Being an itemized portrait of a Danny Rand That Might Have Been

The following post is inspired in equal parts by (1) recent debates regarding Netflix’s upcoming Iron Fist property, (2) Daniel Henney’s 2012 film, Shanghai Calling – a simultaneously comedic and poignant fish-out-of-water tale about a westernized young Asian-American man in Asia – and perhaps most importantly, (3) a long, thoughtful chat thread conversation with the badass journalist in my life, Mallory Yu (who has an excellent Twitter thread on the subject you can read here). The following is not a commentary on the Iron Fist that is, or will, or must be. But it is, if you’ll permit me, a portrait of an Iron Fist that could have been.

 

  • Danny never spoke Chinese at home. “Mandarin might be useful for business some day, I suppose,” his mother used to say, offhand, in the perfectly-inflected English of New York’s upper crust. Even after she’s dead, Danny remembers her leaning toward a gilt-framed mirror and applying expensive makeup that draws her dark eyes wider, her pursed mouth fuller. “I just don’t see why you’d bother, dear. English is the international money-maker these days. Everybody knows that. Think how lucky we are, to be in America.”

  • They are. Lucky, that is. Danny was born lucky.

  • There are other Asian kids at school – not many, but some – children of big money corporations from Seoul or Tokyo or Hong Kong, who cluster together and speak languages Danny can’t understand. A handful of others, American-born like Danny, but poorer than the Rands, rubbing together the pennies of hard-driving parents’ paychecks to afford prep school tuition. They pack strange-smelling lunches into paper bags, instead of buying the meal plan, and wear the invisible bootstraps they’ve pulled like chips upon their shoulders.

  • Danny always feels like they’re staring at him. He walks past those kids, hurried and inexplicably irritable, refusing to make eye contact, itchy under the skin for reasons his American-made tongue can’t articulate.

  • “Jeez, Rand,” says a girl at school, tossing platinum hair over one shoulder and wrinkling up her perfect, narrow nose at the scent of hoisin sauce from brown bags. “What’s with that General Tso’s contingent over there, huh?” She laughs, like it’s funny, so Danny laughs too, even though it makes his chest hurt a little, because what else do you do? Her boyfriend, popping his collar, says in a low, conspiratorial whisper, “Honestly, I don’t even know if the international students speak English. You ever try them, Danny? You know.” He waggles his brows. “Asian to Asian. Mano a mano. Speaking in tongues we whiteys can’t.”

  • He means it like a joke, they both do, which is why Danny tells himself it’s okay when he laughs too and says, “Shit, no. Like I’d understand that gobble-de-gook.” The boyfriend – Chad or Mike or something – grins wider, claps a beefy arm around Danny’s shoulders, and says, “dude, you’re such a twinkie, yellow on the outside, but all white on the inside, am I right?” Which is like another joke, wrapped in a backhanded compliment, which means it’s okay. It’s all okay.

  • K’un-Lun, when it happens, is traumatizing for a lot of reasons. There’s the dead parent thing, and there’s the crazy magical martial arts thing, but there’s also the thing where everyone expects Danny to speak Chinese. After the world’s most socially awkward and terrifying game of Cross-Cultural Communication Charades, the best Danny can come up with – to his eternal mortification – is still, “Man, I don’t know, okay? I’m from America! English is the international money-maker,” which gets him exactly about as far as you’d expect.

  • “Oh my god,” says Colleen, much later, back in New York, when Danny relays the story to her, hoping to score pity points (and maybe more, to be honest, because the way her tank top clings to her sports bra is really goddamn distracting, okay). She punches him on the shoulder, and laughs. “You’re such a dick, you know that?” At least now, Danny possesses the self-awareness to groan, fingers covering his eyes, and say, “I know, Colleen, god, I told you this story in a moment of vulnerability, and here you are, laughing! Just rub it in, why don’t you?”

  • Incidentally, Colleen’s been bilingual practically since she could talk, since before she could throw a punch, even, which is basically forever. Her dad owns a traditional wushu school just outside Chinatown (“no, Danny, wushu, not kung fu, that’s what westerners call it”), and her mom cooks for the best dim sum joint this side of the city. They came to America without college diplomas, nothing but the clothes on their backs and the classic immigrant story on their tongues, and taught themselves halting English through American soap operas on grainy television sets.

  • The first time Colleen meets Danny, she takes in the subtle, expensive scent of his cologne, the product weighing down his jet-black hair, his white-toothed smirk and the sharply-tailored lines of his Armani suit. Her first thought is, “Ugh,” her second is, “Great, another xiao huangdi,” number one son, the pampered little emperor born to rich parents who sold out their own culture in exchange for small talk and in-jokes and business cards from wealthy white financiers at Manhattan cocktail parties. Pass.

  • Her third thought, which happens the first time she actually sees him fight is, “Huh.”

  • He asks her, haltingly, one day, to teach him Chinese. His accent is atrocious, but he repeats the tones, “ma ma ma ma,” over and over and over again until he gets it right. When she grins at him, surprised and pleased, his answering smile sets her heart banging around inside her rib cage like an alarm bell.

  • Danny Rand is ridiculous and beautiful, because of course he is, and also the actual worst, decides Colleen Wing, stomping around her kitchen while she fixes dinner. “What kind of mystically touched superhero out of K’un-Lun can’t even speak Chinese right,” she wails in despair at her rice cooker, which completely ignores the question, but at least indulges all her stress eating.

  • Answer: an entitled, trust-fund-touting, Chinese-American finance bro raised on the Upper East Side, who wears too much product in his hair and sports un-ironic designer sunglasses, like some hot-ass douchebag, apparently. Colleen hates everything.

  • “I am the Iron Fist,” says Danny, and with his flashing eyes and hard-won muscle, replete with deadly dancer-smooth grace, you could almost believe him. “I can do this. This is my heritage. This is in my blood. This is – oh my god, shit, shit, my fist is glowing, COLLEEN, WHAT DO I DO.”

  • A lot of shit’s going down in New York right now. There’s a blind man in Hell’s Kitchen who sees more than the sighted, a hard-bitten woman out of a PI start-up who can lift entire cars like they’re nothing, a living legend from Harlem who’s quite literally bullet-proof. And there’s Danny. Together, they look like some island of misfit toys, the super-powered edition of the Breakfast Club. Collectively, they’re the answer to a question that’s not been asked yet, words between blank space and ellipses.

  • A storm’s gathering. Still. Danny murmurs, “ma ma ma ma” in four tones beneath his breath, feeling ridiculous and giddy, strange and ready. Power pulses beneath the skin of this mixed-up American boy: born from generations of K’un-Lun’s blood, but made of Manhattan concrete, the western-suited man with ancient, eastern magic stuck inside his veins. He’s a walking contradiction in terms, something that shouldn’t exist, but does, something lost, and gained again. And if Danny Rand can be all that he is, his very existence defying all odds, all assumptions, all history, then he sure as hell can stand against whatever New York spits up on his doorstep.

  • A storm’s gathering. But maybe he’s got a shot. Maybe they all do.

  • After all, Danny was born lucky.

 

MOVIE RECAP: Diego, let me get the next one, Diego, let me interject some, the way you sweat, the way you flex on the floor makes me want you more.

So, I actually watched Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, that unsung gem of the early 2000s, for the first time a mere month and a half ago. Now, in Diego Luna's oeuvre of sociopolitically and culturally punch-packing films, you don't usually see this one mentioned. I say this is clearly a slight against the excellent subtext at play in this underrated work of art! As such, I have dug up & supplied my own personal live-blog of this movie in the following blog post, partly to provide evidence for the film's obvious underrated political and artistic merit, and partly so that should you choose to watch it, you can skip all the actual plot and just watch the parts where Diego Luna dances. Without further ado:

When you're ten minutes into Dirty Dancing & chill, and Diego Luna's like, "babe, I've got some feelings about American economic imperialism I want to share with you." Actual things that happen in this film (spoilers below)!

1. Scene: a street in Havana, where Romola Garai observes firsthand that Diego Luna's hips do not lie. He flirts briefly & helps her escape safely home during a government crackdown on some local revolutionaries, which is how all meet-cutes should go, really.

Romola Garai's Mom, Stacy from House: !!!!! WHAT IF YOU HAD BEEN KIDNAPPED BY REBELS.
Romola Garai: It's not the REBELS you should worry about, MOM.

2. Scene: a romantic afternoon at the beach, where someone sings softly in Spanish, as Diego Luna and Romola Garai stare lovingly into each other's eyes while the sun goes down.

Diego Luna: You must understand that Afro-Cuban dance was the dance of slaves. It was the only way to experience freedom.
Romola Garai: ... Um.
Diego Luna: *turns broodingly toward the sunset* Batista has spies everywhere. A traitor could be anyone, but my father was just a free thinker. Someone didn't like his thoughts.

[Someone strums a guitar, as the young would-be lovers continue to make cow eyes]

Diego Luna: THERE'S A REVOLUTION OUT THERE, AND WHAT AM I DOING??
Romola Garai: *sighs*
Me: *eats popcorn* Screw Baby and her corner, this is the best Dirty Dancing movie of all time.

3. Not actually a specific scene, but a summary of the next fifty minutes of the movie in a nutshell:

Romola Garai: Diego, do you know how it feels to be struck to the bone in a moment of breathless delight, and how your world may be changed in just one burst of light?
Diego Luna: WHO CARES ABOUT YOUR LONELY SOUL, WE STRIVE TOWARD A LARGER GOAL, OUR LITTLE LIVES DON'T COUNT AT ALL. But sure, I'll teach you a thing or two about eros while we got a sec.

4. Major spoiler: the big climactic dance contest at the fancy hotel is literally interrupted by the deposition of Fulgencio Batista at the hands of Che Guevara's rebel forces, gunshots, and someone yelling "VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN" as crowds flee. Romala Garai & Diego Luna are tragically separated by the shadow of the Cuban embargo, and also Fidel Castro's promise to kick all the American companies out of Havana.

Romola Garai: We lost the dance contest, but at least we got to bang during the fall of an authoritarian dictatorship.
Diego Luna: This is extremely true, though Fidel Castro's rule might come with its own shit, just saying. Also, he hates America. 
Romola Garai: Then come away to America with ME.
Diego Luna: Nah, gotta see the greater sociopolitical good of the homeland through. 
Romola Garai: BUT I LOVE YOU & YOUR UN-LYING HIPS.
Diego Luna: I love you & your truthful hips too, but I love patria more. Brb, babe, gotta hook up with Jyn Erso and steal the Death Star plans, you know how it is. Rebellions are built on hope, etc. etc.
Romola Garai: At least we'll always have revolution & eros.
Diego Luna: Which is the best kind of eros, lbr.

In short, this film bills itself as a romantic dance movie, but is clearly just the untold story of Cassian Andor's youth, and also the tragedy of how Romola Garai's failure to apply for citizenship in Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Canada forever cockblocked her from further revolutionary banging with Diego Luna, which is really the greatest object lesson of this story. All in all, A+++++ work of art, 10/10 would recommend.

A wordy welcome, bad novels I’ve written, musings on all of the above, & then some.

MY WEBSITE LIVES. Whew, all right, yay, good job at completing this writerly adult task, high fives all around! If you’re reading this, likelihood is high that you’re here because I pestered you into clicking your way over, or because our mutual friends did, or because you Googled something bizarre. In all cases – though in the latter, I’m sorry about your Googling misadventures, and hope you do eventually find your way over to the black hole of TV Tropes, or the obscure Wikipedia page you were pretending to read for work – welcome! By hook or by crook, you’ve stumbled upon what will, for the foreseeable future, serve as a dumping ground for my published short fiction, as well as other storytelling projects, such as collaborative comics, a potential podcast musical/radio play or two, and eventually, lord willing, better novels than the ones I wrote in high school and college.

Also, a blog, apparently, as I’m told this is a thing writers do, and enabling busybodies who read my ridiculous Facebook anecdotes inform me that I ought to. Inshallah!

While at the moment this space is mostly populated with short fiction, that’s not always where I was at as a writer. Like most bookworms, I grew up devouring novels, which in turn grew in me a desire to write them. My inner fantasy and science fiction nerd – nestled soul-deep in me since early childhood – inherently craves the long, slow burn and arc-driven, world-building potential of a novel. As a result, I – no doubt fancying myself young, scrappy, and hungry – dedicated my teens and early twenties to penning a bunch of novellas and novels, most of them spectacularly bad. For a short timeline regarding my Resume of Failed Long Form Fiction, I’ve pulled this account from an old Facebook post of mine:

  • AGE 17 – magical realism set in New Orleans, novella, 30,000 words. SO BAD.
  • AGE 19 – magical realism bordering on fantasy set in Shanghai, novella, 45,000 words. ALMOST AS BAD.
  • AGES 21-22 – weirdly politicized space opera, my first legitimately full-length novel, 74,000 words. Less terrible! You can totally tell that I wrote this between writing senior theses about postcolonialism and Chinese wuxia fiction. This one is noteworthy mostly because a few literary agents actually take an interest in the manuscript, including a really cool lady from a fancy New York lit agency that eventually agrees to sign me – albeit for a completely different novel.
  • ALSO AGE 22 (A Productively Insane Year, Apparently) – immigrant narrative thinly disguised as deliberately campy action-adventure spy-fi YA set in Hong Kong, 85,000 words. This one gets frantically drafted in a three-week fugue state near the end of my time on a Fulbright grant in South Korea. This is also, incidentally, the book that Really Cool Agent who liked my space opera actually signs me for, and nets all kinds of fancy exciting meetings in New York once I've returned Stateside! My agents love it! I love it! All my dearest childhood dreams are coming true!

... Alas, the above book goes through a year and a half of revisions, receives some positive feedback from a few editors, but not enough. The book does not sell to publishers. It gets shelved in the archives of my portfolio, the latest and greatest of hard and lengthy learning experiences. What's to be done, except to write something new? Back to my notebook and pen I go.

  • AGES 24-25 – half-assed cyberpunk mystery/thriller YA, 57,000 words. I'm fresh out of a graduate program at Oxford and returned to the States, learning to balance a Grown-Up Big City Job with Doing Art Stuff for the first time, and unsurprisingly, spectacularly bad at it. This is the book I wrote after hating literally every word I put to paper for two whole years, and I grimly, stubbornly hate-write it for a solid 4-6 months, mostly to prove I'm still capable of producing creative work at all. Still, I hate it SO MUCH, oh my god?? I can tell it's bad even as I'm writing it, but I grit my teeth and finish the damn thing. My agent is remarkably kind about the flaming disaster of a garbage-plot, all things considered, but we both know this book should probably never actually see the light of day, lest we bring eternal dishonor upon ourselves.
  • AGES 25-26 – noir-style murder mystery meets postcolonial fantasy setting, 68,000 words. I write this one over the long, hot summer of 2016 in DC, during a transition between day jobs, and while it’s ultimately destined to be another trunk novel, it’s the first thing I write in a while that sparks the actual joy of storytelling inside me again. For that, I’ll always be grateful to this particular entry in an inevitably, ever-growing Resume of Failed Long Form Fiction.

Speaking of my Resume of Failing At Stuff (But Arguably Productively!), my commentary on the heels of last summer’s trunk novel – and I’ll stand by this now – was this:

Talking about what constitutes success is hard, and probably especially hard in the arts. I've been modestly lucky as a writer, I think – I've signed with real literary agents! Once in a blue moon, a small press magazine might buy a short story from me! Sometimes, my composer friends willingly set music to my lyrics and libretto! And that's not even getting into how lucky I am to currently be in a day job where I'm paid generally to think creatively about the world around me, and paid more specifically to write loads and loads of words about it. I double-majored in English literature and East Asian studies back in undergrad because I was a writer-person who got bitten early on by the international affairs bug, and stubbornly believed I could make that work for my professional life – and I'd cautiously say that by some measure, I have.

That said, I've also demonstrably fallen on my face a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot. Dear god, so much face falling! My creative writing resume here in my mid-twenties, if we can call it that, is definitely as much a Resume of Fails (if not more so!) as one of success. I have had lengthy creative dry spells while freaking out over other stressors in my life (wading through the odd international fraud investigation for my day job, going on bad dates, forgetting to call my parents, to name a few eclectic examples). I have also produced metric fucktons of Really Bad Writing in desperate attempts to compensate. I have yet to actually debut a single novel I've written on the professional market. And like, given the above saga of face falling, I'm hardly a respectable authority on the matter, but still, I'd hazard to propose: having a Resume of (Art) Fails is not necessarily a bad or shameful thing.

While I think novels will probably always be my first creative love, one side-effect of falling on my face so many times with them is that a cocktail of boredom & creative frustration prompted me to start stretching my artistic muscles in new directions. This meant – in part – giving short form tale-spinning a go! Writing short stories, when they seize you just so, are bite-sized little pockets of fun. What began as absent-minded scribblings in the margins of my notebooks – somewhat shamefully destined for a sub-folder in my writing portfolio titled “Stuff I Wrote While Pretending to Take Notes During Completely Pointless Meetings” – started producing worlds and characters and narratives in their own right. And yes, at least a couple of the stories eventually purchased by small magazine editors began life in a notebook margin, during one of those endless, endless meetings. Mea culpa. What a funny, fateful place our world can be.

I grew up finding stories in the strangest places. And cross my heart, I hope I never stop.