By Stacy Nguyen
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
As Troy Osaki stepped into the spotlight, a hush fell over the audience. As he started to speak, the tension clenched, started to build. His voice and how he relayed his words, at first moderated and methodic, ramped up in speed, momentum, and emotion, and he said:
How could you expect me to not hit back?
To be a standing target
too passive for confrontation?
I refuse to be the Asian punching bag
every country boy can have his shot at.
America only wants me when I’m useful —
a disposable body.
Earlier this year in April at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance’s annual fundraising banquet, Osaki recited his poem, “Year of the Dragon.”
In the audience that night was Quinn Russell Brown, 26, digital editor for the University of Washington’s Columns Magazine. Brown had never met Osaki before, but upon seeing that performance, Brown reached out over social media.
“I tweeted him a GIF of Chris Pine crying after seeing John Legend and Common perform ‘Glory’ at the  Oscars. Basically, Troy Osaki had me feeling like this. At the dinner, there was not a dry eye. People were touched by Troy’s poem. I knew it was something special.”
Brown asked Osaki if he’d like to team up and create something, then brought in a friend, videographer Aaron Middleton. Together, the three created “Year of the Dragon,” a video performance of Osaki’s poem, about the not-often-told struggle and racism that martial arts legend Bruce Lee faced. The video was filmed in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District, a neighborhood that Lee used to inhabit in his early 20s, the streets of which he used to walk on.
Osaki, 23, is a Filipino Japanese American writer and performer. He’s a Kundiman fellow and a Youth Speaks Seattle alumni and mentor. Osaki uses poetry and writing as a tool to reflect and process events in recent history, with a detachment that also feels deeply personal and universal.
“Art is a way to change people’s hearts and minds,” said Osaki, “to change the way they feel and think.”
“He has [a poem] called ‘Morning Service,’ about his grandma’s internment, her incarceration [by the U.S. Government during WWII],” said Brown. “It’s a really cool way for him to reflect on American history and retell those [kinds of] stories, but he also uses them to understand his own experiences — which is like a great way to educate people who are watching the videos. For lack of a better way, teaching history can be cheesy. A lot of the time when people tell you history, it’s either boring or cheesy. Troy tells history in a really present way.”
Osaki is also a full-time law school student at Seattle University and a volunteer intern at Creative Justice, an arts-based program for court-involved youth to develop creative skills, gain mentorship, and obtain court-related benefits.
The Little Dragon
One of the most influential martial artist in the 20th century was born in 1940, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Bruce Lee spent his formative years in Hong Kong, where he trained in martial arts and was introduced to the film industry. Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, was a Cantonese opera star, and due to the family connection, Bruce Lee had starred in 20 films before age 18.
In 1959, Lee moved back to the United States to finish high school and worked at Ruby Chow’s restaurant in Seattle’s Chinatown. In 1961, he enrolled at the University of Washington.
A martial arts exhibition in Long Beach led to an audition for the role of Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet.” The show lasted for only one season (1966–1967). Following that were small stints and side characters. While a racial pioneer — Lee was an Asian man in popular culture at the time who wasn’t depicted as an asexual Asian clown — Lee still suffered from the latent racism in Hollywood.
According to various accounts, including from Lee and from his wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, Lee had trouble gaining meaty roles in Hollywood because of his ethnicity and because of his thick accent when speaking English.
“For a lot of immigrants and Asian Americans, Bruce was a very powerful symbol and role model. But I think beyond that, a lot of people can also relate to being locked out of storytelling or to being not represented,” said Brown. “Of course, I’m not the person who can do that. (Brown is white.) That’s why I wanted to collaborate with Troy. And it’s my way of contributing, to facilitate [someone else’s vision].”
A new direction
Osaki grew up watching Bruce Lee movies, training in martial arts, and listening to his parents tell stories about Taky Kimura, whom they trained under. Kimura was a Japanese American martial artist and one of Lee’s closest friends and top students.
When he was younger, Osaki used to want to be a rock star.
“I’m serious,” he said. “I liked Blink-182 a lot. But I was just not musically gifted — I couldn’t hold rhythm. My tone is totally bad. I couldn’t really sing. But I was writing lyrics all the time — I never considered them poems — but they were really poems.”
His ear for the rhythm of cadence of words was cultivated by school teachers. Osaki started YouTubing a lot and then joined the college audition circuit. Between 2012 and 2015, Osaki competed at national events, such as Brave New Voices, the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, and the National Poetry Slam.
Osaki wrote “Year of the Dragon” in the summer of 2015. It took him a month and a half — longer than usual. It was also a turning point in his creative path. ‘Year of the Dragon’ is what Osaki calls a persona poem, one in which he talks on the personality and the identity of his subject — something he has never done before in his work.
“Being able to take on [the persona of] Bruce Lee made me feel in ways that I don’t feel when I’m just myself,” said Osaki. “As like a man of color, as an Asian American male — I feel a lot of doubt. I feel — a lot of times — that I’m too quiet and I’m not taking up a lot of space. Not that men should take up more space, but I mean — people of color should.”
“I’ve felt, in a lot of moments of my life, that I was invisible,” added Osaki. “I felt I wasn’t taken seriously because of my background. Bruce Lee challenges the notion of who Asian Americans folks are supposed to be. [We are not] powerless, voiceless, or easily exploitable. We’re not cheap labor, model minorities, [or a device] to pit people of color against one another. Bruce Lee for me was [a symbol] I could look up to, to challenge those systems of oppression.”
Months ago, Brown reached out to Middleton, a long-time collaborator — one he met when they were both students at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus. Brown asked Middleton if he was interested in a creative project involving a poet that he had met not too long ago.
“Aaron decided to do the piece without reading it first,” Brown cracked. “He got there and he said, ‘Okay, so let me read it.’” During the interview, Brown looked at Middleton across a table, at a Capitol Hill cafe. “It just shows how game you are, to just show up and work with a guy you’ve never met and just create.”
Middleton, 31, is West Indian, born in New York City to parents originally from the Virgin Islands. He was quieter than Osaki and Brown, preferring to sit back and listen, rather than talk. He is currently in a master’s program at the Academy of Art University.
“I think this poem is not just about Bruce and his struggle and the Asian American struggle in media,” said Brown. “It also speaks to all people of color’s struggles in media. It’s so universal.”
“Honestly, there are so many connections,” said Middleton. “It’s definitely wide-sweeping. When you look at minorities today, it affects everyone. There is difficulty breaking into everything.”
“Word,” said Osaki.
Osaki, Brown, and Middleton’s video, “Year of the Dragon,” was uploaded onto social media channels about three months ago at 9 a.m. Osaki was heading into work.
“I work at a small law firm in the ID,” Osaki said. “We focus on dependency law, children and parents, trying to keep the family together or trying to reunite families when the state is trying to tear them apart.”
At around 9:30, a white man stopped Osaki on the street. A short exchanged followed. “And he basically told me he was surprised I knew how to speak English,” said Osaki. “It was weird — it felt like too coincidental — to have uploaded the video, then to have this encounter. And the thing is these encounters aren’t unusual. I can name other times, like when someone has bowed to me on the street.”
“White people never disappoint,” said Brown.
“A lot of the time, I feel really defeated in those moments,” said Osaki. “And a lot of times, I don’t said anything back. I let it slide by. It’s something I want to change [about myself]. And I look up to Bruce Lee. He doesn’t let folks defeat him like that. It’s important to challenge racism and oppression to let people know it’s not okay.”
“This is incumbent upon everyone,” said Brown. “I think I was just lucky enough that the right people taught me, and I made the right friends — like Aaron. … It’s like, once you learn these things [about systemic racism], you can’t forget them. [‘Year of the Dragon’] is such an eloquent description of an ill in the world that Troy gives you. It’s up to you to accept that reality or continue to live in delusion.”
“There’s a line in the poem: How do you expect me to not push back?” said Osaki. “That’s my ask [for people of color]. To push back.” ■
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.