Like a lot of the world, or at least my Twitter feed, I’ve been rediscovering my love of Avatar: The Last Airbender since it was made available to stream on Netflix. I’ve already marathoned it, ordered the bound library editions of the sequel comics (spoilers: one of them has to do with Zuko’s mom!), and started stalking the internet for more merchandise. Of which there is a severe lack and I need the marketing and merchandising teams to get on that because I will give them all of my money. I’ve also been enjoying this Avatar Renaissance because it’s lead to a lot of introspective hot takes and memes that just did not exist when the show was first airing.
One of the things, or should I say characters, that’s getting a lot of spotlight (as he should) is Uncle Iroh. Though all of the characters are pretty perfect and have great story arcs, Uncle Iroh shines because when we first meet him he’s just Prince Zuko’s uncle accompanying him during his banishment. Our main takeaways are that he likes to give advice (solicited or otherwise) and that he likes tea and the finer hings in life. However as the series progresses, we learn that he is just more than the laid back, tea drinking Uncle we were led to believe. He dispenses nuggets of wisdom that might have gone over our heads as kids, but resonate with us now as adults and have us regard his character in a new light. These are just a few of my favorites that I think we can carry with us after we’re done watching the show.
“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”
Uncle Iroh says this to Zuko upon their arrival to Ba Sing Se as refugees after being branded as traitors to the Fire Nation and hunted by the ruthless Princess Azula. For Zuko, ex-prince of the Fire Nation and current Angst Lord, his status as a refugee is a bitter pill to swallow. Uncle Iroh gently reminds him that regardless of his feelings, life is only going to keep moving forward and what it looks like is up to him.
In uttering this statement the show does a good job portraying both sentiments through these characters. In Iroh audiences see someone who is choosing to make the best of what life has given him and in Zuko someone who is choosing to be unhappy because of his disappointment. Both characters are now banished princes of the Fire Nation, something that tends to get over looked because ‘General’ and ‘Uncle’ are the titles more commonly associated with Iroh. While Zuko is certainly entitled to his disappointment, after all it’s his father that banished him not his brother as in Iroh’s case, his negative attitude won’t change anything in the long run, only result in his own continued anger. Life in Ba Sing Se will only go on regardless, so for his own mental health it would be better to process his emotions and let them go.
Ultimately, Uncle Iroh’s message is that life is more than just the moment you find yourself in. So you can either make it work for you or just let it happen to you. This is one of my favorite lines in the show, and one that I constantly find myself repeating as things start to feel unreal in the current news cycle.
“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.”
In Book 2 after being attacked by Azula, Zuko asks Uncle to teach him advanced firebending so that they aren’t vulnerable to he attacks again. Having had an interest in the philosophies of the other nations, Iroh teaches Zuko the value in learning from people outside of what he’s grown up with. Later on we learn that Iroh is a part of the White Lotus, where members from all nations have come together to share wisdom from all four nations, and that he is one of their leaders. So it’s safe to say Iroh knows what he’s talking about. He even reveals that a firebending move that he invented was inspired by the waterbenders, showing that there is action behind his words and beliefs.
Inviting and enacting the knowledge you find outside of your lived experience is advice that is applicable to just about any situation you find yourself in. If we take news for instance, it’s important to draw from multiple sources in order to get the most accurate information about the person or event being reported on. In the culinary world this has lead to the creation of ‘fusion foods’ that draw from different cultural cuisines to create new, delicious offerings. To grow and become more than what you are, you need to look for opportunities and occasions that require it of you. Otherwise you’re tempted to stay in the comfortable known and you stagnate. You must be willing to look outside of yourself and be open to continuous learning.
“I know you aren’t supposed to cry over spilled tea, but it’s just so sad!”
Uncle Iroh utters this on brand statement in Book 2 after disembarking from the ferry to Ba Sing Se. Zuko had just knocked his tea out of his hands in anger over Iroh’s use of covert firebending, his final one until Azula reappears at the end of the season, to warm it up and being caught for it.
While I’m sure it was meant as a bit of comedic relief at the end of a tense episode (Team Avatar having crossed the dangerous Serpent’s Pass in their episode storyline) I couldn’t help but think on it a little more. Iroh is one of the character’s that is most in tune with emotions in the show, so for him to say this I feel is more poignant than one might realize. The sentiment in the beginning “you aren’t supposed to cry over spilled tea” is adapted from the phrase “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” meaning there is no point in being sad or disappointed over what’s happened because there is no changing it. That’s pretty simple, but it’s the rest of the sentence “but it’s just so sad” that is of most interest to me. Yes, it’s supposed to make us laugh as a play on words because of how much Iroh loves tea but it also shows us that perhaps Iroh isn’t so unaffected by his life as he’s let on. The Fire Nation, much like tea, has been a constant in Iroh’s life for better or for worse. If we then take the spilled tea as a metaphor for his severed ties with the Fire Nation, finally cut through as he sheds the titles of ‘prince’ and ‘General’ for ‘refugee’ with his entrance into the Earth Kingdom stronghold, then what we see is something entirely different. It is Iroh’s final good-bye to the Fire Nation, to his old life, and despite all that has happened he is saddened by it and acknowledging that sadness within himself.
This perhaps helps to make sense of the first quote we discussed, “Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not”. It comes in the episode after this one, and sheds more light on the patience he shows Zuko as his nephew processes his new normal. Unlike Zuko though, Iroh has the advantage of years on his side to help guide him through his turmoil. Like Zuko, Iroh is also grieving the life he left behind but while he acknowledges his grief he also knows that wallowing in it won’t change anything. So be sad, let yourself feel because doing the opposite doesn’t help.
What are some of your favorite pieces of wisdom from Uncle Iroh? Let me know in the comments below!
Featured Image Via Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/768989705106891290/
I'm a writer based in California. I received my Bachelor's and Master's in Literature from San Francisco State University. I dream of one day writing books of my own and maybe even being part of a writer's room for a show! I love to talk about pop culture, books, and travel to anyone willing to listen. Some of my favorite topics in those categories are "Avatar the Last Airbender", "Gilmore Girls", the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Mexico, and Paris. My favorite thing in the world though is my dog, he's just the cutest!