I’m the only Asian American writer at OTI, and I’m one of those Asian Americans referred to in the previous post Reclaiming Miyagi that has beef with this character. Specifically, mine is with that (in)famous phrase, “Wax On, Wax Off”:
In a fit of Angry Asian Male Rage, I did a little video editing and voice-over to see what would happen if Mr. Miyagi lost the Asian Accent. See the remix, and what inspired it, after the jump.
To see how Mr. Miyagi and Pat Morita’s legacies are holding up, I started with this obituary for Morita, who died in 2005:
In 1984, he appeared in the role that would define his career and spawn countless affectionate imitations. As Kesuke Miyagi, the mentor to Ralph Macchio’s “Daniel-san,” he taught karate while trying to catch flies with chopsticks and offering such advice as “wax on, wax off” to guide Daniel through chores to improve his skills.
“Countless affectionate imitations?” Excuse me? I don’t know what planet the writer of that obituary lives on, but on my planet, imitations of Mr. Miyagi were anything but affectionate. Allow me to explain.
I grew up in a place called Birmingham, AL. Since moving to the Northeast for school and work in 2000, I’ve been forced into the role of the reluctant defender of the South. Yes, I would tell countless Yankees after they recovered from the shock of meeting an Asian person from the South, Birmingham has a sordid history of racism, but things are much different now. And that’s true.
What’s also true, however, is that there was plenty of racism to go around when I grew up there in the 90’s, and I took my fare share of lumps for being one of the only Asian kids in my middle and high schools. Those lumps came in a variety of forms, including squinting eyebrows to make a “Chinese face,” accusations that my ancestors were kamikaze pilots, and, you guessed it:
“Wax on, wax off.”
Said in an exaggerated accent, of course. Perhaps in combination with the squinting eyebrows.
Now, you might be wondering why I have such a problem with “wax on, wax off,” when it seems benign compared to the squinting eyebrows, “kamikaze,” “chink,” etc. True, at face value, it’s more benign, but it’s not so much “wax on, wax off” that I have a problem with. Instead, I take issue with the fact that for countless children growing up in the 1980’s, Mr. Miyagi was their introduction to Asian Americans, Asian American culture, and the “otherness” of Asian Americans.
In the previous, more sympathetic post, Fenzel argues that this portrayal of “otherness” is complimented by the portrayal of Daniel Larusso’s “otherness” and that this pairing up of outsiders is key to the story. I don’t disagree with that, but I wonder if the filmmakers really needed to go so far out of their way to emphasize Miyagi’s otherness. He makes exotic little bonsai trees. He has an exotic Japanese garden in his back yard. He practices ancestor worship. He possesses mystical healing powers. And of course, he has an outrageous Asian accent.
I can accept that some of the elements described above were necessary to portray Miyagi’s character in a way that makes sense for the story. But were all of those elements necessary? Pat Morita doesn’t even speak like that–he was born in the United States and speaks English perfectly, with little or no Japanese accent. But his character positively butchers the English language and sets the template for all of those people who showed me their “affectionate imitations.” Wax on, wax off, ha ha, ho ho, me no speekee Engreeshee good.
I agree with Fenzel in that Morita doesn’t really deserve any of the blame for this. He did the best he could with the limited opportunities available for Asian American actors at the time. I suppose the blame should be assigned, if anywhere, to the innate fear of “otherness” and outsiders that people of all cultures share.
In fact, in revealing my frustration with the portrayal of Asian Americans in movies like Karate Kid, I’m showing my own fear of Asian American “otherness.” As an awkward eleven year old Asian kid in an Alabama middle school full of white kids, my number one goal was to fit in and not stick out in the crowd. To assimilate, if you will. This unfortunately was difficult to do because I look very, very Asian. And when other kids saw me, they associated me with their only other outside understanding of Asian Americans: Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid.
“Wax on, wax off!”
Most American-born Asian Americans have at some point cringed at their own parents’ accents, avoided bringing friends over to their homes for fear of the smelly foods their moms were cooking, and longed for the unattainable affection of that dreamy blond Caucasian boy/girl. Everything about them was fully acculturated except for the externalities surrounding them that defined their “otherness.” One of those externalities was Mr. Miyagi. And just like those other externalities like family and looks, you could never fully escape from the shadow of Mr. Miyagi. Just when you think you’ve gotten the mothball smell out of your clothes, the kimchi breath out of your mouth, and can put the moves on Jenny in 3rd period, along comes a stark reminder that you’re not like everyone else:
“Wax on, wax off!”
Many years later, I’ve come to better terms with my Asian heritage and my role in society as an Asian American. Assimilation is no longer the unrealistic and unattainable goal that it once was for me (living in NYC, surrounded by diversity, certainly helps). Still, watching Karate Kid this past week brought back some tough times when the last thing I wanted to be was Asian. I hated it when the other kids said “wax on, wax off” to me.
“Wax on, wax off!”
So that’s why I took this chance to see what Karate Kid might have been like without Miyagi’s bad Engrish. Okay, I admit, “apply the wax, remove the wax” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “wax on, wax off,” but ask yourself this: is it really OK that so much humor in our pop culture is based on characters with funny accents? Where do we draw the line when it comes to portraying ethnic minorities in pop culture? Do content producers have any responsibility to portray enthnic minorities in non-stereotypical roles?
To answer, allow me to paraphrase Mr. Miyagi:
“Apply the sterotype, remove the stereotype.”