I am mad. They are, of course, too literal. When I say looks like they think I mean has the exact same physical features as, and I mean nothing of the kind. I will direct them both here forthwith, you explain it so much better than I do. And it's so nice to know I have a soul mate in this

Jacqui said...

I get "you look just like" a lot, though I only can see it myself with one actress.

My friend's daughter is a dead ringer for Hugo Weaving, from The Matrix and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's uncanny.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I know exactly what you mean! When you point out a resemblance, people tend to think it's all or nothing. If you tell a woman she looks like a man -- or vice versa -- you'll almost certainly offend them. Yet we women look like our fathers and boys look like their mothers and no one thinks that's odd.

And you are absolutely a fusion of my friend Brenda and my college roommate Shirley, and I keep waiting for you to speak Japanese or develop an American accent.

Jacqui -- Now I've got to know which actress! I'd need a better photograph -- and a better knowledge of contemporary American culture -- to figure that out.

Hugo Weaving would be a neat guy to resemble! He was in Lord of the Rings, wasn't he? And I think he was the voice of the daddy sheep dog in Babe.

debra said...

I have had many people ask me if I am Barbara----whoever she is. I hope she's a decent human being...

adrienne said...

Definitely - I think there are only so many combinations of features, there are bound to be repeats!
My mom was an elementary school teacher, and she swore that kids with certain features also had similar personalities. I always found that fascinating.

PI said...

Hi Mary! I often see you at Kim's and I know you have left Scotland but not sure where you are now.
I relate to spotting look alikes. Only my sister ever knew what I was talking about. When you think of all the sperm donations and stuff we're going to get more and more like one big family

Marcia said...

I have a student halfway across the country who looks exactly like someone I know here at home. Every once in a while someone asks me if I'm "so-and-so's sister," so I must have doubles too.

Marcia said...

Perhaps I should have added, lots of people used to tell me I look like Meryl Streep. I had to laugh when I heard Meryl Streep described as "The homeliest woman in Hollywood who's said to be beautiful."

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I hope Barbara is a decent person too: it would be awful to be a double for a person who wasn't very nice! Imagine all the baffling, unearned angry looks from perfect strangers, too.

Adrienne -- That is interesting, though I can't say I've found it to be the case that people who resemble each other behave the same way. Human personalities are utterly mysterious and, for me at least, totally unfathomable. I wish it were easier to understand them, but I suppose that would take away some of the mystery -- and the fun.

PI -- I'm glad to have found other look-alike spotters!

Although sperm donors must complicate matters genetically, I think in the old days there was a lot of 'informal' sperm donation, if you will. Just take a look around Dumfries and Galloway and you'll see a lot of people who look like Robert Burns. He must have been the Genghis Khan of Scotland, though of course much nicer about it.

Marcia -- They can call Meryl Streep whatever they please and she's still heart-stoppingly beautiful to me -- and a great actress. How nice to be told that you look like her, and lucky you!

PI said...

Still haven't worked out where you are but respect your privacy:)

Kappa no He said...

I totally agree. I want to meet the little girl that looked like Martin Sheen!

Charlie up there cracked me up, too.

Nandini said...

Oh, this is so sweet, and funny, and entirely true!! Your Japanese Aunt and Uncle who didn't know they were married totally cracked me up!

I've noticed this too, in my travels. And it's always so much more surprising when the mannerisms and look is the same even when the color/race may be completely different.

Haven't they established through dna that we all migrated out of Africa? So humans are quite closely related, counter to what people thought only a generation ago. Cool, that!

Mary Witzl said...

PI -- I had to take my e-mail address off my blog as I was being pestered too much by eager agents clamoring to represent me. Likewise, I don't publish where I live so that I won't be overwhelmed by fans who want to meet me.

Sigh...

Kappa -- The little girl who looks like Martin Sheen lives in Chiba Prefecture -- keep an eye out for her. And tell her Mary says hi if you ever do see her.

If you ever visit Charlie's blog, you'll find that he does a lot of cracking people up...

Nandini -- They cracked me up too, though I lived in fear that I might one day call one of them 'auntie' or 'uncle' and thus convince them I was insane.

Yes, we're all children of Africa, aren't we? We've all just adapted to our different destinations in many different ways.

One of the things I love about having a blog is learning that some of the weird ideas I've had are shared by others. This is something that people either see or don't see; I've pointed out obvious (to me) resemblances to others only to find them utterly perplexed by my observances.

Kara said...

i know i've said this before, but i get "recognized" all the time. it just happened again last sunday. some furniture salesman swore up and down that i'd been in recently before. i let him know that it happens all the time and that freaked him out. but maybe it's more that he's a furniture salesman and so easily freaked.

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- Maybe the salesman just wanted an excuse to talk to you: ever thought of that? "Gosh, you look familiar; I'm sure I've seen you before!" is no doubt a tried and true pick-up line.

Barbara Martin said...

I have seen my double in Red Deer, Alberta and in the south of France. An extra element of wierd to the first double, was the woman had almost the same birthday: same month, two days apart and one year different.