Growing up in the 1970s, I used to imagine I was Bruce Lee.
The man loomed large in my consciousness. From a poster on my bedroom wall – held in place with red thumb tacks – Lee would glare at me in a fierce pose from his 1973 film “Enter the Dragon.” It was his last kung-fu masterpiece, released just days after his premature death at 32.
I was 10 at the time and had a limited perspective of who Lee was and what he ultimately would mean to me and millions of others. Though I wouldn’t appreciate it until much later, Lee embodied the immigrant experience in California. He was born in San Francisco, raised in Hong Kong and returned to California to fight battles far more ominous than any movie villain.
Lee had a dream of himself as a movie star and martial-arts expert, a vision that would not be deterred by the daily discrimination that Asians and Asian Americans faced in cities big and small across California.
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During Lee’s lifetime, California was evolving, with Asians, Latinos and other minority groups contributing to the culture and politics of a state that was resistant to change. But that evolution was slow coming.
I remember that time vividly. I remember the epithets endured by my junior high classmates: “Chink!” “Jap!” This was in “progressive” San Jose, the first U.S. city of more than 500,000 people to elect a woman as mayor – in 1974 – but far from immune to the tumult of the day. Racial slurs were common in my hometown as California and America at large grappled with the assimilation of communities emerging from the margins.
In his films, Lee fought mobsters, drug dealers and other villains. He struck blows for all of us. I wish I could say I was conscious of Lee’s cultural significance as I flocked to see his films, but shattering barriers was lost on me then. My struggle was more personal. I gravitated toward Lee because his characters – usually common but righteous men – sought to be peaceful. But when given no choice, they fought back and defeated their foes.
As a child, I lacked the words and the will to confront the enemies that darkened my life. My parents were immigrants from Mexico, and their accents embarrassed my young sensibilities. When your perspective is from the outside of your community looking in, power of any kind can seem seductive. For these and other reasons, Lee was my guy. I couldn’t fight back when I heard my father talk about how he was treated at the factory where the bosses where white and the workers were Mexican born. I couldn’t fight back when store clerks smirked at my mother and claimed they couldn’t understand her.
But when I watched Lee, I could imagine myself taking down the forces that frightened me. I could pretend it was me obliterating five enemies at a time with kicks delivered in a blur of athleticism that’s been imitated but never duplicated. Lee didn’t just beat his opponents; he toyed with them, turning their strengths into weaknesses. There was always a thrill when Lee prevailed, and usually a laugh to punctuate his adversaries’ demise.
No one was cooler, though I yearned to be.
My enemies had other ideas, even when Lee was onscreen. While in a theater watching Lee fight a young Chuck Norris in “Way of the Dragon,” some bigger boys decided to bully my buddies and me. One of them slapped me in the back of the head and told me to scrunch down in my seat. He said he couldn’t see. I obeyed. The ring leader thrust his foot onto my arm rest. He was daring me to knock it off so he could fight me.
I looked at the screen and wished I could levitate to Lee’s side as he finished off Norris in an epic battle. Maybe Bruce could help me? Maybe he could give me strength? But there was no Hollywood ending. In real life, I sat frozen, enduring the indignity in silence and shame.
That moment burrowed into my soul. I hadn’t thought of it in years until this past week when I attended the induction ceremony for the 2015 California Hall of Fame, held at the California Museum. David Hockney, one of the honorees, introduced Lee.
It has been 42 years since his death. Asian cultures have helped reshape California. Successive generations, some with no memories of the struggles during Lee’s lifetime, are fighting and winning battles in their own communities and chosen fields.
When Lee’s image was projected onscreen, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded. His daughter Shannon, 46, was there, standing with a class of inductees that reflected California and its many faces. On one side was the widow of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz. On the other was the son of Buck Owens, the late country singer from Bakersfield. There was Kristi Yamaguchi, the Olympic figure skater; Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut; Robert Downey Jr., the charismatic actor; Lester Holt, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor. And Hockney, the British-born artist whose evocative paintings of swimming pools so captured the spirit of Southern California.
It was an intimate affair in the small theater. Gov. Jerry Brown and Anne Gust Brown presented each honoree with a medal. The divisions of the past, of Lee’s lifetime, were absent among a shared appreciation for California’s greatest asset – its diversity.
Getting here has been hard-fought. Some of us are old enough to remember the bad old days. But when I heard Lee’s name called during the ceremony and saw that fierce gaze staring back at me, I remembered that moment with the bullies. Then I remembered the feelings Lee inspired in me. His charisma and determination would be a light for my life, even when I didn’t realize it.
I learned long ago to stand up in my own way. But here I was, back sitting in a theater, still moved by Lee’s image.