After 6 years of living in Asia, a couple of hours away from what I grew up feeling was the greatest country in the world- namely China- I had finally bought a ticket, acquired a Visa, put together an itinerary and gone to Peking Beijing. It had been a long time coming. If you’ve read part 1 of this entry about growing up in Asia…kinda, then you know it was almost like a dream come true.
Emphasis on almost.
The reason I’ve written this post is because I wanted to let my readers know what I thought about China before actually going there. I was harboring what I feel to be some rather complex thoughts and feelings about China. And though this sequel is being written after the fact (due to some poor planning on my part) I am still in touch with my pre-China visit ideas, for most of them have not changed. Not to say that my feelings about China have not gone through changes. On the contrary, over the course of a lifetime of infatuation with her they, as I, have gone through a number of changes- the most significant occurring once I’d moved to Asia and begun my new life living amid but not quite among China’s island cousins, The Japanese.
I must confess that, not unlike many Americans, my early infatuation with China was heavily influenced by the media, and by media I mean mostly television and movies. The most influential movies in my pre-teen years were those starring Bruce Lee. I mean, forget Evel Knievel, forget Burt Reynolds, you can even forget Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson and Redd Foxx. Bruce Lee was the man to me and millions of other Americans. Though he was actually an American, it didn’t matter. He was as American as a Toyota assembled in an American Toyota plant. No wonder I felt a strong connection to him. In fact, to all Chinese. Many African Americans feel / felt this disconnect to America as well, despite being born and raised in the US. Malcolm X, a very influential leader in the black community, once said in a debate, “just because some kittens are born in a stove that doesn’t make them biscuits.”
In American movies, Chinese were invariably portrayed as poor and subservient to the power structure that was, and being black in America these are two conditions one could readily identify with. Plus, the streets of Hong Kong, or wherever the hell they might have been, were always swarming with street gangs, and my older brothers can attest to the verisimilitude of that connection. And once I’d seen “Enter the Dragon” and watched Bruce Lee and the black martial arts icon of the time, Jim Kelly, kicking ass side by side, I just knew that the African diaspora in America and the Chinese held a special kinship.
America just loves to stereotype in the media. At least it used to something horrible, but as a child I had no idea what was going on. I mean, of course, I realized that Irish were always drunks or cops and invariably short tempered and prone to brawl, British were always over sophisticated snobs, French were always oversexed or obnoxious, Italians were always gangsters or peasants , blacks were always stupid or servile or the happiest go-luckiest light on their feet-est people on the planet, Germans were always sinister or evil geniuses or stupid, Jews were always smart or funny or oppressed by the WASPs, and as for Asia… Chinese, in addition to being servants or chauffeurs, could also be portrayed as sinister or wise beyond reason, and as for the other Asian countries that dominated the media of my youth…well, of course because of Pearl Harbor and the Korean and Vietnam wars, there wasn’t much positive to be said about Japanese, Koreans nor Vietnamese.
For example, Ming the Merciless (see pic above) might not have been Asian (he was in another dimension after all), but there was something about him besides his name and his planet Mongo (sound familiar) that felt Asian, and he was one ruthless bastard. But I loved him. I must have watched the Flash Gordon movie about 50 times.
There was nothing malignant about the great detective Charlie Chan, however (see pic above) aside from his makeup. At least not to my pre-adolescent well-indoctrinated eyes. But, in retrospect, I can see why Europeans portraying Asians in film could ruffle some feathers. Minstral shows weren’t especially flattering to black people, though I loved to see Buckwheat, Stymie and Farina on the Little Rascals. Especially in the case of Caine from Kung Fu (see pic below) when Bruce Lee, a burgeoning star at the time, and an actual Asian (though American by birth) was up for the part. You Kung Fu fans out there…can you imagine how much better the show would have been with Bruce Lee in the starring role? Not that Carradine was so bad…he wasn’t. He sold me. I thought he was Asian. Besides, if it weren’t for Carradine’s Kung Fu we would have all missed out on seeing him in Kill Bill Pt.2. Wasn’t he just chilling?
Quentin Tarantino is an unqualified genius in my opinion. I think we are cut from the same cloth, grew up in the same social climate and were impacted in a similar manner. When I watch a film of his I feel like an insider, like I worked on his production staff as an adviser. His love of all things 70s, of all that American as well as the Asian cinema contributed to the Asian Mystique, is as strong as mine, and his attention to detail is extraordinary.
The Chinese influence reached me in other ways as well. Another major venue was through the menu. In Bed-Stuy, you’ll find churches of every denomination, from towering Catholic and African Methodist Episcopalian cathedrals to storefront Let the church say Amen churches. The fact that I managed to get through childhood without ever attending one involuntarily is miraculous. There is virtually a church on every street. Some have more than one. That would be the western influence on my community. But, the Eastern influence…The only businesses / services that outnumbered churches (and I’m including Liquor stores and barber shops) were Chinese restaurants. While the churches could be found on any street, the Chinese usually restricted their restaurants to the Avenues and main thoroughfares, but could number from 2 to 4 per block.
Chinese food was firmly established as the foreign food of choice in the hood. I shouldn’t really say foreign, though. I mean, the Chinese would adapt their menus to suit the community’s culinary taste, like any wise business people would do. But, don’t get me wrong- You aren’t likely to find General Tso’s Chitterlings, Sweet and Sour Turkey Wings, Moo Shoo Collard Greens nor Szechuan Corn bread, but on any given day at any given time of night you could dine on Chinese fried chicken and BBQ spare rib tips, or Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yung that wouldn’t set you back much. Nothing foreign about that. So, in my house, “Chinese” food was on the dinner menu just about anytime my mother didn’t feel like cooking.
Japanese people are always surprised when un-Asian foreigners can use chop sticks. They seem to be compelled to comment every time I pick up a pair. They apparently have no idea that Chinese food is the most popular food in many places in the world and most Chinese restaurants, along with the soy sauce, Chinese spicy mustard, duck sauce and fortune cookies, would make available on your table or throw in your take-out bag enough chop sticks for the whole family to use if they were so inclined. And after watching Bruce Lee use them so adroitly, or just for the other-worldliness of using them, many people were indeed so inclined.
to be continued…