I’m a sucker for Bruce Lee documentaries. Not because I am a kung fu practitioner or even a big fan of his movies. It’s because he took on the stereotypes of the Chinese in Western pop culture and won. The impact his fame has had on my personal life is awe inspiring.
It’s not easy to stand up to Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Scores of discrimination and biased dramatizations perpetrated by Hollywood (the ruler by which filmmaking and more importantly promotion across the globe are measured) are guaranteed to leave an indelible print on the global social fabric. It is even harder for an actor to have his accomplishments resonate beyond the industry and through time. Bruce Lee managed to do that and more amazingly he managed to do it in a relatively short period of time.
According to the documentary that inspired this post, the History Channel’s How Bruce Lee Changed the World, Bruce Lee only made four movies – and only one of them in English! Bruce Lee as icon, as persona is so ingrained in me that I never considered the particulars of his life and career. He was only 32 when he died.
What was admirable about the History Channel documentary was it attempted to begin a conversation about Bruce Lee’s impact outside of martial arts and the entertainment industry. Margaret Cho, Eddie Griffin, LL Cool J, and RZA were among the people interviewed. RZA segments pepper the film. He makes some interesting statements about Bruce’s social impact and there is a long segment about his producing the soundtrack to Afro Samurai which is like his homage to Bruce.
What I wish the filmmakers would have done is to interview more community organizers and non-celebrities. Though it’s mentioned Bruce Lee inspired Asians and non-Asians alike in a variety of careers, no one outside of the entertainment industry or martial arts was interviewed. Not only would this have been novel but it would have drawn attention to the importance of Bruce Lee as social catalyst.
As an Asian American parent raising two boys in America, Bruce Lee is essential. It’s something Kareem Abdul Jabbar said in a different documentary. He said that Bruce was uniquely American because he drew inspiration from a lot of different cultures and sources. He also said that Bruce Lee stood up for the “little guy.”
As a father I want my boys to be proud of their Asian heritage but also open to the beauty that other cultures and races have to offer. I also want them to be understanding and tolerant of the uglier side of these same cultures. I would like my boys to be willing to stick their neck out to help a stranger. I am a big believer of social ills being viral. It is only a matter of time before you and the ones you love get infected, if you do not do anything to cure the disease.
Bruce Lee as an icon and persona provides my boys with a positive self image of being Asian and male in America. I’m even going to say that his image is more pervasive now than those of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. He took them on and won.
Unlike my generation, my children will not suffer the pervasive images of Asian subservience and impotence. While I am sure those images will always exist in Western culture, my children have the benefit of a very weighty counterbalance in the legacy of Bruce Lee.
But there is a drawback to Bruce’s success and stature. More than once in my life, Bruce’s signature battle cry has been imitated in my presence to mock and devalue me. Black and White alike have attempted to turn Bruce into a negative Asian stereotype.
And for a while it worked. I distanced myself from Bruce Lee as much as I could. In middle school I had the opportunity to study karate and I turned it down despite really wanting to join the class. The taunting I had gotten fueled my desire to adopt what I perceived as unquestionably American as quickly as possible regardless of the costs.
The costs are illiteracy in my parents’ language and a certain disassociation with my extended family. Everyday I struggle with the choices I was allowed as a child and the ones I made when I initially entered adulthood. I have tried several times to rectify my past ignorance but it is hard. I have tried several times to learn to read and write Chinese. Each time foiled by distractions and the responsibilities that come with age. I have even taken a class with Sifu Shi Yan Ming at the US Shaolin Temple. He was among the martial artists interviewed in the History Channel documentary. Again foiled by time and age.
I keep trying though. And that’s how Bruce Lee changed my world. Regardless of my failures and shortcomings as a writer, an educator, and parent. I keep trying. And I believe I am free enough of ego to reflect critically and adjust my actions accordingly in pursuit of the mastery of my craft (parent, writer, educator) just like Bruce.