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Diaspora, Immigration and Identity in “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

September 30, 2013

As a diasporic woman of color, there are several themes in “Avatar: the Last Airbender” that resonate strongly with me, leading me to consider how the story and its characters affirm immigrant and diasporic experiences–in other words, the inevitable upheavals of imperialism and the kinds of resilience and strength it takes to survive that. After several rewatches, I decided to write a breakdown of how immigrant and diasporic themes in each of the Four Nations/ characters form a commensurate picture.

Aang and the Air Nomads

“Air is the element of Freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns, and found peace and freedom.”

People who follow my Tumblr know how much I love Aang and the Air Nomads. As a Buddhist woman of color, Aang’s narrative is especially poignant to me because his people (a pacifist community of monks and nuns with no organized military or wealth) were destroyed by genocide, making him literally The Last Airbender. Many historical peoples have been forced into diaspora through genocide, most notably Jewish people, but also the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, the Palestinian people, and so forth. Displacement through genocide creates a traumatic dilemma: how do you survive and adapt to a new way of life where you’re the minority, while at the same time upholding and honoring the traditions that represent your history? How do you preserve that history in the face of overwhelming violence?

There are several moments in the show that touch on this: Aang refusing to cover up his tattoos and conceal his identity, Aang shaving his head before the Battle of Black Sun and claiming his Nomad heritage, Aang’s poignant decision to give up his destroyed staff, a relic from his bygone people (and the defiance with which he tamps it down into volcanic earth) and Aang’s initial dismay at the changes made by new inhabitants to the Norther Air Temple. But perhaps most significant is Aang spiritual struggle with killing Fire Lord Ozai, and his ultimate decision not to. While all his close friends, as well as the spirits of past Avatars, urge him to be decisive in dealing with Ozai, Aang still refuses to repudiate the pacifist beliefs he grew up with. As the last of the Air Nomads Aang carries the burden of a lost people and his refusal to kill Ozai is the ultimate honoring of those people. Being a diasporic POC, you face similar decisions all the time (minus a Fire Lord and the end of the world of course). How do I move forward without erasing the past? How do I balance both? This is also where Aang’s Buddhism plays an important role. To quote from one of my favorite books on Buddhism, “The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation” by Nalin Swaris:

“The Middle Way of the Buddha is often understood as a halfway position between two extremes – a golden median; a pragmatic compromise. However, this is to fix the mind on the word ‘middle’ in a spatial sense. The Middle Way however is based on the clear comprehension of the conditioned co-arising of paired opposites or binaries. It is not a third position arrived at by a dialectical clash of opposites. It is a movement, a practical going through and beyond mentally and culturally constructed dualisms. It is cessation of the opposition of ‘this’ to ‘that’ and a ‘crossing over to the further shore of freedom.”

Aang’s arc and journey is entirely about this very Buddhist concept of balance, reconciliation and courage. I’ve discussed this angle of the show in more detail here and here.

Katara, Sokka and the Water Tribe

“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.”

I could write reams and reams about the Water Tribe. Basically, anyone who’s lived a diasporic/immigrant life knows that adapting to change while maintaining your core is essential to survival. Katara and Sokka butt heads many times during the show, but when things gets tough they have each other’s backs. Most notably, when Katara wants to help a small Fire Nation fishing village, Sokka reluctantly agrees because “You’re my sister, and I’ll never turn my back on you.” We immigrants and diasporic people may not agree with each other, we may yell and fight and scream sometimes, we may gossip and throw shade, but when our folks need a babysitter, when our neighbor’s parent dies and they need help cooking the funeral food, when someone loses their job and needs rent money, when someone’s evicted and needs a couch for them and their family: we’re there. These are survival skills that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, have had to learn in order to survive a world that’s institutionally stacked against us. Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe sacrifices her life so her people and their way of life could continue. If the diaspora is built on nothing else, it’s pure love and courage.

Apart from sticking together, immigrants of color also need to be pretty damn creative. When Katara’s trapped in the Palace courtyard with Azula, she uses her Waterbending to creatively freeze and melt the water around her opponent, thus strategically subduing her. When she’s trapped in a wooden cage, she bends her own sweat. Hama the bloodbender, whose story is a tragic yet common one in wartime, exemplifies the dark side of immigrant/diasporic life, when your identity is torn from you and all you have is hate and anger. I’ve felt that way too. It takes a ton of strength to survive diasporic living as a POC, and Katara’s story, the story of the Southern Water Tribe, is extremely important for those reasons.

Zuko and the Fire Nation

“Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.”

Zuko’s arc is very interesting in that he’s part of an imperialist nation, a nation that’s destabilizing other nations and forcing people into diasporic/ immigrant/ refugee lives. What’s amazing about his story is that he embodies dissent, a refusal to align himself with imperialist nationalism (a choice for which he’s permanently scarred and cast out). I always feel heartache for Zuko in the beginning of Book 3, when he’s finally home, a hero beloved by his country and accepted by his father, but he’s still angry, he’s not happy, he’s not himself. The heartbreaking reality of diasporic/ immigrant life is that you have let go of the idea of “home” in the traditional sense. There’s no one place where you’re completely free, completely welcome, completely yourself. There’s no one place that’s exempt from a history of violence and colonialism. I love Sri Lanka with all my heart, there’s parts of myself that awaken only when I’m there, but I can’t ever go back completely, I can’t build a life there. It’s home, but it isn’t permanent. And that’s just how things are.

Even more important in Zuko’s narrative is the questioning of ethnocentrism, which is a requirement for immigrants of color but only a vague intellectual exercise for white people in imperialist nations. Immigrants of color have to see outside of ourselves, learn other languages, other customs, all the time, but our lives are never legible to those in power. Zuko was jolted out of his privileged perspective by being forced into an immigrant/diasporic life. He was forced to see the effects of war on everyday people, forced to hide his identity, forced to live in fear. He was confronted with the reality of the Fire Nation’s genocidal, imperialist actions. He was confronted, in effect, with the truth of the subaltern. Because here’s the thing: nationalism will never ever tell you the truth. Nationalism has meant the destruction of entire communities and people. As a Sinhalese woman, it took my own immigrant experience, my experiences with racism and being otherized, to teach me the pitfalls of nationalism and to help me realize that my own people, the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka, have been responsible for the genocide and disenfranchisement of Tamil Sri Lankans. Zuko’s line to his father “I’ve learned everything! And I’ve had to learn it on my own” is one of my absolute favorite lines spoken by a fictional character, because all of us diaspora kids of color know that feeling. Whether it’s accepting the reality of your own history, or finally confronting someone else’s, the diaspora teaches you, and afterwards there’s no going back.

Toph and the Earth Kingdom

“Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong, they are persistent and enduring.”

Toph’s story is different from the rest of the characters because she’s the only who’s not compelled or forced to leave home, but does so voluntarily to escape the stifling protectiveness of her parents. I think this too is an immigrant story. I know many desis who invented reasons to leave the country in order to escape oppressive familial situations. Like Toph, these women also have a certain degree of financial security and make a choice to leave, rather than being forced out due to war and genocide. For this reason, Toph is I think the most self-assured member of team Avatar, the one who’s most certain of her identity and her goals, and the one whose relationship to her parents is not marked by tragedy but by anger and resentment.

Toph’s stalwart confidence is another trait that’s extremely important for an immigrant life. You have to be strong and sure in who you are, because otherwise the world will literally swallow you up. Some of the most successful, powerful, dynamic immigrant women of color I know are women who’ve a strong sense of who they are, what their goals are and how to achieve them. Furthermore, leaving home tested Toph and made her even stronger in who she is; it’s doubtful if she could’ve invented metalbending if she was still living a double-life with her parents. I think Toph always knew, deep down, that she was meant for bigger things than Earth Rumble, and when she met Aang she saw her chance and took it. I didn’t leave home because I hated my parents, in fact it was really hard to leave them, but I also knew that the things I wanted to do, the things I needed to learn, couldn’t be found where I was. Sometimes, you just have to take a breath and let go, and trust that you, like Toph, are strong enough to meet the future.

Freedom, Change, Stability, Power

“Understanding other people, the other Nations, will help you become whole.”

I complain about being a diasporic kid a lot. I miss my family like you wouldn’t believe. There are cousins I don’t see for years, who grow up on Facebook while the years go by. Sometimes I miss the feel of Sinhalese on my tongue so badly I talk out loud to myself. But there’s one thing I wouldn’t change about being an immigrant/diasporic person of color: it teaches you empathy, it teaches you respect, it teaches you strength and it teaches you creativity. You need all these things to survive and grow, to hold up your community and push yourself forward. You need to unlearn myths and lies, reform them to fit new realities. You need to respect the past but mold it for the future. In short, you have to “draw wisdom from many different places” while keeping true to who you are and where you come from.

I don’t know if the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender thought about these things when crafting this story; I think when a story is well told, with authenticity and love, it has the potential to illuminate many perspectives and strike empathy in many different people. Diasporic consciousness is incredibly valuable because it teaches us a different way of being, a way of interconnectedness and mutual love. Aang, Katara, Toph, Zuko and Sokka symbolize this perfectly: it took all of them with all their different skills, to end the War and restore peace and balance. A diasporic consciousness has the same power: to model a newer, more just, more empathetic way of life.

This essay was originally published on tumblr.
Screencaps from this essay were taken from AvatarSpirit.net Screenshot gallery

Categories: blog, Current Diversity Highlights, History and Concepts
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About the Author

Natassja Gunasena is a Sri Lankan desi by way of Dubai by way of Minnesota, now making a home in Tejas. She consumes coffee and pop culture like no tomorrow, and is currently working on her M.A in Gender Studies. Avatar: The Last Airbender is her favourite tv show and if you ask her to talk about it she will literally never stop.

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  • Mutomi Sconi

    im not sure the tamils are being pushed away simply because they’re a minority, they are infact the aggressors who had a pretty good dominance over the island around the 10th century all the way up to the 15th

    compared to the native(relatively) sinhalese they are recent invaders, they picked a long term battle and simply lost it

    i have no dog in this fight btw

    • T.Chicken

      In my opinion, neither sides are good or evil. Maybe Sinhalese victors may turn out to be learn from the lessons or turned to oppressive measures. Look at gundam, Zeon commited atrocity in original series but you began to root for them when the Federation turned out to be worse in Zeta.

      And your comment brought us to The Promise graphic novel, “Sure, the evil empire is gone, but was it a right thing to drive away the inhabitants in colonial lands.”

  • Shmeeb

    I think identity is the biggest thing to Avatar. Look at Jet, which was whom I found this whole connection in. He returns in season 2 and the very first shot we see of him is at his mouth with the wheat. Later on, when he is brain-washed the wheat is gone from his mouth, showing that Jet isn’t himself anymore. Also when Sokka tries to jog his memory by putting the wheat into his mouth again it doesn’t work, which is a grim suggestion that Jet will never be the same again, that he can’t be changed and this very distantly foreshadows his implied “death”.

    And then there’s Zuko, who is the coolest and most dynamic character. Zuko’s hair I guess can be somewhat symbolic of his two lives. When his hair is in a top knot, he is Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation whose destiny in life is to capture the Avatar and regain his honor, but when it isn’t in a top knot (i.e. all of season 2), he is going through change and is very ambivalent of himself. The top knot is very symbolic because in the beginning of season 2 him and Iroh cut theirs off and cast it down the river, which is essentially them converting to their life as fugitives and turning their backs on the Fire Nation. Additionally, the top knot is really only seen in the Fire Nation, which is a cultural identity to them, and so when he cuts it off, Zuko is looking away from the Fire Nation. As well, in season 2 Zuko almost completely forgets about Aang and is dispossessed with capturing him, at least up until Lake Loagi. I suppose that the growth of his hair can also be parallel and synonymous with the events of season 2, because at the end it sort of stops growing, which is also when he comes to the crossroads of his destiny. When he is seen again in season 3, he is wearing a top knot. In most scenes where he is wearing his hair down in season 3, he is confused, displeased and angry (his ambivalence is peeking through), until finally on the Day of Black Sun, Zuko is dressing up to leave but before doing so there is a scene which begins with him letting down the top knot. He follows by explaining how he is going to “set things right”, and I think this is symbolic of the biggest change in Zuko.

    But also, almost every character in Avatar has some sort of identity, Aang his arrow, Sokka his boomerang, Katara her hair loopies, Zuko his scar, Jet the wheat, I guess Toph’s blindness (I’m not really sure with her), and there’s probably a few more, but nonetheless Avatar goes pretty freakin deep in its composition and themes for a children show. I only wish there were more cartoons like it.

    And same with the four elements, each having their identity, one of which is of course their respective bending element and discipline, but also in their culture. The Water tribe resembles the Eskimo with a slight touch of some Scandinavian, the Earth kingdom mostly Chinese, with some very strong distinctions to the also-Chinese-influenced Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads obviously have some Buddhist influence. But nonetheless each nations has their own cultural identity.