Saturday, December 11, 2010

Be Like Water

Recapturing The Heart Of The Tiger.

As readers will know, this past month saw what would have been the 70th birthday of Chinese icon, Bruce Lee. Few Asians in the modern era have had such a profound influence over the consciousness of popular western culture as Bruce. To pay tribute, I present this interesting exerpt from an interview he gave in the early 1970's...........

Although he is remembered for his skill as a martial artist, and appreciated by Asian-American men for being one of the few images of masculinity for their demographic, as the video suggests, his value to the consciousness of Asian men goes beyond his onscreen personna. Clearly, even from this short clip we can see that Lee's greatness as an athlete and martial artist was grounded in a profound philosophical foundation that saw self-discovery as a means to access an existential truth and recognized the flow of self-expression as the natural product of this process.

Maybe because he experienced the frustration of being stifled by the prejudice he encountered whilst trying to break into the American film industry (in much the same way many Asian-American men today feel stifled by stereotypes and exclusion), much of what he says in this interview is very pertinent to the way we can understand our experiences as Asian men. Here İ've presented some of the quotes from this clip that İ believe have some insights for Asian-American men......


".....styles separate man, becomes doctrines/gospel truth - cultures separate man..... not have [a] style, here I am as a human being - how can I express myself totally and completely, that way you won't create a style......[it is] a process of continuing growth.....

...[be like water because] running water never grows stale [it] keep on flowing - honestly expressing yourself...

....[it is] easy to put on a show  - flooded with a cocky feeling - and feel cool.....[but just like] if you learn to speak Chinese it's easy to speak the words but what lies behind the words - what brought on the feelings and expressions behind those words?..."


 It has become somewhat axiomatic for minorities to say that "going back to your roots" or rediscovering your culture can be a dramatic experience of catharsis that empowers the individual and offers an alternative world view to the white-washed perspective. Whilst I see the value of this, it has to be recognized that racism goes beyond cultural white-washing and anti-pluralism, and is fundamentally an assertion of a racial hierarchy that utilizes vaious methods to dehumanize minorities.

In fact, as I noted here, various Asian cultural practices are greedily and more readily accepted than are Asians themselves, which suggests that cultures can be and often are more easily integrated and accepted than races. What this suggests to me is that any kind of Asian-American consciousness must have as a fundamental premise the idea of reconnecting with the essence of what makes us human as opposed to cultural characteristics that defines us as particular ethnicities.

Nowhere is this concept more applicable than in the issue of reclaiming Asian masculinity. Many commentators suggest that balancing dehumanizing cultural portrayals and attitudes with more masculine versions is an essential step (perhaps the most essential step)  in correcting emasculation issues. This idea suggests that masculınity is fundamentally a product of culture and that it is cultural expression that drives the qualities of masculinity. I disagree with this - masculinity is far more fundamental than the mere cultural expression of it because ultimately the qualities that we describe as "masculine" seem most likely to be a product of various biological drives. We could call this biological drive the masculine essence, in the sense that the qualities that derive from it are fundamental to the nature of being biologically male.

Whilst this doesn't downplay the importance of sympathetic media representation as a means to defuse xenophobic and racist attitudes or the value of cultural connection, it does put into question the idea that emasculation can be remedied by these means. If we take Lee's ideas to their natural conclusion we should realize that culture - whether it be inclusive or not - reflects a fundamental tension between that which is instinctual and natural on the one hand and the need to define, describe and ultimately limit those instincts. That may sound like a dubious notion, yet as Asian men in America it's impossible to deny that we live in a culture that seeks to separate us from our masculinity, that is, whatever the things that might be instinctual and natural to us as men.

The kicker is that this is one of the purposes of any culture (including our cultures of origin) - to reign in those things that are natural and instinctual in order to render them relatively harmless and to shape them into something that doesn't threaten the social order. Having media stereotypes that represent us, as well as a grounding in our cultural roots may serve some purpose, yet we have to realize that ultimately all this means is someone else that we probably don't know - or worse, someone who cannot know us - is defining the limits of our identity.

So what all of this means to me is that discovering a masculine identity must involve a process of peeling away the filters of culture that limit and shape our nature. This might involve developing a philosophical foundation driven by the principle of inquiry and the desire for truth. In this video Lee illustrates the weakness of looking to media stereotypes to inform our characters, and the way that cultures (all cultures) can limit inquiry and stifle self-expression. So in some ways it is the striving to release the flow of self-expression that forms the basis for masculinity. Viewed in this way, the notion of masculinity transcends cultural boundaries and moves beyond the principle that identity and masculinity can, or should, be fundamentally culture specific.

All of this suggests that the assertion of an Asian masculine identity is primarily a counter-cultural endeavour. The seeds and roots of this masculine archetype must be firmly planted in the soil of oppositional thinking to all of the assumptions and expectations that are made and required of us by mainstream America and by our own cultures. Bruce Lee, the philosopher, seems to suggest that it is by moving outside of cultural paradigms that a more profound and fundamental truth about who we are can be attained.


  1. Bruce is definitely an interesting figure. My pack, which I've known since we were 13, consist of guys of various Asian heritage - Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malaysia and Flippino - all grew up idolizing Bruce.

    It's interesting that despite Bruce being a Fob that speaks English with a heavy accent - an image that we wanted to be rid of - we still show him as someone we strife to become. And hence we all studied some form of martial arts at some point in time.

    Bruce was probably more than an idol, but a symbol. As bad as it might sound, it was probably good that Bruce died young. We never saw him become an alcoholic, we never saw him grow old. But regardless I'm glad that we at least have him growing up.

  2. "It's interesting that despite Bruce being a Fob that speaks English with a heavy accent - an image that we wanted to be rid of - we still show him as someone we strife to become."

    That's exactly right. I think that the Bruce Lee personna appeals to what I've termed our "masculine essence" - the qualities of masculinity that transcend cultural barriers. For many of us, he represents our capacity for phsysical strength, discipline, fearlessness, and the ability to make an impact on our environment.