Scientists say that our brain processes life events when we sleep, but really, someone should figure out what’s happening when we shower. My mind always seems to range off the farm during showers, particularly the long ones when I’m lingering because I have a fabulous hot water heater and it’s cold out. I was lingering the other day and for some reason, my mind went to all of the times that I have been mistaken for someone else. Does this happen to you? It happens to me all the time and I don’t know why. Do I have a generic face? An “everyman” demeanor?
It has happened my entire life, but the first incident I remember clearly was at my very first sleep-away music camp when I was a teenager. I was spending the summer at Brevard Music Center to focus on my piano studies, but brought my violin along too to maximize my musical experiences. I remember sauntering into the orchestra auditions with a confidence that I’ve definitely lost since then and acing the sight-reading portion like I belonged there. “Didn’t miss a note,” one string faculty muttered to the other, as they accepted me into the first violins. Please. Didn’t I tell them I was a pianist? We eat single lines of music for breakfast.
Anyway, I’d never been to a music camp, and that summer was the germ of my belief that summer music festivals are heaven on earth. We practiced in wood cabins, each with a little grand piano in them, nestled in the misty Blue Ridge mountains. We thought about music all day, whether in practicing, lessons, classes or concerts. I met people who were more serious about music than I’d ever knew could be possible. One particularly sensitive girl was always weeping after her lessons. “I … just … can’t hear the music .. the way my teacher tells me too. I hear it totally differently!” she would wail, as we patted her on the back. Once, all of us pianists had lunch with the piano faculty, and I sat across from a woman faculty member whose name I have forgotten. Being the socially untrained introvert, I was focused on my cafeteria food and letting the conversation flit around me. The woman across from me all of a sudden pointed to me and said to everyone, “Look, she’s playing piano on her face!” I froze. I almost always have music playing in my head, and when I’m bored, I’ll play it with my fingers, or I’ll be typing out words from the conversation around me on an imaginary QWERTY keyboard. And that’s when she went on - my first case of mistaken identity. “You have a doppelganger,” she told me. “In Georgia. Are you from Georgia?”
Weirdly enough, another white middle-aged female pianist teacher would do this exact thing, but with way less self-awareness, after another music festival. I had met her at Kneisel Hall but did not work directly with her, so I knew that she barely knew who I was. A few months later, I went to a recital of hers in NYC, and stood in line to say congratulations. When I reached her, I was prepared to mumble my usual, “Wonderful concert; thanks” but she swept me in for a hug and was like, “HOW ARE YOU?” in a voice that was far too excited for our relationship. “You look so great! How long has it been since I’ve known you? It seems like forever. You were so little back then and now look at you! Where was that anyway? Did we meet in the Wideman competition I judged? Anyway, are you around this week? Oh, I can’t wait to catch up. ” Completely caught off guard, I gamely agreed to meet her for coffee the next day, thus acceding to an even more awkward encounter than the one we just had. I know, I know, I should have just said I was busy, but I was totally caught off guard. I have never entered the Wideman competition. Nor had I known her for longer than a few months. She was clearly thinking of some other young pianist.
Did I go to coffee? Yes. By then she was much more subdued and had clearly realized that I was not who she thought I was, but rather than admit her mistake, went through with the coffee date. We both did, like sheepish champs. We talked about her quest for real estate in NYC, her tenured professor job, and other things totally irrelevant to my life. We pretty much both waited until the courtesy half hour was up before declaring that we should let the other get back to her busy life.
These two so far have been white women, so you might be tempted to think that it’s a classic case of “all look same.” Certainly, some of my mistaken identity incidents fall under that category. When I was working in rural South Africa with an NGO, there was only one Asian family in the entire town, and I only ever saw them in their storefront, sitting behind the giant cardboard boxes of plastic slippers and other goods they sold. Of course, the people at the NGO swore they saw me in town all the time even though I was actually living on a farmhouse a little ways away. I thought of the young woman they probably saw instead, her small child at her side, who in all likelihood did not speak English, let alone Zulu. How did she get there, I wondered. A Chinese woman in the African bush.
No, I was mistaken for other people by Asian people too. The one that stuck in my craw the worst was during freshman year of college, where a very cheery Taiwanese boy (no less) would without fail, see me in the freshman dining hall and call me Winnie. Winnie was about 5 inches shorter than me, did not have bangs, and I think I can safely say, looked absolutely nothing like me. I can’t tell you the number of times I corrected him only to see him at dinner and have him wave brightly and say the dreaded words, “Hi Winnie!”. Other Asians would do the same to me all throughout college. First there was my “twin” Joanne, another Asian girl who I suppose shared my body type, and then Iris, who people call me to this day my “voice twin,” meaning we sounded alike when we talked. It wasn’t enough that my appearances reminded people of others; apparently my mannerisms did too!
Which reminded me of the most recent case of mistaken identity, in which my physical appearance played absolutely no part. As co-director of the Piedmont Chamber Music Festival, I often go stand in the back of the hall during concerts after I’m done playing, just seeing how things are going. I noticed one Asian man staring at me and chalked it up to some people just being creepy. However, as I was standing in the back, he made a point of coming over and whispering, “So, when’s the last time you saw Mrs. Campbell?” I whispered back rather coldly, “I don’t know” and then raised my finger like an elementary school schoolmarm to shush him. Mrs. Who-the-hell-was-he-talking-about? Also, don’t whisper during concerts.
Undeterred by my rudeness, he found me after the concert and proceeded to say all kinds of things that were obviously not about me. That our parents were good friends in medical school, and that this Mrs. Campbell character had been my piano teacher back home and was very fond of me, and that his parents had told him all about my accomplishments at Harvard. I let him know that he was mistaken, but he insisted. “But I read your bio! Weren’t you a science major at Harvard?” I said I was, but clearly he was thinking of someone else. “Maybe it was another Han in your class,” he said, somewhat dejectedly. Um, nope. Mervyn and I were the only ones that year, and Merv is definitely a dude. Sorry to burst your mistaken identity bubble.
After all of these years, I don’t know why people think I am someone else. Maybe my face is a collection of the most common Asian features. Maybe my personality is bland to the point of being indistinguishable. Maybe certain items in my bio are just too common. Or maybe people are just worse at remembering people than I can believe. I don’t know what it is, but I’m always more annoyed than embarrassed for the mistaker.
By the time I got out of the shower, however, I was less annoyed. After all, this mental inventory took me back to so many experiences, so many places of joy and discovery, so many events shared with so many dear people. It reopened doors to those old memories and let me browse the gallery of long-lost moments. These memories came back readily, like how there were bats in the girls cabin at Brevard and we all awoke shrieking in both panic and gleeful camaraderie as they swooped across the bunks. Like how all music festivals make me think that if only I had a cabin in the mountains with a piano in it, life would be just peachy. Like how freshman year meals at Harvard were both mundane and magical, as we all ate together, mindful of our select status and collective achievement, at long wooden tables in a cavernous castle-like dining hall surpassed in grandeur only by Hogwarts. Like how proud I am every year to see the festival that Wayne and I work on all year come to fruition, watching as the fantastic musicians we’ve invited cast their spells over the audience. Something about me may be forgettable or interchangeable or similar or familiar, but I’ve been lucky to have my own life, a unique collection of experiences that’s really all mine.