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Avatar: The Last Airbender's Princess Yue and the cycle of the sacrificing woman

By Denny ‎‎‎
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Amidst the atypical state of the quarantine, the release of Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix has given me and other fans of the series something familiar to hold onto. In revisiting this favorite childhood show of mine, I sought Princess Yue's storyline with clarity. Although brief, it strikes all too familiarly; like the legacy of the women in my family, Princess Yue speaks to the aptitude of women who sacrifice.

Princess Yue is the daughter of Chief Arnook and his wife, a tribal chieftain. Unlike the other babies of the Northern Water Tribe, Yue was not born wailing. Sick and weak at birth, she could barely open her eyes. Members of the water tribe believed Yue was destined to die. Defeated, her father begged for his daughter's salvation before the moon.

When my Dutch grandmother was 9, her father was assigned to Indonesia as part of his government service job. She and her family relocated to the city of Padang, the capital of the West Sumatra province. Not long after the relocation, her mother died of cervical cancer. With the new absence of a mother figure and lack of familiarity with a new country, adapting was her sole option to fight for what remained of her future and family.

While Yue and Avatar's main protagonists Aang, Katara, and Sokka look out into the night sky, Yue explains her own relationship to the moon. "My father pleaded with the spirits to save me," she recalls to the other three. "That night — beneath the full moon — he brought me to the oasis and placed me in the pond. My dark hair turned white. I opened my eyes and began to cry, and they knew I would live. That's why my mother named me Yue. For the moon."

Before my grandmother married my Indonesian grandfather, who is Muslim, she converted out of Christianity. Having already left Holland, her conversion to Islam established the new life she would soon build with the man she loved. It was a sacrifice of her ancestry only she could understand. It was a sacrifice not only out of circumstantial choices but also out of promise.

For this reason, I see my grandmother as the moon of our family tree. In Avatar, Yue says, "[...] the moon was the first waterbender. Our ancestors saw how it pushed and pulled the tides, and learned how to do it themselves."

Like a moon, the cycle repeats itself.

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My family and I immigrated from Indonesia to the United States in 2007, leaving our extended families behind, including my grandmother. Approaching U.S. Customs at the airport, my mother took off her hijab, erasing the marker of her Muslim identity. She was nonchalant, but I remember it as clear as the blue sea.

"[In Indonesian:] I was OK with it", she recently explained to me over the phone. "I was searching for ‘safe'. I didn't feel pressured or forced to." Although firm in her strength in recalling her feelings, I heard the shake in her voice. She sounded like water.

"I felt guilty," she admitted. "Sometimes I get sad seeing women who are brave enough to wear hijabs out in public. It makes me jealous."

"What does Dad say?"

"He says, ‘What makes you feel more at peace — follow that path.'"

I understand where she gets her integrity from. Listening to her and feeling my grandmother in my mother's conviction felt like witnessing the moon and ocean in motion. In this, I saw the spirits of Tui and La.

Tui and La mean "push and pull," Spirit Koh, one of the most knowledgeable spirits in the Avatar universe, tells Aang. "And that has been the nature of their relationship for all time [...] Tui and La — your moon and ocean — have always circled each other in an eternal dance. They balance each other, yin and yang."

Considering America's anti-Islam rhetoric after 9/11, my mother did what she deemed necessary at the airport. In order to enter America smoothly and without the religious bias of those who had power to accept or deny our entry, she sacrificed a visible part of herself, a momentary surrender with the promise of resistance.

Before moving to the States permanently, we moved throughout the Indonesian islands frequently, too. Traveling was meaningful not only because it gave us fond memories, but because we traveled as a unit. My mother always dreamed of having a family of five, so she had three children — me the youngest. As a nuclear Indonesian family, moving to the United States would allow us to achieve the American brand of success. However, the adjustment of living in America altered our standing as a family, breaking my mother's picture-perfect family mentality.

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In Book 1's finale of Avatar, the Fire Nation invades the Northern Water Tribe as part of their greater mission to take over the world. Leading the Fire Nation Navy, Admiral Zhao kills the moon spirit Tui, whose physical form was the white koi fish. The Northern Water Tribe loses its balance and therefore the ability to waterbend.

Moving as a kid wasn't so much a sacrifice for me, but transitioning was. My sacrifice rifted with the sacrifices of the women before me. My transition felt selfish and destructive to my family.

Aware the moon's power remained inside of her since her father's plea, Yue gives back her life to save Tui, the white koi fish. Yue's sacrifice restores balance, even at the cost of herself. But Yue does not die — she reemerges as the Moon Spirit. She reminds her lover, Sokka, "I'll always be with you," before fading into the moon.

Oftentimes, I sense a familial grieving of the person I once used to be. Reintroducing myself to the world, saying, "I am a girl," does not discount who I was and am in spirit. Sacrificing my past froze my family rather than propelled. But ice is still a form of water, and time thaws.

When my dad took away my makeup as a denial of my femininity, I sat on the stoop of our house. A house in America, occupied by Muslim immigrants, descendant of an interracial marriage. We've come so far from where we began, yet it was everything I never asked for. My mother stepped outside to sit with me and slipped me a $100 bill.

"Go buy new ones," she smiled.

My grandmother, mother, and I sacrificed our legacies across oceans, religions, and genders. The act of sacrifice cycles itself down generationally. Like the moon, we set to rise. Like the ocean, we ebb to tide.

These days, I find it easy to accept the coexistence of contraries. Accepting my life as a woman required the rejection of what my family believed I ought to be. When I see more and more of my mother in my reflection, it is not because we are women. It is because we sacrifice. She understands the selflessness of surrender, and I know she learned that from her own mother; to give for the taking, to hide for the priding, to shed for the sprouting. This duality keeps the world spinning.

After Yue's sacrifice, her father, Chief Arnook, professed to Sokka as they stared into the moon's horizon: "The spirits gave me a vision when Yue was born. I saw a beautiful brave young woman become the moon spirit. I knew this day would come."

"You must be proud," Sokka responds.

"So proud. And sad."

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