If you've read my previous post, you might remember that I did research this summer as part of the Oberlin College Research Fellowship. I wanted to write a longer post detailing what exactly that has been like, since I understand research to be something that people want to know more about.
I applied for the fellowship back in March. I decided to apply because the fellowship's goals resonated with me as a person of color in my academic field. Another reason was that I had been filing away topics in Cinema Studies that were unresolved for me, meaning, I hadn't yet put in the time to take them apart and see how they functioned, so taking this fellowship would be a way for me to finally get to some work I hadn't done in my classes.
My original idea, and the one I described on my application, was looking at visual rhetorics surrounding bodies in action movies, with those of Bruce Lee kung fu movies in comparison to Marvel movies from the 21st century. The latter, through characters such as Captain America, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Mystique, The Hulk, and Iron Man, features action heroes with anomalous bodies, where their social experience within the world of the movie is shaped by their marked physical difference that also doubles as a superpower. While looking at how cinematic devices shape our perception of super-people's bodies is absolutely an area I will look into critically, either officially (academically) or casually, my topic changed after I saw a single movie: John Wick.
[On a side note, my watching John Wick came about from me trying to see as many Keanu Reeves movies as possible in the time I was home from school and when I would go back to Oberlin for my fellowship.]
While still keeping my critical frame of bodies in action movies, my project then morphed into a discussion and exploration into multiracial Asian and Pacific Islander representation, using Bruce Lee and Keanu Reeves as case studies (as they are both multiracial APIs). That is to say that I didn't go into my fellowship knowing this is what I would deliver my final presentation on. As a general rule, I hate the feeling of not knowing what I'm going to write about, both for final papers in classes as well as fellowships such as this. But as I was discussing what stood out to me in John Wick with my research mentor, we both noticed how there was a special way that John Wick/Keanu Reeves interacted with Bruce Lee that differed from Robert Downey Jr. (from Iron-Man) or Chris Evans (AKA Captain America).
I myself am multiracial Asian and Pacific Islander (Chinese and Maori), so it then seemed logical to launch into this path of research that combined Asian American Studies, Actor Studies, Mixed Race Studies, Cinema Studies, and my own knowledge of kung fu. My research ultimately developed a highly personal component to it. As I was reading works written by Media Studies scholar Leilani Nishime, for instance, I was learning not only things that impacted my research, but also impacted me as an individual. Perhaps this can be best illustrated when one of my friends asked why I suddenly placed Keanu Reeves as another part of my work: I admitted that, in observing how Hollywood and society (via mainstream media) has responded to his racial background, I could gain insight into how that might go for myself in a parallel universe. I had a closeness to my research that I've never had before for any project or paper.
My research wasn't all movie-watching and scouring old articles from the 70s and the 90s: I made it interactive through re-acquainting myself with the martial arts, specifically kung fu. Amazingly, Keanu Reeves did all of his fighting in John Wick, and I recognized some of the moves he did in the fight scenes from my kung fu days. However, I was not familiar with what it felt like to, say, throw someone onto the floor. Also, in learning about Bruce Lee's early life, I learned about his sifu (Cantonese word for "master" and one of the few Canto words I've known since childhood that I can actually spell) Ip Man, a grandmaster of the Wing Chun form of kung fu. I then decided that I would go to the heavy punching bag at Philips Gym a couple times a week and practice Wing Chun, as it was likely the first martial arts form Bruce Lee ever learned. With my research funds, I got a pair of hand wraps to protect my hands, which made a huge difference.
In China, kung fu styles are highly region-specific, and the exchange of ideas has long been used as another dimension into the tensions between the largely Mandarin-speaking (among the Han ethnic group) northern provinces and the Cantonese-speaking provinces in the south (which is where my family is from, along with other people like Bruce Lee, Chow Yun-fat, and Tony Leung). In this way, it put a smile on my face to to be able to practice and learn Wing Chun, which is a southern kung fu style that originated from a nun, as a Cantonese kid from a diasporic community. I've since joked with some of my friends that I really should've been casted to play Danny Rand in Iron Fist (even if the Netflix iteration of Iron Fist seems to be a practitioner of a quasi-Shaolin style).
Aside from rediscovering martial arts for myself, I also came out of my research with an unexpectedly deep knowledge of fight choreography and stunts. I'm no Yuen Woo-Ping (the genius fight choreographer behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix) or Chad Stahelski (the director of the John Wick movies and an esteemed stuntman who has doubled for Keanu Reeves as well as Bruce Lee's son, Brandon Lee), but I probably know more about the craft than your average Joe. I think, in the future, I'd like to develop my knowledge and skills in fight choreography, because I'm coming to understand it as an area where I have legitimate expertise, even from a scholarly standpoint.
Overall, I couldn't have predicted how much I would really get from the first summer of my fellowship. After all, the most time I've ever spent on a paper in college thus far has been three weeks or so, in addition to the rest of my classes and extracurriculars. In all honesty, it still surprises me on a day-to-day basis that I'm currently on this path as a scholar that knows her discipline inside and out, and can say to people (like my mom), "yeah, so currently in the field, no one is really talking about x, y, and z..." One of the best things about this fellowship was how it allowed me to contribute something of my own, and then stand by it in the form of a presentation at the end of the summer. It sounds silly, because I'm twenty years old, but I kept having moments of joy from thinking, "wow, they're letting me do this all on my own!"
The community of other researchers made it a thriving and supportive environment, as well. Because we attended workshops with each other every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we got to know each other and each other's research pretty well. As a result, I've thought of alternate directions that I could go with my research next summer from getting feedback and questions from the other fellows. Until then, I patiently await whatever is in store for me and my work.