I shrug and put the phone back in my pocket. “No, that’s not it.”
After a pause, she demands, “Show me that again.”
The second time her eyes roam the screen, taking their time studying the image. She notices my angular eyebrows. The shine of silver on my breastplate. The slight rise of my chin. The effect of seeing your parents outside of their usual circumstances is a bit like seeing them naked. Annoying for everyone.
“Mom!” she finally cries, her voice both surprised and bewildered. “It looks like you, but it is not you.”
Well, she’s right. It’s not the version of myself I’m showing her. The version she sees is mostly in leggings with a stray hole along the seam, no makeup, rushing to pack a peanut-free snack while practicing a Vietnamese language class in the background. Mom Me listens intently to a story about playground politics. She drives carefully and doesn’t complain when she calls in JoJo Siwa for the hundredth time. She could never conjure up enough drama to become the protagonist of any story.
That version is the only version of me that matters to my child. And at her young age, that makes sense. She’s not quite ready to see the me beyond her let alone the AI version of me.
But couldn’t I have been the AI version in another life? If I had made different choices—not going to graduate school in Chicago, where I met her father; dedicated my life to kung fu; born into a military family destined for greatness –could be I’ve been a hero, not of my own story, but of all stories? The AI hero filter is just a small glimpse of another offshoot in the multiverse where I’m a different, bolder version of myself. The attraction of another self is intoxicating and bewildering. It’s the stuff of movies.
In the movie Everything Everywhere Everything at oncea struggling, exhausted Evelyn Wang (played by my AI doppelgänger, Michelle Yeoh) learns navigating the multiverse through cutting-edge technology. Her mission is to save the multiverse by defeating a chaotic, life-destroying creature named Jobu Tupaki, who travels fluidly between worlds. To do this, Evelyn must temporarily inhabit the lives of the alternate Evelyns and gain their abilities to reshape her reality. She learns from an opera diva how to reach the highest notes and get rid of her enemies. From a kung fu fighter she learns to cut through the air with her powerful limbs. From a bizarre yet endearing multiverse where she has hot dogs for fingers, Evelyn learns compassion and vulnerability.
Throughout the movie, Evelyn asks different versions of “Why me?” Her guide, an alternate version of her husband Waymond, tells her that he thinks she is special, that what really makes her so exceptional is her utter mundaneness. It’s not explicitly stated, but the reason Evelyn is so deftly able to pick up so many skills is because she’s a blank canvas, a sponge capable of soaking up all the many identities. Until, of course, she isn’t. Until the underlying promise of heroism – the tragic and inevitable martyrdom – overtakes her.