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The Dao of Ke Huy Quan
AKA Short Round, Data, and Waymond Wang
I was a child of the 90s and grew up watching movies that captured the joy and optimism of that era. Was that era really so upbeat? Beats me. I remember nothing of the zeitgeist of the 90s. All I remember is the Bulls won a lot of championships, the Berlin Wall fell one day when I was in junior high school, and Ryan White was treated like shit by everyone, except Michael Jackson and possibly Princess Diana, before succumbing to AIDS. So, it’s a mixed bag, I guess. But the movies I remember watching--like E.T. (the first movie I saw at a theater), Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, and Ghostbusters--shaped my childhood. A young, malleable me marinated in a somewhat campy stew of bulletproof bravado, the kind that comes from surviving deadly adventures and surmounting inscrutable challenges, and emerged with a distinctly American sense of invincibility. What I didn’t know at the time was that two of the movies I loved were also teaching me lessons I would need as an Asian kid growing up in America. These movies were Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (the one without Nazis) and The Goonies. The actor who taught me these lessons, imperceptibly implanting them deep into my brain, kind of like Keifer Sutherland’s character at the end of Dark City, was Ke Huy Quan, also known as Short Round, Data, and recently, Waymond Wang.
Ke Huy Quan played characters who were the only Asian kid in their non-Asian group of friends. In The Goonies, Data was the token Asian kid running with a gang of weirdo white kids. In Indiana Jones, it was Short Round, Indy, and a bumbling lounge singer named Willie against Chinese gangsters, brainwashed cultists, and racist depictions of Indian cuisine. Sure, Indy was probably breaking a number of child trafficking laws and possibly grooming him (right, Q?), but he also loved Short Round and relied on him as much as the Goonies.
So, how did he do it? How did a kid who should have been an outsider (looks different, talks different) become an insider? Or asked differently, what lessons did this immigrant kid have for me, another immigrant kid, on becoming an American?
He picked his targets carefully. Data didn’t ingratiate himself with the cool kids. He chose the Goonies, who were essentially the dregs of the Breakfast Club (the Breakfast Club minus the socially valuable redhead and jock. Although, if you count a young Josh Brolin and that improbably horny cheerleader, you essentially have a poor man’s Breakfast Club.). Data sought genuine friendships with kids who, like Bridget Jones’s friends and beau, loved him just as he was, even with his odd Inspector Gadget ambitions and daring take on the pronunciation of English words.
Data and Short Round also both landed in groups where they were not the lowest person on the totem. Chunk was the target of his friends’ cruelty and paid for admission to the group and literally the house with ritual humiliation codified in the Truffle Shuffle. (This is probably the reason Chunk took to Sloth instantly. He had finally found a friend who didn’t demand his humiliation and, conveniently, one who would always be beneath him in the group's social hierarchy. Or, maybe Chunk was just a really good kid.) Willie, the forgettable female lead in Indiana Jones, was the target of Indy’s misogynistic scorn, and her incompetence (illustrated by elephant-related hijinks and the failure to seduce a very seducible Indy) is the source of much of the movie’s humor. It helps to have foils like Chunk and Willie to show the others that even though you’re an Asian kid with a bowl haircut and the wrong clothes, you are still more like them in the ways that matter, that whiteness itself isn’t the desired trait, but rather, it’s the content of your fucking character.
The most crucial tip Ke Huy Quan offers young immigrants wishing to unlock the promise of American life is to go on adventures. Friendships are not built in a sterile lab. Go looking for pirate treasure, steal from Chinese gangsters, save your friends’ lives, let them save yours, let them think you died falling into a pit when you were actually saved by your pinchers of power, and let the sweet relief of knowing you’re not dead wash over them. Share the risks and rewards of adventure (and yes! as much as I want to gnaw my fingers off for typing this, friendship is the most essential reward). Adventure is the shortcut to the hearts and minds of your American friends.
I have followed the path laid by Short Round and Data. I chose the right friends; I am not at the bottom of the social hierarchy of any group; I went on a thousand adventures as an AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteer. Because of this, I feel comfortable here. I feel like I belong. I’m as American as the next motherfucker. A lot of this starts with friendships, and, in part, I have Ke Huy Quan to thank for this. He incepted me via the movies I adored as a kid. He incepts me still as Waymond Wang, teaching me to gracefully grow into middle age and beyond, compelling me to employ kindness to be a more loving husband, father, and interdimensional freedom fighter.
Dae Woo Son lives in St. Louis, MO with his wife, two daughters, and a needy dog. This is Dae’s first recommendation for Movie Night.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Written by George Lucas, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz; Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg and Chris Columbus; Directed by Richard Donner
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Written and Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
English and Mandarin
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Something a little different this week; I’m excited that my friend, Dae Woo Son, agreed to write a recommendation for Movie Night. We had a very long negotiation:
I sent him the template (which he ignored) and weeks later, he sent this back. Frankly, I’m glad he disregarded the template. My personal experience of knowing Dae: He is an expert at using humor to lower defenses and drive swiftly towards earnest conversations on all things life. In many other universes of our infinite multiverse, Dae is an accomplished stand-up comedian.
I loved how easily Dae tied in references to multiple decades of film in this. On the off chance you haven’t seen the three main films Dae recommends, read this, watch them, and then reread this. I was glad that I did.