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.