if I had to be mistaken for anyone
it would have been Michelle
Every four years, I am always surprised to find out what moves me. I am drawn in by the spectacle of the Winter Olympics, how glory and tragedy can be witnessed within seconds of each other. I root for Canada in an uncharacteristically patriotic way. I root for the underdogs, revel in their success and think of it as inspiration. I root for anyone who looks like me—female / brown / Asian—because to witness them soar is the closest I can experience flying in the comfort of my own home, behind a screen, looking in.
Jenny Zhang’s poem, ‘Ice,’ explores the tension that comes with visibility. What does it mean to see yourself in someone else? What does it mean for someone else to mistake you for another? The backdrop is figure skating in all its pageantry. At its centre is the speaker: a young girl. In her periphery: the image of Michelle Kwan, the American figure skater, two-time Olympic medalist, whose parents are immigrants from Hong Kong. It’s a narrative of desire and girlhood entrenched in layers of race where Kwan embodies what it means to be “bumped for the white girl showdown,” of “never meaning to anyone,” of being “a girl mistaken for my twin.” How to be mistaken for someone else is evocative of the friction settled between visibility and invisibility in being seen, recognized.
There is a moment that Zhang’s speaker recalls of an interaction between herself and a young girl in China. It’s an interaction that happens in a bathroom, where the speaker remembers the girl “staring at me staring at her staring at me.” A layered impression of seeing. Mirrored. Reflective. When the girl asks the speaker for her autograph after mistaking her for Michelle Kwan, the speaker recalls scribbling, “with love, Michelle Kwan <3” and only then feeling the pride of being “mistaken for another.” How this moment is parallel to the 1998 Olympics where Kwan loses the gold to an American. “how did two Chinese girls ever think / we would be someone?” Zhang’s speaker asks. What a stark interrogation of what it means to desire to be more than what meets the eye, like a shared experience amongst young girls who crave praise, attention, love—a longing that is easy to sympathize with.
It is here that the poem turns: “all the mistaken twins in the world — / weaving through each others dreams / little outshines trails that go drippy and gooey and ugly / swear we meant it when we said ‘I feel fine’ […].” How to be mistaken for someone else—a twin—is a sort of kinship. We all know how that feels and find ourselves revelling in it because we are constantly looking for the many ways we find ourselves in others, and vice versa. It’s equal parts tender and empathetic as it is dark and tumultuous. We are left with the image of the speaker “under the most forgiving of all suns—“, as she held herself up on a “thin blade”. Beneath her, ice.