I shrug and put the phone back in my pocket. “No, it’s not.”
After a pause, she demands, “Let me see that again.”
The second time around, her eyes travel across the screen, taking time to study the image. She notes my angular brows. The sheen of silver on my breastplate. The slight raise of my chin. The effect of seeing your parents outside their usual circumstances is a little like seeing them in the nude. Embarrassing for everyone.
“Mom!” she cries at last, her voice equal parts wondering and dismayed. “It looks like you, but it isn’t you.”
Well, she’s right. It’s not the version of myself I display to her. The version she sees is usually in leggings with a stray hole along the seam, wearing no makeup, in a rush to pack a peanut-free snack while practicing a Vietnamese language lesson in the background. Mom Me listens intently to a story about playground politics. She drives carefully and doesn’t complain when turning on JoJo Siwa for the hundredth time. She could never summon enough drama to become the protagonist in any story.
That version, to my child, is the only version of me that matters. And at her young age, that makes sense. She’s not quite ready to see the me beyond her, much less the AI version of me.
But in another life, couldn’t the AI version have been me? If I had made different choices—not gone to graduate school in Chicago, where I met her father; devoted my life to kung fu; been born into a military family predestined for greatness—could I have been a hero, not of my own story, but of all the stories? The AI hero filter is but a small glimpse of another offshoot in the multiverse where I am a different, bolder version of myself. The pull of an alternate self is intoxicating and bewildering. It’s the stuff of movies.
In the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, a struggling, exhausted Evelyn Wang (played by my AI doppelgänger, Michelle Yeoh) learns to navigate the multiverse through verse-jumping technology. Her mission is to save the multiverse by defeating a chaotic, life-destroying being called Jobu Tupaki, who travels fluidly between worlds. To do so, Evelyn must temporarily inhabit the lives of the alternate Evelyns, acquiring their skills in order to reshape her reality. From an opera diva, she learns to reach the highest notes, discombobulating her enemies. From a kung fu fighter, she learns to slice the air with her powerful limbs. From a bizarre yet endearing multiverse where she has hotdogs for fingers, Evelyn learns compassion and vulnerability.
Throughout the film, Evelyn asks several versions of “Why me?” Her guide, an alternate version of her husband Waymond, tells her that he thinks she’s special, that, truly, what makes her so exceptional is her complete ordinariness. It’s not stated explicitly, but the reason Evelyn is able to deftly appropriate so many skills is because she is 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—catches up with her.