Learning To See The Shang-Chi In Me

Actor Simu Liu as Marvel superhero Shang Chi in a still from the upcoming film by the same name.

By Guest Contributor: Nam Le

This post was originally published on Patreon as Snapshots, from the life of a person counting down the hours til Shang Chi, the first Asian American Marvel movie.


Six. 

Our television is on again. 

This time, it is not Wheel of Fortune or Paris By Night, the programs that were on so often at home that they were nearly burned into our boxy CRT screen — back when TVs could still suffer from such a thing.  

This time, it is a rental – another Chinese-language, Vietnamese-dubbed series my parents have slipped into the VCR, and in which the protagonists are soaring effortlessly through the air, fighting valiantly for one thing or another. My mother tongue isn’t quite far along enough to understand everything going on in these series. But I understand the gist, certainly — there are good guys, and there are bad guys. 

I am enthralled. 

I try this at home. 

I kick at some imagined villains rushing in at me. I flip backwards, taking the fall onto some pillows. I kick again, catching a lunging henchman where it hurts. Pappapa. Punches whipped into the shadows. Uppercut. Left. Left. Appapa. 

And I flip, all the way off of my mom’s mattress and into the edge of a dresser. 

Ba rushes home from his shift at Thái Bình Dương to drive us to the hospital.   

The stitches – one for each year I have been alive – close the wound without too much trouble. The remaining scar looks like half my eyebrow simply disappeared, a sharp slash of tan where there shouldn’t be. I have learned to forget the sight of that now, most mornings.  

It is the rest of that afternoon I can never not see: the deepest impulse to be something extraordinary.   


Sixteen.

In this one, I — now fully grown at 5’5” — am in my high school computer lab each morning as a junior, frantically mashing the keys to a pirated version of Marvel vs Capcom we aren’t technically supposed to be able to play on the desktops. (Our workaround to do so anyway: importing it on flash drives that allow us to quit stealthily out of the illicit activity whenever teachers come by. The ingenuity of nerdy teenagers cannot be underestimated.)

The full menu of media is available because of these shenanigans – crossovers from universes that weren’t intended to happen, we spend our hours dreaming and tweaking, until Wolverine can fight against Darth Vader and Peter Griffin. Magneto meets Strider Hiryu and Chun Li. 

Sooner or later, though, I inevitably return to using the Hulk, because of the built-in excuse to yell and pound the desk violently.  


Twenty. 

When the Marvel movies are announced, I skip the first couple of iterations – I still haven’t seen the first Thor to this day, actually – and am generally lukewarm on the ones I actually do watch (that’s you, Iron Man 2). Countless nerd-culture-to-cinema adaptations have failed before them. Why would these succeed where the X-Men barely could?

It is only when I have begrudgingly joined my friends to go to see The Avengers, that I really understand what all the fuss has been about — that circle up shot of them, all of them, amid a crumbling, desperate New York, with their capes billowing, and muscles flexed.  

There are good guys. They are beating the bad guys. 


Twenty-Seven.

While exceedingly unnecessary, I take two days off of work before Avengers: Endgame comes out — the second just to make sure I don’t encounter any spoilers from people on the internet who watched it in China first.


Twenty-Seven. 

The Portals scene, in which everyone arrives and the day is saved, causes me to sob uncontrollably, joyfully, relieved. 

Like I am still six.

I am still six.


Twenty-Seven. 

When Cap assembles the universe’s greatest defenders, I am long past old enough to recognize that Wong is the only Asian on screen. But it strikes me again, there amid the tears, that the only one who I could be — too small to be Bruce Banner, too Other to be anyone else — is the sidekick, if I could be anyone at all.


Nineteen. 

There is a hat on my head most days of college – partly for style, mostly for convenience. 

Without any superpowers yet to actually manifest within me, the hat bestows something similar: I have discovered that I can sleep underneath it largely undetected during lecture. And as a bonus — it also gives my professors an easy reference point they can remember me with at office hours visits.

Most often, this means they remember me as the kid wearing the Superman logo, which I find preferable to not being remembered at all, right now. Despite the impending Marvel-centric future ahead of me, and especially despite how starkly boring he is, I remain fond of Clark Kent.

This, I explain frequently, sheepishly, because what would take far longer is to tell how Superman reminds me of my dad. It is in my Asian American studies courses, where I learn how to explain why: Ba, who has now left that noodle shop far behind, who will later drive four hundred miles to help me mount my tv, who can cross countries in a single bound, fix any tech issue faster than Google, assemble IKEA furniture with his eyes closed. 

Ba, who creates homes out of thin air, then paid off ours in America. 

Ba, whose suit will never fit on me. 


Twenty-Seven. (Again.)

Shang-Chi is announced, officially, at Comic-Con, a few months after Endgame. The first Asian American superhero film is actually on the way, something that seemed unfathomable to me even in every one of the 14 million, 600 thousand and five futures Dr. Strange imagined. 

All of that unbridled joy stains a bit once it meets open air – the reality of Marvel expecting to duplicate their success with Black Panther all over again. There is no larger humanizing project at work here from Kevin Feige. Only the continued profiting off people of color hungering desperately to be seen.

And I know already, how lucky I am; how I have the luxury of being ignored, instead of reduced to a sex object, or worse. Writing about Crazy Rich Asians has already prepared me for this:

“This, is to be an Asian American person who loves pop culture: to wring humanity from objectively terrible art, and drink it in like mana all the same; to keep a living Rolodex of every role played by an Asian American — the ones that are not taken by white actors, anyway — seek them out, and support them, no matter how minor the appearance; to be able to recite the contents of that Rolodex on your two hands; to know by heart the things they’ll allow you to be: white person’s love interest, tech support, ethnic danger to the main character; to swallow, unquestioningly the reality of cross-ethnic casting, so that anyone can play anyone else, since there are too few spots to go around in the first place; to bargain with yourself that a Korean man playing a Chinese person is more tolerable than to have none to speak of; to remember that there are deep-seated biases toward East Asian narratives that keep the other half of the continent out of view; to watch as your favorite shows mine your background for laughs, and be expected not to launch a Twitter campaign about it; to be unable to watch anything involving us without intensely wondering what it does for our representation; to use that intense wonder to also reflect on unresolved trauma, finally mirrored for us on screen; to feel guilty about considering representation and visibility for even a second, when it is such a privileged concern to have in the first place.”

I know. I know. I know.   

So I gulp down gratefully what I am given, knowing it never had to be given in the first place. 


Twenty-Nine. 

When the Shang-Chi movie trailer drops, there is a moment in between my eighth and ninth viewings, in which, I wonder if the universe hasn’t simply decided to align itself for me – by releasing a Marvel film set in the city where I grew up, having its characters drive right by my old high school, premiering on the fourth anniversary of my girlfriend and I dating. 

This is, almost certainly, just coincidence. (Although, for the record, I would not say no to a 200 million dollar project made in my name.)

Still, all origin stories are essentially that — just fortune and circumstance, I realize. What makes them any more than that is how the hero chooses afterward; whether they actually accept the great responsibility of being great at all; whether they love who they are going to be, rather than who they can never be. 

And I find myself ready, now, to fill in the part of me that went missing when I was six — the part of me eagerly crashing heart-first into dressers. 

I was only trying to soar, high and alongside the good guys.    


Nam is really, really bad at writing author bios. He spends his time writing about anything that fascinates him, whenever he’s not learning how to do magic, or suffering at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. You can reach him on any social media platform at @aguynamednam.

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