Even while watching only a few minutes of what is surely one of the worst movies ever made, The Next Karate Kid, I can detect a glimmer, a gleam, a smidgen, a barely concealed taste of what brought me and keeps me in the Orient. Or thereabouts.
(And yet, who am I to declare that it is a terrible film? Who am I to judge what does and does not bring comfort to the afflicted? Banal and simplistic it is, but so is life, and perhaps a young girl watched this film on the last night of her grandmother's life, the two of them seated by side, the child slightly annoyed by her Grandma's labored, restless breathing. The next morning, with the grandmother dead, that is all the child could remember -- her breathing, and the film, that silly film. It is what she will remember for the rest of her days, whenever she scans its title in the video shop shelves, and it will remind her of the cruelty of children, and also of the goodness of children, how the mere comfort of their presence can ease our final days.)
The fourth installment of the series features Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita as the wise old Okinawan sage named Miyagi, and two-time Academy Award Winner Hilary Swank as the young, troubled teenager named Julie. (Are there any other kinds of teenagers in the movies?) The flick is filled with the usual stereotypical karate hokum and eastern mysticism, but I happen to eat that shit up like it's Captain Crunch. (After all, you're talking to the guy who actually thinks that The Karate Kid III is a brilliant capstone to the Daniel-san portion of the series, masterfully showing the young lad's torment as he istempted by the Dark Side, personified by the Cobra-kai dojo's minions, only to be ultimately redeemed by his long-standing friendship, dare I say love, with Mr.Miyagi. Very underrated, this third installment is. Daniel looks into the abyss, and the abyss looks into him, and he emerges triumphant. The film ends with the same tournament that ended the first film; his cycle of growth comes to full and final fruition. It is all that my thirteen-year old self desired. It is enough. Hey, I never said I was sane.)
When you live in Asia, you're confronted by Asia -- the reality and the myths, intertwined. You see what you want to see. And sometimes what you don't want to see forces itself upon you. It is as vile and corrupt and wondrous and comforting as the emotion-filled streets that line the hometown of your youth. It is what you want it to be, Asia is.
For me, Asia has been been, and always will be, mystery. Intrigue. That which has somehow slipped through the cracks of life back home, glimpsed only in the fleeting glances provided by the Chinese restaurant kitchen door as it swings to and fro. Why are people drawn to the incense and the rituals, the martial arts and the philosophical Buddhist malarkey inherent to the region that are otherwise unrelated but grouped together under the nonsensical heading 'Asia'?
Because in western, secular life there is little need or regard for those questions that we cannot answer, or shudder to answer. In western, religious culture the answers are laid out before us in grim, humorless tablets of stone that are filled with tales that read as if they were the bland, ghostwritten memories of a celestial C.E.O.
But Asia. Ah, Asia. Asia is filled with fucked-up food and wandering monks and ancient rituals and stifling heat and nonsensical languages. In Asia it is possible to stroll into a community of citizens that have somehow amalgamated the musings of Confucious, Buddha and freakin' Victor Hugo into one spiritual stew of contemplation. (As happened to me in Vietnam in June, at the Cao-dai temples.) In Asia the traveller is reminded, should he delve deeper, that life is ancient and simple and messy and clean.
It is an illusion, of course; there is nothing exotic about Japan for the Japanese, and nothing mystical about Cambodia to the Cambodians. (At least, not the way that I would define it.) But we choose our illusions, and, as Guns 'N' Roses knew so long ago, we use our illusions, too. As the comic once said: "It's not that life is short -- it's that death is so damn long." Knowing that, believing that, some find the illusions of Asia more palatable, more three dimensional, than the cold and familiar tomes and tones of home.
Give me Mr.Miyagi trying to catch that buzzing fly between his chopsticks, if only for a little while longer. Give me blood-red sunsets on oversized picture books. Give me the chanting monks and the cadence of confusion that exists, for me, at the heart of Asia, at least for one more day. Give me the throb of life, real or imagined, that beats beneath the surface of this land, and others like it. The illusion will end, sooner, perhaps later, but for now, let the facade do its magic dance one more time, and I will try with all my heart to keep up with its erratic and desperate beat.