Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
[SOME SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.]
The past is our guide. Memory is what makes us human. History and culture define a people.
Like millions of people, I saw Black Panther this weekend. Being no expert on either Africa or the African-American experience, I can only comment from my circumscribed perspective. But to my mind the film captures a universal conflict in the migrant experience, the experience of deracination and diaspora.
Indeed, it is the central conflict in the film, which may be viewed as the different ways in which the protagonist T’Challa and his antagonist Killmonger each relates to the past.
T’Challa, heir to the throne of the fictional, proud, and never colonized African country of Wakanda, is intimately familiar with the history and customs of his country. He is quite literally the inheritor of his civilization. Having grown up as a prince in his own kingdom, he may have never experienced racism and is slow to understand it. He knows his own worth, and he needs no external validation for it, happy to let outsiders think that his country is little more than goats when in fact it is highly advanced. When he drinks the essence of the heart-shaped herb, he sees in his visions not only his own father but generations of Wakandan kings on the plains of Africa.
Killmonger, a.k.a. Erik Stevens, is a Wakandan-American who grew up in dislocation and isolation, separated from his family and from the culture of his homeland, buffeted by the prejudices of the outside world. And his entire project centers around taking revenge on that colonizing world that has treated him with such disdain, showing his strength to all those who have looked down on him and others who look like him. When he drinks the essence of the heart-shaped herb, he sees his own childhood with his father in their California apartment, but no further back than that.
In the two-thirds of my life living in countries other than the country of my birth, I have generally encountered two types of Asians: the T’Challas and the Killmongers.
In college, for example, there were the Chinese graduate students who had recently arrived — FOB, as we say, “fresh off the boat.” Their heads were full of the contents of a lifetime of Chinese education with its cultural inculcation as well as indoctrination. They looked upon American culture with mild amusement and substantial incomprehension. When they encountered racism, they were more likely to be confused — why would anyone say that and whatever does it mean? — than to be offended by it.
Also in college, there was, for example, one of my roommates, who was Taiwanese-American. He had moved to the U.S. with his family when he was three years old. The year I roomed with him, for his birthday, his father sent him a birthday card handwritten in Chinese, and he couldn’t read a word of it. He was Asian-American, one of the second- and third-generation folks who are as American as the Daughters of the American Revolution and would balk at any suggestion otherwise. They’re sensitive to racism because they grew up with it, and they know exactly what you mean when you ask, “But where are you really from?”
Of course, the difference between Asian-Americans and African-Americans, generally speaking, is that Asian-Americans can trace their roots whenever they feel like, look up some second cousin in China or Korea, and reconnect with ancestral culture without too much trouble. For the descendants of slaves ripped from their communities, it is a very different story.
And I occupy an unusual and sometimes awkward vantage point. In migration studies, they call people like me the “1.5 generation,” neither first-generation immigrant nor second, neither T’Challa nor Killmonger. We migrate at a sufficiently young age to learn to navigate the outside world with quasi-native fluency, but a sufficiently old age to be highly knowledgeable in the culture of the mother country and to have personal memory of it.
That roommate, when he couldn’t read the birthday card his father wrote, asked me to read it to him.
In my position, I feel both T’Challa’s pride as heir to an ancient culture and Killmonger’s pain of dislocation. I frown upon the Chinese graduate students’ confusion with American mores as much as the Taiwanese-American roommate’s illiteracy in the mother tongue. I belong in both categories, and I belong in neither.
There is a reason, though, that T’Challa is the hero and Killmonger the villain. The trauma of diaspora, as sympathetic as it may be, is not a good position from which to face the world. And remembrance of the past — integration of the past — is essential to confronting the future in a wise and humane way. Indeed, connection with the past is one way to heal the wound of dislocation. Much of this blog is devoted to history precisely for this reason.
Yet I often fret that most of you probably don’t care about those posts focusing on Chinese history. Just as the current American president dismisses Africa as “shithole countries,” so I have often heard Westerners dismiss the culture of my ancestors in similar terms. Ching chong bing bong. Dogs and kimchi (kimchi is Korean).
That is the Killmonger in me speaking. The T’Challa then reminds me that I ought not to care whether other people care. I ought not to do what I do for their approval.
I come from one of the oldest and proudest cultures on earth. And I often think back to the words and deeds of my ancestors for guidance. Hell, maybe, possibly, entirely speculatively, two and half thousand years ago my family might have been royalty. I don’t need this to be literally true for me to know that I am my own T’Challa. I am my own prince, heir to the richest of legacy.
On the other hand, why even write about these subjects if I ought not to care whether you know about them or not?
By the end of the film, T’Challa has decided that Killmonger made a good point, and that Wakanda must end its traditional isolationism and share with the world its unique culture and resources. I’d like to think that that’s what I am doing — sharing with the world.
But is it what I am doing? Trauma shapes us whether we like it or not. And Killmonger’s angry voice inevitably beckons.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."