I am not white.
I grew up in a predominantly white community in San Francisco’s East Bay. If you’re familiar with the East Bay, you know how many places that applies to. Even in lieu of the handful of other people in school who shared my ethnicity, their interests diverged from my own, and so I didn’t feel like I was one of them. For all intents and purposes, I was alone. Or, to put it optimistically, I was one-of-a-kind. I grew up all at once proud of my differences and hating them.
I watched people on my screens who didn’t look like me go on adventures, fall in love, and be participants in stories I wished I could be a part of but never felt like I truly ever could. My escapism and my fantasy meant escaping my heritage. When you grow up, that feeling doesn’t go away. If anything, it gets worse because you finally have the wherewithal to realize and acknowledge it. Even living in Los Angeles, I have to actively seek out people who have the same frame of reference I do with regards to my culture. People have a few different reactions to you when you have a visibly apparent ethnicity, but my personal favorite, they ask, “What are you,” and assume you speak the language of a far away country just because of the color of your skin.
I am not white. I am Filipino. I am different.
Now, let’s talk about Iron Fist.
Danny Rand was a rich white kid whose father took him, his mother, and his father’s best friend on a trip into the Himalayas to try and find the mystical city of K’un-Lun. Danny stumbles onto the city after losing both his parents on the journey. He was taken in by the monks of this city, and lived there for 15 years, where he studied and mastered Kung Fu. The city has a tradition where the strongest of their warriors is allowed to challenge Shou-Lao the Undying; a dragon who, if bested, bestows its power to the one who defeats it. That person then becomes the champion of K’un-Lun, the “Iron Fist.” However, this is a life or death trial, and those who fail this Herculean task forfeit their life. Danny wins the right to challenge Shou-Lao, and ultimately succeeds in defeating the dragon, earning the power and title of “Iron Fist.” Danny then returns to New York after 15 years to find his father’s best friend, the man responsible for his father’s death, thus stepping into what has become for him an alien world.
Now, why should you care about Iron Fist? Or in other words, why is Iron Fist cool?
I discovered Iron Fist in the late 2000s, during the Brubaker-Fraction-Aja run. The way they conceived his character was everything I ever wanted in a comic; a character who thought in serious, poetic, almost dark terms, but balanced it with wittiness and glib that was fun to read. After backtracking through the character’s publication history to his earlier days, I found that back then he still had that poetic, sage-like narration akin to a wise master, which I loved, but instead of the wisecracking he’s been written with in more modern times, he spoke with a wisdom and gravity not found in many characters, such that you wanted to listen because you might find a kernel of truth in there somewhere.
And it makes perfect sense that this is how his character behaves. Danny spent his formative years in the rigors of a highly disciplined way of life, where he was probably bombarded with such wisdoms every moment of every day. As someone who finds Eastern culture fascinating, Iron Fist scratched an itch in a genre and format that I was already tuned into. Aside from the wisdom, he uses actual parts of Eastern culture as the basis for his powers. When he channels the chi of Shou-Lao into his fist, his fist becomes harder than iron. Chi is a huge part of medicine and martial arts in the East, and along with his other ability being a mastery of Kung Fu, the fact that Iron Fist’s powers have a basis in a real culture was huge for me because it made the source of his powers seem attainable, not just the stuff of fantasy. It blurred the line between what could be and what is.
But from his origin and his psychology, Iron Fist’s story mirrors my own in a lot of ways. You have someone who spent the first part of his life in a culture that wasn’t his, being the outsider with nothing he can really do about it. He can’t leave because K’un-Lun only appears once every decade or so. But he learns of a way that he could be accepted. By risking his life, he could finally belong, as well as gain the power to avenge his father. It may not seem like much of a motivation to people who haven’t experienced it, but being the odd man out for no other reason than because you were born and look different is a huge burden. There’s nothing you can do about it because that’s just the way things are. It’s not quite the same as acting different or having unique interests, because at the very least, those people can still look like everyone else. If you look different, you have to fight even harder to overcome that particular hurdle before you can even start trying to be accepted. If you’re given a way to alleviate that feeling, it counts for a lot.
What’s more is that Danny returns to a world that forgot about him years ago, and one to which he is entirely unfamiliar with. He spent 15 years, more than half of his life, in a city that is firmly steeped in the practices and technological advances of ancient China, with the addition of having magic and mysticism be normal parts of life. Stepping back into modern New York would be even more jarring for him than the several-decade hop in the same country that Captain America takes. And so, even after leaving K’un-Lun, Danny Rand is still the outsider.
What’s more, Danny has spent the better part of his life learning and internalizing a different set of values and practices than his new home, and must now relearn how the world works. In the simplest of terms, this idea isn’t necessarily born from extraordinary circumstances brought on by fantastical, larger than life events; this is the story of every immigrant. While the world may make sense to you subjectively in black and white terms based on what you grew up learning, every culture has shades of gray that everyone else knows and expects you to grasp right away. Missing these steps only adds to what your head and heart are already telling you: “You don’t belong.” The case is a little more exaggerated in Danny’s case because he inherits a multi-billion dollar corporation from his father. His decisions and whether or not he can grasp and adapt to those shades of gray carry a lot more weight for him than it does for us. It’s his insistence of doing what is right at the cost of just about everything and anything else in the face of those shades of gray that puts him at odds with the world that he has found himself a part of, especially in business.
Iron Fist makes reference to a culture without being a parody of it, and also represents those of us who haven’t really had a voice that the mass culture of the United States can understand. He takes a lot of the concepts we’ve inherently had to deal with our whole lives and turns them around on the ones we’ve been quietly struggling against for years. His isn’t a story of Asian versus white. It’s a story of the insurmountable obstacle of being born different.