Representation in Avatar the last airbender
lltran submitted to Writing with Color:
hi, so i saw that many people have asked about mixing asian cultures in their fantasy works and you guys answered several times (i think twice?) about how avatar is a good example of how mixing asian cultures was done well. i reblogged you post and added comments but i doubt anyone would see it so i am going to submit what i wrote here. please excuse my bad grammar and organization.
i love avatar but i really do not think that avatar did this well either. i actually have a huge problem with this aspect of the show. i used to love how the artists blended the Asian cultures so seamlessly together. but the more i thought about it, the more unhappy i am with that fact. one reason why many of the cultures that they used are able to blend together so well is because of Chinese occupation. and when the cultures are blended like this it erases that history of these countries oppression by china (or other oppressive powers). for example, i am Vietnamese. i saw Vietnamese influences in the show (subtle things that most people would not associate with anything other than china, but is actually Vietnamese). my culture is lost in this show, it is lost among the Chinese culture, the culture that was forced onto my people and heavily influences us to this day(the topic of being Vietnamese vs Chinese is very big in the Vietnamese community, most Vietnamese people will get mad if they are mistaken for Chinese since this erases our very long struggle against the Chinese).
Other countries which did not have contact with china, like Thailand has had influences on avatar as well. but their culture is also lost because all that many viewers know of Asia is japan, china, and japan. because the creators do not state their Thai influences and because most people are not familiar with non-east Asian cultures, once again a culture gets erased. you hardly ever see avatar fan talk about Thailand or Vietnam or Loas, etc when they talk about avatar. so no, avatar is not a good example of how to merge Asian cultures together in a respectable way. i actually don’t think i know any good examples for this…i try to avoid books that have this premise since most are not done well and as far as tv goes…well there are hardly any shows with Asians at all so…but yeah just keep in mind the history of colonization in these countries and perhaps get someone from that culture to read your draft over to see whether or not it is insulting.
Also, PLEASE give credit where it is due. The creators of avatar, have not, as far as I know, stated how they were influenced by south east Asia. They only referenced East Asian and Inuit cultures and so many fans also only refer to these cultures. But really, the resemblance between the fire nation and Thailand is undeniable.
I also have a problem with people making up ‘Asian’ clothing that do not exist. This was done really well in avatar, but I sometimes feel like this treads too far into problematic territory. Like those people who make ‘Asian/oriental’ fashion or something. Idk. I don’t actually know if this is a legitimate worry or not since I can’t really word it, so take this how you want.
I also do not really like the idea of mixing Asian cultures because it kind off make me feel like the non-Asian audience will not see the subtleties and see it all as ‘Asia’, since there are so many similar cultural elements (the countries are close to each other geographically after all and so cultural sharing does happen). I personally would not create an ‘Asian’ inspired world without doing VERY extensive research first. This is my opinion though so don’t let that deter you because I am sure some of y’all are super creative and will come up with ways to do this that does not make Asia seem like a monolith.
Perhaps you can pick from a limited amount of countries and focus on those only, that would make it easier to do research. Or maybe you can do the opposite and pick small elements from many countries to create something entirely new. I think the main point would be have fair representation and to create something unique.
Like its not bad to make everything East Asian, but I think its not great to make almost cultural aspect East Asian and then throw in some south/southeast/northern Asian element. I feel like that is very othering since so many people in the west think that Asia is 3 countries and do not even acknowledge the rest of the continent. Overall you should try to make the representations equal since everyone deserves representation. <- I also don’t know if this argument is good or not, just my thoughts
mod note: so I actually didn’t have a problem with Avatar, but this is a good post on why the cultural mishmash doesn’t work for some viewers and the pitfalls it has, especially with underrepresented cultures.