I was a lonely kid growing up. No siblings, just a few friends. I had always felt guilty for downplaying my Asian heritage in public, a futile defense mechanism that never really stopped the racist bullying. I encountered, a phenomenon that didn’t truly stop until high school.
Whenever my grandparents, on my mother’s side, were home, Filipino culture was unabashed. Rice with every meal. Dinner was usually chicharrón or fried tilapia with a side of spiced vinegar that was often cooked in celebratory fashion in the cheap, old deep fryer. Desserts followed. The amount of otap I’ve eaten can’t be healthy.
My mom and her parents spoke to each other in Tagalog, but to this day I don’t know what they’re saying. Was I ashamed of learning it for some reason? I don’t know.
At a time when human connection was sparse, movies were my friends. They kept me busy, shielding me from the terrible affliction of loneliness, a pain that still creeps up on quiet nights.
Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are of going to garage sales with my grandparents. I would buy VHS tapes of old movies, mostly ones that my parents or grandparents recommended, or ones that I thought had cool covers.
I can’t say for sure – I was too young to remember, but I am roughly certain that this practice is how I came across the “Indiana Jones” films, and I’ve been a diehard fan ever since.
In the second entry of the series, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, Indy is paired with a sidekick, an outgoing Asian kid that goes by the nickname Short-Round, played by Ke Huy Quan. He looks up to Indy as a role model and a sort of father figure.
It was visceral to see an Asian face represented on screen. I would later find out Quan is Vietnamese of Han Chinese, but the difference didn’t matter. What mattered was that there was another Asian; somebody that looked like me.
I was bullied in elementary school for my appearance. People would incessantly assume I was Chinese, and the image of my second-grade bully taunting me with the classic slanty-eyes gesture is something that isn’t easy to forget. I think he kicked me in the nuts a few minutes after he did that too, unless those were separate encounters – I don’t recall.
Look, I’m not trying to say I took a shot to the crotch because I’m Asian. I’d at least like to think it wasn’t racially motivated, but I bring this event up for a very particular reason.
I look up to Indiana Jones, too, just like Short Round does. He’s a guy who can smooth-talk, punch or cleverly escape his way out of anything.
I remember falling to the gravel ground feeling that pain that I need not describe to anyone reading this, thinking that I was no Indiana Jones. I could only compare myself to Short Round at that moment, a little Asian kid hoping someone would show me the way. I eventually came to, snapping back to reality.
There’s this moment toward the end of “Temple of Doom” where Short Round heroically beats up the antagonist prince that’s about his age at the time as Indy is beating someone else up in the foreground as the theme music swells, showing their bond in one single frame. Yes, I thought of that too in that moment, but no, I didn’t pull a Short Round on my bully either.
I had forgotten all of this until recently, when the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once” took audiences by storm, causing a look inward at how I view kindness. It’s a story of a family learning to love each other for who they are, to not give too much away.
Michelle Yeoh is the lead; she’s fantastic, but one other performance took me by complete surprise. Her husband in the film, Waymond, a deeply caring and empathetic man, is played by Ke Huy Quan, nearly forty years after “Temple of Doom.”
Waymond is a much different character than Short Round. One quote from Waymond in the film describes his whole ethos: “When I choose to see the good side in things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything. I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one, too. This is how I fight.”
Waymond’s weapon is his kindness. Quan’s performance– that character of a gentle, humble and emotionally available man, father and husband is one too rarely portrayed in the media. It’s all about accepting the human condition and to try to see the good in others.
That kid lying on the gravel probably could’ve used that advice that Waymond gives, but the older version of that kid that’s writing this now is surely glad to hear it.
Even before Waymond, Quan’s performance as Short Round was a guiding hand, a North Star in trying to figure myself out, to accept my Asian-ness and accept myself– and those are not mutually exclusive. I may have tried to be like Short Round growing up, but now I can only hope to be like Waymond getting older.
Quan’s long hiatus from film was due to years of rejection and feeling like there were no more roles for him, that the best work he’ll ever do was the work he did as a child. Then one day, the script to “Everything Everywhere All At Once” came along, a part he felt was written for him. Quan said in an interview with NPR. A role that would lead to numerous awards since its release, and how sweet it is to watch his comeback. His acceptance speeches are deeply emotional and inspiring.
So, thank you, Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan, for coming back to our screens again. I’ve missed you.