Iron and Silk is a very fitting title...the movie is about contrasts, between the East and the West, between reality and perception.
Mark, an American who has had a passion for China and Chinese culture since he was young, lands a job as an English teacher in China. He learns a lot about life from his students.
Having watched many kung-fu movies, Mark asks Teacher Pan, a famous wushu master in the area, to teach him martial arts. At first, Teacher Pan refuses, claiming that Americans don't know how to "eat bitter", but eventually gives in. Neither Mark nor Teacher Pan know what to expect from each other----Mark is a fun-loving American in a foreign land, Teacher Pan is a tough guy with the nickname "Iron Fist".
Mark also falls in love with a woman named Ming, but he comes to understand that their love can never be a reality.
In the movie, Mark encounters all kinds of discrimination; despite his ability to speak Mandarin, he is still perceived as a foreigner. He also experiences closeness and friendship.
Mark gains an understanding of the nuances of Chinese culture, how China is a combination of politics, ancient history, and the individual lives of people. The movie has great images of serpentine rivers curving through canyons, as well as everyday scenes like busy markets and streets. This movie really appealed to me because I often feel caught between two cultures(my parents are rather traditional Chinese-Americans), though in a different way than Mark does.
Mark Salzman's "Iron & Silk" is a beautiful account of his two-year experience as an English teacher in Hunan Provice, China. The book consists of delightful vignettes of his encounters with different people, from bureaucrats to medical students to fishermen to calligraphers to martial artists, and when each vignette is finished we experience an epiphany because we know so well what the human issues involved are. "Iron & Silk" deserves to be read not as a travelogue or a martial-arts book (it doesn't really compare to C. W. Nicol's "Moving Zen"), but as dignified book full empathy and respect for people who live in a culture that has been shaped by different forces than ours.