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Lin Bei Fong MWT quote
One of the things I loved best about Avatar: the Last Airbender is that it faced head on issues that few other shows, for adults or children, were willing to touch.  Stories are how we learn to shape our own views of the world, and Avatar: the last Airbender did this with such a frankness, emotional honesty, and critical imagination that I ate it up with a spoon as eagerly as any child in the intended audience.  This is why I was so disappointed with  the first two books of The Legend of Korra, and also why I am so hopeful after seeing the premier of Book Three: Change.

With the reveal that the Harmonic Convergence has given people all over the world airbending, Korra sees this as a chance to restore the Air Nomads and bring balance to the world.  Tenzin, as the son of the last survivor of the Air Nomad genocide wishes to see his father’s people recreated, and wants finally for him and his family to not be alone.  But both of these desires are foiled however, by the new Airbenders themselves.  They have homes, lives, and cultures already, and in the premier, we see Tenzin fail over and over again to convince any airbenders to join him, until at last Korra tries to use force.  This situation asks us as an audience to consider what makes a people.

This is a question that most people probably never ask themselves.  Even many fantasy writers, who create fictional peoples to populate their fictional worlds as a matter of course often don’t seem to ask themselves this question.  Yet it’s been one I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, both as a writer, and also because of my own messy feelings and connections to my ethnic heritage.

Judaism is an ethno-religion, which means it is the religion of a specific ethnic group, and converting is not just a matter of belief, but of being adopted into the ethic group.  To make this a little more complicated, there are a number of Jewish ethnic sub-groups, all of whom have their own distinct history and culture.  This is why I can say that I am one sixteenth Ashkenazi Jewish, from my great great grandfather. Most people with Jewish ancestry as distant as mine would never identify as Jewish, and the Jewish community would by and large agree with them, but I was also raised Jewish because my mother converted when I was a child.  Most Jewish people who I know and know my history consider me to be fully Jewish, even though I don’t fit the halakic definition of Jewishness.  This is also why there are Atheist Jews, and other Jewish people who don’t believe in the Jewish religion.

In the Avatar world, for a very very long time, bending has been understood in terms of national and ethnic identity.  Sure there were non-benders from almost all the nations, but if you were a firebender, you were Fire Nation.  There were some exceptions, due to interbreeding, but you could be pretty sure that if someone was an earthbender, they had at least some Earth Kingdom ancestry.  The sudden appearance of new airbenders from all nations changes that.  In some ways, bending can stand in for genetic heritage, and while in the real world, we don’t have situations in which people suddenly switch genetic heritage, we do have situations in which culture doesn’t fit blood.

One of these is adoption.  If a German American family adopts a baby from Korea, and raises her to have a strong connection to German culture, is she German American?  Is she Korean American?  If she is Korean American, is she the same kind of Korean American as someone who grew up in a Korean American family?  What if it didn’t cross racial lines?  What if the little girl were from Ireland?  What people does she belong to, and does she have a say?  If she had grown up, married, and built a life for herself as a German American, and only years later found out she had been adopted, would we suddenly expect her to abandon her German American culture?  What if someone started airbending after a lifetime as an Earth Kingdom farmer?  Does he stop being Earth Kingdom because he’s now an airbender?

It has only been recently that Jews have been able to adopt the children of non-Jews in any kind of numbers, but the “adoption” of Jewish children into Gentile homes is far older.  In Christian Europe for example, the Catholic Church had a long standing rule that anyone who had been baptized, by choice or otherwise, was a Catholic.  There is a long history of Jewish children in Catholic controlled countries being forcibly baptized and taken away from their families, sometimes systematically, sometimes haphazardly. If the baptized Jewish children escaped and found their way back to their families, their families would have to hide them, or flee, because Jews could not be trusted to raise a baptized Christian, and if they were found with their “Christian” children, they would be treated as kidnappers.  Wealthy Jewish families were often afraid to have Christian servants, for fear those servants would baptize their children and then tell the authorities.  This was a reasonable fear, and went on far into what we would consider the modern day.  The last confirmed case of this happening was recent enough for the baptized child in question to die in the Holocaust as a Jew, in spite of being a Catholic Cardinal.

Jewish tradition gives these children the same status as the children of people who let the Jewish faith.  They both are to be treated as blameless captives, and if they wish to be Jewish and live a Jewish life, than the Jewish people are to welcome them with open arms.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Tenzin’s desire to rebuild the Air Nomads.  I know what it means to be cut off from one’s ethic heritage, as he must, having been raised with no Air Nomads except his father left in the world.  I know what it means to search through remnants and try to piece them together into a whole. I can also understand Korra’s wish to force the new airbenders to be Air Nomads, even though it is one of the great wrongs to try to force someone to accept a culture.  In the end, Tenzin finds that he must do as the Rabbis had realized they must do, and welcome any Airbenders who want to be Air Nomads and lead an Air Nomad life with open arms and let the rest go.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
metanewsmods
Jul. 14th, 2014 06:57 pm (UTC)
Hi, may we link this at metanews?
attackfish
Jul. 14th, 2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
Sure, go right ahead!
marfisa
Jul. 17th, 2014 11:50 am (UTC)
Is the premiere of Book 3 actually up somewhere? I just looked on the Nickelodeon website and couldn't find any reference to it.
attackfish
Jul. 17th, 2014 01:17 pm (UTC)
*makes horrible noises of fannish frustration and despair*

So it has been airing on Friday nights on Nick, right? and it premiered June 27th. Well, it wasn't available on Amazon until yesterday, and I don't think it's even available on iTunes yet. Nick is advertising the show (when they bother to advertise it at all, which is another thing, their marketing has been absolutely godawful, and they wonder why their ratings are in the toilet, since only the people paying really close attention even know it's on) as "all new episodes you can't get online" as if this were a good thing, and of course it is not available to watch on their site. To make matters worse, people who bought the first two seasons on iTunes are reporting that they no longer have access to them.

When you make legally acquiring something extremely difficult or impossible for a large chunk of viewers, you mandate piracy as the solution. Nick is shooting themselves in the foot, and I can't for the life of me figure out why.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )