Reflecting on Avatar: The Last Airbender as an Asian American
No, not the one about the blue aliens.
Among the narrative scope, a Ghibli-inspired epic adventure, humor, lovable cast, choreographed action scenes, and narrative risks, something else piqued my interest in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, something that plucked at the nostalgic strings of growing up as a Vietnamese American, or more broadly, a causally-Buddhist Asian American. By the time I caught the show on Netflix in 2011 (yes, my viewing experience was criminally overdue), I had outgrown much of my attention to my Buddhist heritage and no longer lit the incense every night before a Buddha portrait.
Three episodes in, the show renewed my Buddhist spirituality, and not in a way that I took up the incense again, but in a way that offered an appreciative lens on my childhood.
While the show excluded visible Vietnamese influence and accentuated heavy aesthetic shades of Chinese, Indian, Inuit, and Tibetan cultures, I caught threads of my Buddhist-laden childhood, which stemmed from my parents’ Vietnamese background. In the origin story, young Aang was selected among hundreds of infants through a test of toys to affirm him as the true reincarnation of the international messiah-mediator, the Avatar. The allusion to Tibetan Buddhism on a children’s programming perked me up. My late father had educated me on the concept of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. As my father told me, when the Dalai Lama passes away, he is re-born into a new person, and much like the Avatar, the new Dalai Lama is “found” by the toys he plays with.
In the hollow temples Aang and friends explore for answers, I think of the temple I visit every Vietnamese New Year to see the dancing dragons and the monks. When I hear the Chinese violin, the erhu, in Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn’s scoring, I think of the VHS of Asian concerts my grandparents played while babysitting me.
A few days ago, my visiting Vietnamese American aunt asked me, “Do they have that show on Netflix? I want my two kids to watch. The show you told me about, the one about the monk child and Asian philosophy?” As a woman who dreamed of opening her own acupuncture office, my aunt studied Eastern practices, charkas, and meditative balance, motifs in Aang’s story arc. So I had recommended the show to her and her children because it would align with her desire to see Asian culture, her hobby, and traces of her heritage on the screen with her mixed-Vietnamese children. (Alas, Netflix booted it out of its streaming.)
Of course, the show’s synthesis of various Asian and indigenous cultures is not every Asian American viewer’s cup of tea. Nothing has the pitch perfect illustration of existing cultures. There are viewers who perceive the show as more cultural oriental appropriation than adept world building with cultural application.
But for my own heart, it offered enlightenment in the Buddhist heritage I couldn’t find in the temple.
Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When she’s not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she’s doing cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, engaged in Star Wars fanfictions, or hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. Her columns and poems have popped up on The Cougar, Mosaics: The Independent Women Anthology, Glass Mountain. Her flash fiction recently earned an Honorable Mention title in Sweater Weather magazine. She has her own Weebly portfolio and contributes thinkpieces to Birth.Movies.Death. She’s also lurking in the shadows waiting for you to follow her on Twitter.
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