This is the fourth and last essay in The Angsty Buddhist, a series about being Chinese American, nonbinary, and finding my own relationship with Buddhism, in a country where so many of its ideas have been whitewashed.
I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender because everyone I knew seemed to be binging it to soothe their pandemic-related anxieties. By the first episode, I was hooked. Instead of wallowing in my own thoughts, I got caught up in the story of Aang traveling through the four nations so that he could master the elements in time to defeat the evil Fire Nation. I loved Appa, Aang’s sky bison, who reminded me of a giant flying mop dog. When people asked how my day was going, I sent them screenshots of Appa eating hay.
I knew that the show’s creators and most of the voice actors were white, but I didn’t think about it much. I’d read a couple articles online about how the show drew from Inuit and Asian cultures in a respectful way. I really can’t speak on the way any other culture was represented, but I couldn’t find anything egregious about the ways Chinese culture was used (also I’m fourth-generation U.S.-born, so what do I know?). Some of the accents certain characters had, like the tour guides in Ba Sing Se, bugged me — If they’re speaking their native language, then why would they have accents like that? — but no one was running around bucktoothed making “ching chong” noises. I can’t have standards that are too high, right?
I read in one essay that the show’s creators had been getting into yoga and wanted to do something “Asian influenced.” This was followed quickly with assurances that they had carefully researched the cultures they had based the show on and had approached them with a great deal of respect. I know that was supposed to put me at ease, but I couldn’t help but think of the white boys I’d met while studying abroad in Beijing, how they were meticulous in their language study, knew a lot about Chinese history, and still didn’t have any sense of the privilege their whiteness and U.S. passports gave them. Knowing that being into yoga had partially inspired the show made me rethink the way Aang was portrayed as a nonviolent, vegetarian monk and the tropes about Asian spiritualities these choices played into. What kind of fantasies about finding enlightenment in the East went into imagining Aang’s character, whether or not these fantasies were conscious or not?
Still, I enjoyed the show. It was fun, and I liked the fact that it was Asian-ish. Even though there wasn’t much culturally in Avatar that I related to — the parts of the Avatar world based on imperial China was, for obvious reasons, nothing like the hipster neighborhood in LA where I grew up — there was something empowering about characters who looked sort of like me being heroes who save the world. Besides anime, where many of the characters look white, I almost never encountered TV shows with Asian heroes as a kid.
There was something empowering about characters who looked sort of like me being heroes who save the world.
“Should I watch it?” my friend Shubo asked over video chat. “A lot of people I know grew up watching it. It’s like an Asian American cultural touchpoint, right?”
Shubo was one of my first close Chinese American friends and someone from whom I’ve learned so much about what it means to defy assimilation. We met our freshman year of college and bonded over cooking lap cheong in the rice cooker my mom had gifted me when I left for school. Unlike me, Shubo grew up around lots of white people, the rich conservative kind, and I’ve always admired how she insists on being Chinese. For her, eating Chinese food and listening to Chinese music were not just about hanging onto culture in the liberal, diversity-training sense but were more a refusal to give herself up..
Talking to Shubo about Avatar, I suddenly felt self-conscious. “Oh yeah it’s really fun,” I said. “Except, like, it was written by two white men.”
“What? I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, two white men. Sometimes, they name things in Mandarin and it’s kind of hilarious. Like…” As I spoke, it dawned on me how much these parts of the show had bothered me. “Like there are these two fish who are spirits and they’re named ‘push’ and ‘pull,’ ‘twee’ and ‘la’.”
“Like, y’know, ‘tuī’ and ‘lā’.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Also, they swim around in a yin and yang shape.”
“Yeah, actually maybe you won’t really like this show?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Part of me wishes I were more like Shubo, firm and insistent in who I am, but I’m still an Avatar fan. My partner and I recently discussed buying an expensive Appa-shaped rug on Etsy for our new apartment. Like many other people who don’t see themselves reflected in mainstream narratives, I am good at picking out the pieces that seem like they kind-of-maybe fit and making it work.
I’m sure someone who is better at describing the difference between “appreciation” and “appropriation” could beat me in an argument about whether or not Avatar is “respectful,” which is code for whether or not it is racist. I don’t think this matters much. I think the show is racist, and also I like it. That doesn’t make the racism okay, but that’s where we are.
I think it’s more interesting that Avatar was such an important show to lots of Asian Americans growing up. I use the term “Asian American” cautiously and only when there isn’t a more specific term to use. Most of the friends who I’ve talked to about Avatar are East Asian but not all. This might have more to do with who I am friends with than anything else. These friends all mentioned liking the fact that the show seemed Asian, that there was something empowering about watching a show that elevated cultures they’d been told were inferior to white ones. There wasn’t much else that provided the same sense of recognition. I still don’t think there’s much now, besides things like Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat, which I mostly feel embarrassed to be associated with. It makes sense that Avatar felt special.
I also wonder how it affected the Asian American people who grew up watching Avatar to feel so connected to a white fantasy, well-researched though it might be. If stories are both reflections of and guideposts for our lives, then what does it mean for these stories to have been created by white men? Maybe the important question isn’t whether or not the creators of Avatar were “respectful” but why two white men were allowed to create and profit off of an “Asian-influenced” show in the first place? Especially when that would have been impossible for an Asian or Asian American person to do at the time, probably even now. What stories have we lost because they couldn’t find a platform? I think that’s the most fucked up part.
Maybe the important question isn’t whether or not the creators of Avatar were “respectful” but why two white men were allowed to create and profit off of an “Asian-influenced” show in the first place?
I think Asian American stories are difficult to narrate because our histories have been erased and the stories we’ve been given to understand ourselves are inadequate. When COVID gave rise to increased xenophobia against people perceived as East Asian, there were bizarre articles in the white liberal media that talked about racism being a new experience for Asian Americans. There were also calls for solidarity from some East Asian people that failed to acknowledge the ways we have failed to be in solidarity with other communities. In the second example, most of this is about people owning up to their privileges, but I think that for some, this would be easier if they had more access to our histories.
We also don’t have enough stories that allow us to understand the smaller, lighter parts of our lives. Like the time in high school my friend and I went to a Thai restaurant. The waiter warned her that the noodle dish she wanted was spicy, and my friend laughed. “I can handle spicy. I’m Korean.” She pointed at me. “They might not be able to, though. They’re Chinese.” The food ended up being way too hot for my friend, and she spent the entire meal fanning her mouth and drinking water. I was fine because I didn’t order anything spicy.
I want more stories like this — the kind where race and culture are not just about trauma but about the in-jokes that exist within and between different Asian American communities. These are the kinds of stories that cannot be learned from academic research, and even if they could, it would be offensive if anyone else tried to tell them.
The best stories, even ones for children, reflect the world that we live in and provide lessons for how to live our lives. What if instead of watching Avatar, there had been not just one show but many shows created by people with a variety of “Asian American” experiences? How would that have allowed us to articulate our own stories, both the larger political narratives and the funny moments? Could this have been a small part of how we imagined a different future?
In college, I wrote short stories about lesbian preteens growing up in the Japanese American Buddhist Church. I was starting to figure out that I wasn’t exactly straight and writing these stories were part of how I processed this. When I think about these stories, though, I’m struck by the fact that they were nothing like my life. The girls in these stories were beginning to recognize their attraction to other girls, usually in some sort of suburban middle school locker room setting. The narrator always had an illicit relationship with another girl in the Buddhist Church that she had to hide from the community. When I workshopped these stories, my mostly white classmates highlighted things like the descriptions of altars or the time we made mandalas at summer camp. This is fascinating, they said. I want more details.
I realize now that I was recreating narratives of queerness, Asian American-ness, and Buddhism that I had absorbed from mainstream culture. I don’t identify as a lesbian, mostly because I’m not a woman and fall somewhere along the lines of bi/pan/fluid/generally queer. But back then, I didn’t know what nonbinary meant and everything I heard about queerness involved realizing that you were attracted to the “same sex” at a young age, so that’s what I wrote. I’d also heard that coming out was hard and that Asian communities are more homophobic than white ones, so I wrote that into my stories, too. I remember feeling guilty about this because I knew I was lucky that the community I’d grown up in wasn’t really homophobic, more like the cishet equivalent of white liberals. I wasn’t sure how to write about that, though. I wasn’t even sure if it was a legitimate story to tell at all.
I knew I was lucky that the community I’d grown up in wasn’t really homophobic, more like the cishet equivalent of white liberals. I wasn’t sure how to write about that, though. I wasn’t even sure if it was a legitimate story to tell at all.
This essay series is about Buddhism, but mostly, it’s been my attempt to tell parts of my own story that I haven’t known how to explain, the parts of myself that are obscured by stereotype, erasure, and fantasy. I think that this is an important thing for all of us to do, so that white men who are into yoga don’t get the final say in imagining our realities.
I still like Avatar and will occasionally put on an episode when I’m stressed. When the show came out, it was one of the few representations of something vaguely Asian on TV, which is ridiculous, but I think that’s still important. This isn’t because I think we owe anything to the show’s creators. To me, they’re like other white people who profit off of BIPOC cultures without regard for the actual people these cultures come from. But I think Avatar is important because for all of show’s problems, it allows people usually excluded from our narratives to see themselves as heroes and protagonists. What I’m interested in is not Avatar itself but what we do with the sense of agency it gives, how it allows us to critique the structures that exist and envision our own worlds.
In the end, I’m more excited about the stories Asian American people tell about ourselves: the books and poems and histories that are buried but still there if you look, the artists that are creating work today, the conversations with friends about dating apps and the food we ate as kids — funny and sad and angry and joyful stories that all contradict each other as they unfold.