My younger brothers both have Bruce Lee posters taped on their bedroom walls (though the 15-year-old one has recently replaced his with images of UFC favorites), and apparently a whole generation of Asian American males has done the same. Watching “Enter the Dragon” this week was my first Bruce Lee experience, and I could easily see why so many of my peers (or a handful of Asian American male friends at Brown) have admitted to modeling their lives on his. Lee’s character is strong, fearless, composed, and confident; he garners respect for his skill in martial arts and also for his unquestionable morality. Bruce Lee is a challenge to the media and advertising industry’s favorite “all-American” man, whose blonde hair and bulky muscles make him look so very natural with a football in hand.
Vijay Prashad’s “Kung Fusion” article shed light on the polycultural appeal of kung fu, especially within Asian American and black communities. He writes: “Kung fu gives oppressed young people an immense sense of personal worth and the skills for collective struggle. Kung fu, Bruce pointed out…‘develops confidence, humility, coordination, adaptability and respect toward others.’” (133) The respect and confidence underdog youths seek through martial arts (as Prashad describes) is something I know well.
My youngest brother, now a freshman in high school, is probably at the height of awkwardness and identity-confusion. Tall and lanky, he has immense disdain for the football players that pick on him and the “jocks” who make fun of his being Chinese (which baffles me, by the way, considering we live in a relatively diverse and absolutely liberal part of NorCal). He found martial arts a few years ago and with it discovered a new kind of confidence, bordering on cockiness. The skills have actually distanced him, more than anything, from what he considers the “mainstream,” and I doubt he is alone in this experience.
Drawing from this week’s sources and personal observations, I can say that martial arts has become an outlet for the “other” in American culture, which includes the oppressed. It provides a sense of empowerment, but at the same time further cements one’s status within that “other” category. So it makes sense on many levels that Bruce Lee is the image of strength that Asian American males can most easily (or acceptably) aspire to match: he is an Asian face, is anything but the norm, and has no desire to prove strength the “all-American” way. Being the “other”, then, is a good thing—it’s just too bad that all these images are so polarizing.