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"Ugh,” my dad grunts, “he’s just not as handsome as I remembered.” I nod, silently, a little confused, staring at Bruce Lee’s rippling muscles in the mirror maze scene of Enter the Dragon.  Bruce Lee, I was thinking, was every bit as handsome, and as fit, and as immaculately trained as I had remembered.  I spent my teenage years and twenties wanting to be him– not just because of his etched abs or unflappable demeanor.  Bruce Lee, somehow became a Chinese icon, a symbol of Chineseness, even though he was born in America. 


 As a second-generation Chinese American myself, I barely felt Chinese.  And yet here was this person, born into America, like me, who somehow came to embody the very idea of Chineseness.  So much so that I’m pretty much sure that when my dad interrupted our movie to complain about its protagonists inflated looks, I was pretty sure he was talking by proxy about China– the China of now that never lived up to the memories he held from the brief years before his family followed Chiang Kai Shek to Taiwan, the China he could never go home to even though Taiwan never felt like home either, nor did America, not even after he spent thirty years on the same five acre plot of land on a hillside in rural Idaho, growing Chinese vegetables as if physically stitching himself onto the earth.  


I was also keenly aware of the implications for me, for the ways my father judged his half-Chinese martial artist daughter, if even Bruce Lee couldn’t pass his idealized-remembrance-of-China test.  Even though my father handed down martial arts mythology to me through Shaolin stories, Brazilian jiu jitsu became my chosen sport. This was actually my father’s decision to begin with. He taught me little snippets of kung-fu– wrist locks and ways to break free from an assaulter’s grasp, but there were no Shaolin Kung Fu schools in Moscow, Idaho in the 80s, so jiu jitsu seemed like the next best thing.  At least I’d learn the fighter’s spirit, the martial artist’s code. But instead of feeling like I was joining a family tradition,  It felt as though he thought I’d vanished into another family, into a daily practice tracing no lineage back to China.  


Now, I’ve been training jiu jitsu for over twenty years (albeit with interruptions due to other sports, school, and kids), and for all of these years, practicing jiu jitsu has felt as if I’m practicing metaphor– always tracing the distance between the sweaty back takes and chokes and armbars of a grappling sport against the myths of fleet-footed Shaolin heroes flying through tree-tops, hoping that something universal about the fighter’s code would keep me connected to China, even as I ventured further and further into a contradictory world.  



“You know it’s just up the street from here,” my coach Jimmy chastised me, flabbergasted that I’d never been to Bruce Lee’s grave.  He tells me how he grew up in Tacoma then Seattle, how he and his buddies hung out on the grave site. It sounded so melodramatic and tacky to me– a bunch of white dudes hanging out at Bruce Lee’s grave, as if, soaking up his legacy as if through osmosis.  But the thing is, Jimmy’s an awesome coach– stoic in the moments when stoicism is necessary, and utterly, hilariously ridiculous the rest of the time. He’s brought up Bruce Lee’s grave a bunch of times, enough that it’s clear that Bruce Lee’s life story is something of a guiding parable for him, as it is for me.  And if I forget to be judgmental, or intentionally set my judgment aside, I think the reason why I like this gym so much is inextricably bound up with Jimmy sitting on that grave.  I haven’t yet figured out what to make of this affinity– it’s as if I can’t reach out to grab my own Chineseness, to hold it close or drag it to the mats. When I try, I hear my father lamenting that he’s just not as great as how we’d imagined him, and the myth of Bruce Lee cleaves away, into that other diasporic myth– the one in which the past, including our imagined homes, is ceaselessly falling away, and we fill that emptiness up with imagining, so that when we’re confronted with the slightest trace of the real thing, it cannot possibly live up to the idealized alternative version of the past that we’ve created for ourselves.  So what I guess I’m saying is it turns out, I think I’m better able to hang onto Bruce Lee as the spirit of my Chinese past when the legend of Bruce Lee is mediated by Whiteness.  There is a fine line between appropriation and cherishing, and, when I think about my father’s knee-jerk castigation of Bruce Lee, I see that there is also a thin and blurry line between cherishing and pushing away.  


Somewhere between these two versions of Bruce Lee lies my own myth of being a second-generation Chinese immigrant, of learning martial arts as a form of cultural as well as physical memory, of feeling like the only way of cleaving to my family was cleaving to diasporic existence, and that the only path I found to  cling to diasporic identity in an America that wants nothing more than for Asian Americans to acculturate was through martial arts.  As if my body held the stories of my family’s past, and only ritualistic violence could unlock them. 



“The way that Jimmy breaks it down, it’s very simple,” my teammate Allen Lo says to me. We were supposed to be co-presenting here today, but he couldn’t make the trip to Hawaii, so I’m weaving portions of a conversation between the two of us into my documents.  In this quotation, Allen’s referring to the way Jimmy breaks down jiu jitsu techniques into such simple elements.  He’s not really all about complicated sequences or, as Allen calls them, “techniques that break [his] brain.  Jimmy is all about teaching his students to discover their own reflexes, to find the exact combination of micro-motions that work for each of our bodies and and our accreted muscle memories.  It’s a kind of martial arts practice that brings me back to myself, and the same seems to be true for Allen, and many of our teammates as well. 

Allen tells me that he played football in high school, a context in which being Asian (he’s Cambodian, or maybe Cambodian-Chinese, he says, but mostly Cambodian) never seemed particularly cool.  But off the football field, he started watching Bruce Lee films with his brother, which led him into practicing martial arts himself. 



Bruce Lee is riding shotgun in my car. I mean, a life-sized framed poster print of him, a green dragon’s smoke-like tail curling around one hip, its forked tongue or maybe fire nearing his ear.  One of my friends and coworkers gifted this Bruce Lee to me, salvaged from his partner’s grandma’s house because no one there wanted it, and he knew that it would mean the world to me.  The poster came to me with battered corners and dark red stippling reminding me of blood, even though the more likely explanation is probably rust from the raw metal frame.  The front glass had broken somewhere along the line, so I needed to hurry Bruce Lee off to the framers to be fitted behind a new windowpane. This felt essential. I wanted to preserve the gift. But did I have to lock him away? I sprung for the museum quality glass to reduce the glare.  But I still see myself reflected in his body every time I contemplate that poster now. The glare-proof glass appears to work its magic on the background yellow of the piece, but the darker portions of the image– Bruce Lee’s body and the dragon encircling him– seem to defy the glare-proof glass. The effect is that I experience the poster as a magic mirror in which I am invisible until I stare straight into the image of Bruce Lee and his dragon. And when I look at him, I finally see myself.




Obviously, Bruce Lee was in a lot of movies. But when I think about his myth, it always boils down to just one version of the man: the one in Enter the Dragon.  In this film, Bruce Lee is both a Shaolin kung fu practitioner and a British agent, determined to infiltrate a crime syndicate by entering a martial arts contest on a drug lord’s private island.  Bruce Lee stars alongside John Saxon and Jim Kelly, who appear to be locked in their own Black-White dialectical struggle which Lee must navigate throughout the film, turning the whole thing into a poignant metaphor about Asian American estrangement.  And although Lee is estranged from the culture of American in the 1970’s, he is recruited by a British agent.  Why is Lee willing to entertain partnering with the British?  (This is its own rabbit hole, made more complex and fascinating by the fact that Lee’s character in the film is supposed to be a martial arts instructor from Hong Kong).  At any rate, Lee is persuaded to infiltrate the drug ring and private island owned by a Chinese man named Han. Han and Lee had once belonged to the same Shaolin temple, so the story pits these two Chinese martial artists against each other, one having made common cause with the British, and the other with a criminal underworld. The entire film was shot in Hong Kong.  


Although the plot of the film seems at first as if it will be driven by Lee’s desire to kill a man named O’Hara, who was responsible for his sister’s death.  But he is able to accomplish this mission very early in the film, after which, the film largely becomes an investigation of race relations through the medium of martial arts. Over the course of the film, Lee befriends Jim Kelly’s character, Williams, a dashing Black martial artist who was a real-life karate world champion.  These two characters seem particularly in sync with each other although they also befriend John Saxon’s character, Roper.  The rapport between Williams and Lee is cut short when Lee sneaks out of his room to make contact with a covert operative, only to be accidentally discovered by Han’s men.  Han suspects that Williams knows something about whoever it was who snuck out, but Williams keeps his mouth shut and Han beats him to death with the film’s iconic prosthetic knife blade hand.  It is tempting to read this as a parable about how Asian America betrays Black America by clinging to the model minority myth, except there’s this: Williams wasn’t supposed to die at all.  In the original version of the script, it is Roper who is supposed to die for not revealing Lee’s secret. But when John Saxon agreed to play the role of Roper, it was with the condition that Roper wouldn’t die, and that Williams would need to die in his stead.  And so the analogical framework slips, and we no longer understand the film solely as a parable about race relations– we see it as a real-time happening.  Jim Kelly’s character is obliterated from the film simply because John Saxon wants more screen time– White America stealing time and royalties from Black America and then covering their steps, as if the devious transaction had never really occurred. And so, the film makes it appear that Williams dies for Lee– White life subjugating Black life while pretending that Asianness is the culprit– and this knowledge leaps out of the film as bare-fact requiring no mediation through parable. 




When Jimmy runs his gym according to the simplified and romanticized tenets of Bruce Lee, it seems as though he is able to somehow give my own Asian Americanness back to me.  I’m uneasy with what I consider to be an Asian pedagogy perpetuated by Whiteness.  I’m afraid that, like Bruce Lee sent into the tournament as a British agent, I’m acquiescing to the White imagination driving the formulation of my own multicultural identity.  But I’ve found my own version of Bruce Lee in this gym, as has Allen, as have others of our teammates.  I haven't fully theorized my way into understanding what is happening here, except to say that Jimmy seems to have somehow stumbled upon a pedagogical approach that lets us find versions of ourselves in the gym, and in each other, even if that knowledge seems like it shouldn’t really be his to offer back to us. I feel like maybe I shouldn’t, but then I embrace it anyway.



Enter the Dragon was released shortly after Bruce Lee’s mysterious death, so, all the way back to its original reception, the film has read like an inadvertent elegy.  Bruce Lee seemed to have survived his final confrontation with Han in the hall of mirrors where he eventually defeated his adversary by smashing the mirrors one by one until the shattered glass ceased to deceive him.  But he not only shattered the optical ghosts in the glass- he shattered himself, and despite the film’s triumphant ending, Lee didn’t walk away unscathed. He didn’t really walk away at all.  And when my father laments that Bruce Lee’s really not as handsome as he thought he was, he’s mourning a version of China that is dead, and when I say that movie taught me how to walk through this world as an Asian American, I’m saying it taught me how to walk through the world like a dead man, and when Allen says that Bruce Lee films taught him that being Asian is cool, he’s saying, in a sense, that being dead, after having been superb at martial arts is cool.  

So what is this pedagogy of ghosts, this pedagogy of hauntings, this story that draws us into martial arts despite its sadness, this collective manner of interacting with myth that draws me back to the mats even when I’m busy or weary or hurt?  I’m still not entirely sure, but I do know that whatever this magnetic pull is, I want to find out how to bring some version of its complexity, specificity, and magnetism into my teaching and my community-building efforts on campus.  In Enter the Dragon, Lee’s character famously states that his style is “fighting without fighting” and the film, and the myth of the man seem to somehow make good on that promise.

Bruce Lee.jpg
Bruce Lee.jpg


(link to be updated soon)


(link to be updated soon)

Bruce Lee.jpg
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