|Jackie Chan fans in Cidade de Deus|
My lead pastor and friend, Justin, and I took a ministry trip to Rio de Janeiro last month to visit our church's missionary partner. On the Friday evening of our arrival, we had dinner with our host pastor, his wife, and two other Brazilian couples who were church leaders. The couples were young, well-dressed, and educated. One man’s first observation upon meeting me was that I looked like a movie star.
I paused, speechless.
That’s not a comment I’m used to receiving.
With a look that told me it was obvious, he said:
You look like Jackie Chan.
I was flabbergasted. Let’s slow time down and examine the various stages of emotion and thought.
My initial response was surprise. It’s a peculiar comment to make to a new acquaintance.
My next emotional response was indignation. My thinking went something like this: Do you think all Asians look alike? How many Asian men do you know personally? Is Jackie Chan the only Asian guy you’ve been exposed to? Does this qualify as a micro aggression? How racist is this? Is this an example of racism from whites? Do Brazilians qualify as white? If he’s a light-complexioned Brazilian, is he white?
The dinner party wasn’t even the first time that day someone had called me Jackie Chan. Earlier that afternoon, we had visited a Rio favela where I was preaching the coming Sunday. We talked with some children in the neighborhood and they asked to have their photo taken with me because I looked like the Hong Kong movie star. I was amused but didn’t think much of it because these children live in an impoverished area, have limited exposure to outside people, and you know, kids say the darnedest things.
Later when I told my travel partner about both encounters, he was tickled to no end and suggested I start signing autographs. He encouraged me to relish the compliment. At first, I didn’t appreciate his response. I don’t like being told how I should feel, especially if it's contrary to my initial emotional reaction. It doesn’t help that Justin is a muscular 6’3” blond-haired, blue-eyed former college football player.
My friend couldn’t know what this man’s comment triggered in me. It took me back to being an eighth grader who recently moved to Atlanta and being repeatedly asked by my white and black classmates if I knew karate. I remember replying I didn’t know any martial arts and seeing the disappointment in their eyes. I couldn’t even live up to the most basic of their expectations. I also remember being asked if I was related to the other Asian student in the school. There was an implication that we Asians look alike and that with a similar surnames, we must somehow be related. In these encounters, I had a strong sense of being stereotyped, being foreign, and being an outsider.
In those moments, I felt alone and disconnected.
So coming back to the present, part of the reason I’m upset about being told I look like Jackie Chan is this: If you’re a white male, there's a broad spectrum of possible stereotypes based on popular culture: secret agent, slave owner, president, superhero, billionaire playboy, artist, Jedi, misunderstood genius, romance lead, hillbilly, dictator, and of course, martial artist. But for me, the universe of possible stereotypes based on popular media equals one: martial artist.
Regardless, in my forty years on this planet, no one has ever suggested that I look like Jackie Chan. The next day, after Justin taught a morning workshop, we went surfing. As we got our boards ready, a guy at a cafe next to the surf shop pointed at me and said “Jackie Chan”. I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. Again, I felt uncomfortable and yet realized this was becoming a thing.
The day after that, I spoke at the church service in Rio das Pedras. After the service, a young man spoke to me through an interpreter. He complimented my message and then said “Jackie Chan came to speak to us tonight.” Again, I was stunned and laughed awkwardly. I didn’t mind strangers making comments but it was a little jarring hearing it from fellow believers. I probably have an unconscious expectation that Christians be more sensitive about stereotypes regarding race and ethnicity.
That evening I googled images of Jackie Chan and decided that, even though my face was narrower, Chan and I did indeed share the same bulbous Cantonese nose I had inherited from my Hong Kong-born father. Our hairstyles were somewhat similar as well. It did make me somewhat self-conscious. Did everyone else in Brazil think I looked like Jackie Chan but was too polite to say anything?
Three days into the trip and I’ve been told on four separate occasions that I look like Jackie Chan. It bothered me but we still had three days left in Brazil so chances were it was going to happen again. Would it be possible to choose a different emotional response? Was I condemned to being repeatedly triggered into anger, indignation, and annoyance?
I had been reading a book about how each person is responsible of his/her own emotions. And based on my understanding of the gospel and being a new creation, I am convinced believers can choose the thought patterns that drive our emotional state. Jesus exhorts his disciples repeatedly not to fear and not to worry. He would only say that if we had the capacity to choose a perspective that leads us out of fear and anxiety. That’s what faith is.
I thought about my past experience in Georgia. My need for belonging was not addressed there and the karate question was a minor aspect of being an outsider. It may have been ignorance but I appreciate the attempts to engage me in conversation. Ignoring me would have been worse.
With being called Jackie Chan, there was absolutely no ill intent from the Brazilians and the ignorance and/or lack of exposure was completely understandable. Despite the lack of Asians, Rio is quite an ethnically diverse place. And the lack of diversity in Asian cultural icons is not Brazilans’ fault. Finally, I do not rely upon them to address my need for belonging. Jesus’ unconditional love has given me a different story. Instead of letting the comment reinforce my otherness, I can see it as a compliment and a bid for relationship.
Therefore, I am not a victim to being triggered. So I decided I would take Justin’s advice and enjoy the appellation. I knew it would take some practice to change my thought pattern but I was confident I could do it. After all, it’s not every day I get to be known as an international movie star.
I got my chance when we visited the City of God. Cidade de Deus is the Brazilian name of the most infamous of Rio’s favelas (portrayed in the 2002 film City of God). While we drove through the dilapidated shack neighborhood with the windows rolled down, a girl on a bike spotted my face, pointed at me, and cried out “Jackie Chan”. She then rode around and told her friends. Other adults and kids began to point at me and say my doppelgänger’s name. I posed for pictures. It was still awkward but it was pretty funny. We sat down with a group of youth and I asked the kids what celebrities Justin and Eric, our 30-year old redheaded Missouri-raised missionary host, looked like. They said Justin looked like Channing Tatum and Eric, to his chagrin, looked like Donald Trump. I felt a little better about the Trump reference but still felt a little jealous there are so many more white male stereotypes available.
Justin joked he was my manager. I thought personal bodyguard would have been more appropriate - Jackie don’t fight people for free. In any case, it wasn’t hard to transform my thinking. My past experiences with stereotyping were hardly traumatic and I knew my indignation was irrational. I found it comforting that it’s possible to change my emotional reaction to a trigger by subverting the narrative. I am powerless to change circumstances but I can re-define what they mean to me. We can flip the script. We can tell a different story.
A couple weeks ago, my kids and I watched The Spy Next Door starring my doppelgänger. I also resent being compared to a 62-year old Chinese man with heavily accented English. It is, however, some consolation to me that he does his own stunts and his best-known movies were made during his forties.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.