Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wear Shoes and the Whole World is Covered with Leather

             For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the old tv series, Kung Fu, on YouTube.  It was one of my favorite shows forty years ago, and it has aged well.
            The U.S. was rocked by riots in 1968 following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Then, Senator Robert Kennedy was killed.  Four years later, America was still raining bombs and bullets on Vietnam, right next door to China, considered a major adversary.  In the early 1970s, Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine, was not your typical tv western hero.
            The orphaned son of an American man and a Chinese woman, Kwai Chang grows to manhood in a Shaolin monastery, studying philosophy and martial arts.  When a teacher is needlessly killed by the Emperor’s nephew, Kwai Chang kills the nephew — and becomes a wanted man.
            He flees to America.  And what is his first job in the New World?  He works on the railroad, like thousands of other Chinese laborers!  In his travels, he meets a white man with an Indian wife, a recently freed slave with his family, Mexicans terrified by a brujo, members of the Tong, an escapee from an insane asylum who wants to return to her people, a soldier who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, an early photographer of America’s natural wonders, a woman raped and abandoned by a Union soldier only to have her newborn son die in her arms, religious settlers misunderstood by the surrounding community, prostitutes threatened by religious vigilantes, an Armenian who learns that injustice is not limited to his homeland, an Irish immigrant tormented by the fact that he once hanged a squaw for money, and the last member of a tribe who cannot be buried in the land where he was born because his birthplace has  become a town inhabited by people who hate Indians.
            Kwai Chang Caine is a stranger in a strange land, our land, where few have met the likes of him before.  Some accept him and some don’t.  He’s called “Chinee”, “Rickshaw”, “Heathen”, “Boy”, and “Breed.”  When he’s not being accused of things he didn’t do; he’s being advised to move on.  He is trusted, admired, hated, feared, and belittled.  Some learn of the price on his head and try to collect it.  Others don’t.
            Kung Fu presented many Americans with a deeply challenging and complicated image.  Kwai Chang was skilled, patient, open, humble, and wise.  He was a priest!  But he wore funny clothes, had little interest in money, didn’t carry a weapon, and didn’t follow Jesus.  On top of that, he walked around barefoot most of the time.  What was there to admire in that?