‘Shang-Chi’ and the Ten Asian American Things (To Be Aware Of)

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theaters tonight! Be safe, be curious!

To Asian Americans, these rings are like duh.
To those who have not cared, or those recently born,
these rings are new sources of fascination!
Such is the power of the Mandarin’s ten Asian American rings!

Ancient Marvel lore (paraphrased)

1. THE BIRTHPLACE RING aka THE I.C.E. BLAST

Probably the most common microaggression directed at Asian Americans is some version of the “Where are you from?” exchange. It’s tricky because the only problem is when “Where are you from?” is not asked as a question. We’re not about quashing curiosity; I ask people where they’re from all the time. It is a Zen-like quandary, “How can you ask a question that is not a question?”

Somehow, white folks manage to ask it of non-white folks all the time. The asker presumes a false idea in their mind; the response is not heard, and ignored. No matter what you say, no matter what the fact is, it is assumed that you, an Asian person, emigrated from an Asian country during your lifetime. My grandparents came from Canton, my parents were born in Fresno (as was Shang-Chi screenwriter Dave Callaham!). If one of your parents was born in, say, France, I am more American than you. That is just math. (Not that being more or less American counts for any cookies.) The point is, if you’re asking a question, ask a question.

2. THE FEMININITY RING aka THE “MENTO-INTENSIFIER

Obviously I’m not the expert on this aspect. Fellow NOC Laura writes about the depiction of Asian women in media, as just one example of a thoughtful reading on Asian American women in American culture. A prevalent problem is how Asian American cis-females are fetishized, hyper-sexualized, exoticized in our not-highly-enlightened discourse about love, sex, and romance. The perceived “desirable” traits, zeroed in on by Asian women fetishists, align with the most stereotypical old-fashioned qualities assigned to women generally, e.g., docility, prettiness, politeness masking a hidden! amazing! sexual prowess! As if Asian women particularly were all born 500 years ago. And granted, many Asian countries retain patriarchal sexist institutions to this day, and overall gender roles are more old-fashioned “over there” — I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

All this results in the utter ugliness and confusion surrounding Asian American women in the online dating scene, on social media, etc. “I’m married/partnered with an Asian woman” is commonly used to prove that “I’m not racist” — unfortunately, it does not prove that. Of all the 10 Asian American things I want to rant about, this is one of the hugest things, but also it’s the thing I have the least internal experience of. I can speak on being an Asian American dude, but what’s critically important is, we can’t discuss the masculinity thing without discussing the femininity thing, because yin and yang is what makes the whole thing whole. Or, less obliquely, the vast chasm between the specific challenges faced by Asian American women and Asian American men create a stumbling block in our discourse, too often becomes a “versus” situation, and yeah, that’s probably more the fault of the dudes. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

3. THE MASCULINITY RING aka THE ELECTRO-BLAST

Asian American cis-males continue to be perceived as the least-desirable phenotype in the American love/sex/dating scene. It’s not a real fun thing to talk about, because recognizing institutional undesirability is, y’know, an unsexy topic, but it continues to be true. Again, the standard is measured by old-fashioned metrics of manliness which we could all do well to do away with: height, toughness, Alpha-bro behavior. The reasons why are rooted in the history of Asian immigration to the States: initially, the big waves of Asian immigrants were mainly men (an inherently untenable situation, as Watership Down fans know) and there was a pretty coherent campaign, in media and public policy, to classify Asian men (largely Chinese men) as ugly, monstrous, unsuitable for contact with local women. This could be viewed as an aspect of American social control over women, as much as an anti-Asian policy.

In the modern day, a real big problem is how Asian American guys may over-compensate and over-correct for a perceived lack of (old-fashioned) manliness. I mean, a lot of Asian dudes are actual Bros, but I’d say a lot of them also act out of anxiety about “If I don’t do this, I’ll never be seen as a man.” Of course, times are changing, because BTS’ V is the prettiest man on Earth. But the chronically alone Asian American guy thing is still real. I can speak for myself. People talk about relationship drama and crazy dating app interactions, I have no idea what you’re talking about. On dating apps, everything is zero: there’s no option to explore, no relationship to attempt. I’ve been rejected without even trying, many times, on spec — that’s a particular thing that builds behavior. I’ve recently made (some) peace with probably being single for this whole lifetime. Anecdotally, this is a template that fits a lot of middle-aged Asian American men I know. But it’s one of those things that requires a cultural mindset shift rather than a policy (you can’t legislate disproportionate dating preferences) so that’s why we harp on things like a summer Marvel movie, a pop-cultural myth with worldwide reach that will get into people’s heads. And I have to say, it’d be nice. It’d be nice to be seen as being like that guy who is loved.

4. THE CULTURAL DECORATION RING aka “INCANDESCENCE

I don’t care much for the term “cultural appropriation,” because it’s everywhere. When it’s egregious, it should just be called “racism,” when it’s a natural product of humans co-existing, it’s called “music.” But it has to be said, on the Western pop-culture-scape, artists love Asian stuff, but they’re not so interested in Asian people. The embrace of Asian-coded cultural symbols, from martial arts to Chinese characters, is vastly disproportionate with the acceptance of Asian American people.

So when people pose an ill-conceived question like “Could Shang-Chi be a Black Panther for Asian Americans?” I take it as a multi-part question that starts with looking at what Black Panther did so successfully. A sub-question is, could Asian Americans also have a futuristic epic that builds its world around sci-fi-advanced versions of cultural “stuff” — symbols, tropes, textures, motifs — specific to a section of the Earth that’s not Western Europe? Yes, we already have that. It’s called Star Wars. Star Wars doesn’t have a lot of Asian folks in it, but it is entirely built out of East Asian language, mythology, and design concepts. Do Asian Americans feel proud of that, given that we are, again and again, Asian Americans, not of Asian nationality? I dunno. But I think we should. I do.

5. THE EAST ASIAN MONOLITH RING aka THE SPECTRAL DIS/INTEGRATION BEAM

“Asian American” is, of course, a problematic umbrella term, maybe bell hooks would call it a term of strategic essentialism. I’m not a big fan of the term “AAPI” because it sounds like a programming language, but it’s fine. No term is going to work, because the true meaning of “Asian” is “Most Earthlings” and you can’t umbrella the majority of the planet effectively in a check-box, but we try. Within the term “Asian American” is a longstanding bias towards East Asian nations, particularly China and Japan, of recent we might include South Korea in that bias. I’m Chinese American, and at the risk of perpetuating the bias, the reason for the bias is that China is a really big huge difficult monolithic deal. Ask any Asian, they’ll tell you!

What’s vexing is the divide in American discourse: Asian Americans can appreciate the need to specify the distinctions of Southeast Asian, Central Asian, Polynesian, South Asian. But admittedly that’s a lot for non-Asian Americans whose Asian cultural literacy might start and end with Chinese takeout. So that’s why, situationally, I still celebrate the designation “Asian American.” Or AAPI if you like, but let’s not get hung up on it, because that perfect umbrella word is a unicorn. And yes, Asian Americans have a better radar for educated-guessing other Asian Americans’ specific roots; it’s a sense that can be refined with practice and observation, and is better than giving up and lumping us all into Asian Something. And even if your radar is very good and you tend to recognize context clues for Vietnamese or Filipino or Thai background, it doesn’t negate the usefulness of the term “Asian American.”

6. THE GENERATIONAL RING aka THE DARKFORCE

Once you get over the not-difficult hump of “Not All Asian Americans Are Freshly Arrived From Somewhere Outside The USA” you may infer that some of our lineages are in our third, fourth, or higher generation of being American. That’s mainly gonna be Chinese and Japanese people at this point, but that’ll rapidly change. I count the first people to travel from There to Here as first generation, in my case my grandparents (your numbering conventions may differ). As with, I suspect, most immigrants, the first and second generations tend to have the most conflict and assimilation issues and are more likely to be in touch with the culture of the old country, e.g., they’re more bilingual.

At third generation, like me, you’re more likely to be more assimilated, and more, well, White (see the White Adjacent Ring, below). Shoes off inside the house, less likely to be a rule. Ordering the special food in restaurants is not something you can do. Of course this is a blessing and a curse. It’s a privilege to be socioeconomically stable (/assimilated) by the third generation. In particular for Asian Americans, the third generation is where you might seem to be a lot less Asian, except for how you look. Japanese Americans are most diligent about tracking these generational differences. On the ground, it gets weird because there are continuing waves of immigration from Asia, so a third Gen Chinese American like me meets a lot Chinese people having a first or second Gen experience and, among other things, marvel with envy at how authentically Chinese they are.

7. THE WHITE-ADJACENT RING aka THE “WHITE LIGHT” RING

I’m not sure what people mean by “white-adjacent,” but I infer it’s like what Asian Americans generally are, that is, the race-grouping with relatively less socioeconomic strife, and, maybe more importantly, the group who votes and spends money in patterns aligning with “white people” — so they’re not seen as the group that needs to be marketed to for their specific needs. Generally speaking, Asian Americans don’t have the big problems with cops (except when they are the cops!) and obviously the history of how we got to the USA is quite different from Black Americans and Latinx people.

Asian Americans have specific systemic problems, they’re not equal problems, we can even say they’re usually less severe problems. There’s a weird thing that happens, mainly in the Twitter chaos forum, where an Asian Am tweeter says something like “(People/Black People/POC) should show up for Shang-Chi like they did for Black Panther” as if all racial epochs in America are a one-to-one analogy, erasing difference between all people who happen to not be white. People should show up for Shang-Chi… but certainly not for that dumb line of thinking! Psst, if you’re going for “brazen,” maybe direct the energy at encouraging White folks to see this movie. Nuance, people!

8. THE INVISIBLE NO ONE CARES RING aka THE VORTEX

Summing up all these rants, as a third generation Chinese American dude, it’s hard to say if anyone gives a hoot. I’d buy this white-adjacency concept more if my aloneness were a subject of interest. Part of American Whiteness is being default prominent and visible, mattering. Non-white people know about not being seen, white people are quicker to freak out at the threat of being unseen. See, I just spent those sentences centering other people — my bad. There is, for many Asian Americans, a culture of getting by, maintaining a polite face, trying not to mentally freak out, because what is mental health anyway? The pandemic is not exactly helping with Asian Americans’ visibility in the world, except, again, for the worst reasons, as victims of violence.

But anyway, grumping aside — Shang-Chi is coming out! I’m not at all excited that he’s a super martial artist — big whoop. I’m excited that he seems like a low-key dude who comes into his own power. The Chinese American movie character I idolize most is Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi (no relation) in Big Trouble In Little China, cos he is kind of a regular dude, with martial prowess, centered in his own story. He’s not a pop idol and doesn’t have Bruce Lee’s killer eyes. He’s a guy I know. Basically, the measure of whether I embrace Shang-Chi as much as I’d like to is in how they articulate the part of his life where he is a dweeb.

9. THE ASIAN AMERICAN AESTHETIC RING aka IMPACT/INFLUENCE BEAM

One reason I persist in the artistic life is to see the formation of an Asian American Aesthetic in the arts. It’s a nebulous thing to discuss, partly because our visual, musical and performing arts are rich with definitively ASIAN aesthetics (see The Cultural Decoration Ring, above). For examples of truly Asian American aesthetic, which is not solely produced by Asian American people, I’d say Star Wars, the works of Lodestone Theater, the Birds of Prey film, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hiro Murai’s collaborations with Donald Glover.

Far from a comprehensive list, but all play in the liminal space bridging distinctive Asian arts tropes and recognizably American experience. There wouldn’t really be AN aesthetic because the artistic traditions of the Asian nations are so varied. But accepting that such an aesthetic exists could go a long way towards unifying an Asian American population otherwise separated by their diverse backgrounds and politics, because that’s an effect that a transformative song, movie, or comic book character can have.

10. THE MARTIAL ARTS RING aka MATTER-REARRANGER/THE REMAKER

  • Karate is from Japan. Also, udon.
  • Kung Fu is from China. Actually, “gong fu,” an umbrella term for many disciplines. Also, chao mian.
  • Taekwondo is from Korea. Also, japchae.
  • Eskrima is from the Philippines. Also, pancit.
  • Muay Thai is from Thailand. Also, pad thai.
  • Silat is from the Indonesian region. Also, mie goreng.
  • Krav Maga is from Israel. I don’t know what their main noodle dish is.

I’ve not trained seriously in any martial art. Is me knowing all that about martial arts, without being good at any of them, a function of being Asian American? Absolutely!

I am aware of most of these aspects of Asian American experience,
not because I am a genius, but because I’m a people person.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (paraphrasing)


Technical illustrations of the Mandarin’s rings by Eliot R. Brown, from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

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