Life is hard enough as an Asian. Not all of us can get perfect SAT scores, graduate from medical school or trick out a Honda Civic. The pressure to embrace our culture remains but sometimes, we just don’t want to. How To Be A Bad Asian is an ongoing series of personal essays by the 8Asians writers about what sets us apart from the API community, how we deal with the stereotypes that we put upon ourselves and why we all can’t be that perfect Asian. It’s time to be bad.
I love kung fu. To be more precise, I love martial arts, one of which is kung fu, which in itself is a very broad category of different styles and philosophies and as a Chinese word can actual mean expert skill in anything from cooking to ditch-digging…but that’s besides the point.
I know this series is about how to be a bad Asian, as in an Asian that doesn’t fit into the stereotypes, but in my case, I’m a bad Asian because I’m actually feeding into a stereotype.
I have loved martial arts since I was a little girl, particularly inspired after watching imported VHS rentals of Seven Lucky Ninja Kids and Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids, where kids my age were beating up adults with their mad martial arts skills. Knowing my parents were hard pressed financially, I never asked for anything…except karate lessons (poor me didn’t know the difference back then). Of course, they said no, because we couldn’t afford it and because little ladies don’t do kung fu. I didn’t accept the latter explanation, but I knew the former couldn’t be helped.
In middle school, my mom compromised with me and allowed me to take a Wu Dang sword dance class at a local Chinese school. It wasn’t martial arts exactly, more like cultural performing arts, but whatever, I was happy I could swing a sword around and learn some stances even if I did have to wear make-up to do it (I hate make-up).
When I went off to college, that was it, total freedom to take whatever class I wanted to, so I joined kung fu, karate, tae kwon do, tai chi, wu shu whatever I could find. I also went into a martial arts movie binge, watching anything I could get my hands on at the local Chinese import rental store. I printed out lists of all the movies Jackie Chan and Jet Li made and systematically hunted each film down, even in the alleyways of Asia.
Truth is, I am not any good at martial arts in the real sense of the term. I’m more of a performer, better at forms than sparring, and I’ve got like nil experience with full on fighting. Nevertheless, as you can tell by my many articles on 8Asians about martial arts, I love it.
Unfortunately, there’s this really widespread and annoying stereotype that all Asians know kung fu or karate or something. This really puts me in a bind. When I practice it, watch it, revel in it, study it, or write about it, I am feeding into this stereotype.
I even got chastised in college by fellow Asian American activists. I often performed at international festivals and got the title of “that sword girl” since I often did the Wu Dang sword dance I learned when I was a kid.
“Don’t you think you’re propagating the stereotype that all Asians know kung fu?” the API people would say to me disparagingly.
Boy did that make me angry. I was angry at the API activists for picking on me for it. I was angry at the simple-minded people who were the real perpetrators of the stereotype. I was angry at that white boy who came up to me after an international day performance and asked, “Wu Tang sword? Have you heard of the Wu Tang Clan? I’ve got their album.”
In my head I was screaming, “WHY IS IT OKAY FOR EVERYONE ELSE BUT ME TO LOVE KUNG FU?”
And Po the Kung Fu Panda thought he had problems.
When it came down to writing my first novel, the advice was always “write what you know”. Well, I know kung fu, sort of, and I wanted to write a novel that was like a kung fu movie, fun, exciting, adventurous, and inspiring. But here I was again, an Asian American writer and what do I write about? Kung fu, one of the biggest stereotypes of Asian Americans. Should I do it?
In the end, I thought, sure why not? It’s not my fault people stupidly overgeneralize everything they know. Why should I have to suffer and not get to do what I want to do just because others are too dumb to see the complexities of reality?
And how come J.K. Rowling can write a book about a wizarding white boy and not have to worry about everyone thinking that all white people are wizards? So not fair!
So I wrote the book and will keep writing books with martial arts in them because I’m a Bad Good Asian and I love kung fu!