How do the stories of the Olympics help create community for Asian Americans?
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
When Filipina American Lee Kiefer won Olympic gold in fencing, becoming the first American woman and the first Asian American woman to win gold in individual women’s fencing — while also going to medical school — some Asian Americans jokingly groaned in anticipation of our mothers now demanding that we also win Olympic gold while going to med school.
Sigh. Another impossibly perfect cousin to compete against in the Asian American Parenting Olympics. Time for us to start studying and working and training even harder to try to impress our impossible-to-impress Asian moms.
The Olympics offer an opportunity to celebrate Asian excellence without worrying about accidentally reinforcing the model minority myth. We see ourselves and find connection in the stories of the Asian American athletes, but also the athletes who are Asian, immigrants, refugees, children of immigrants and refugees, multiracial, adopted, undocumented, and more. National and racial boundaries do not limit us here.
We see our own complex origin stories in Japanese American silver medalist surfer Kanoa Igarashi representing Japan in men’s shortboard who was born and raised in Huntington Beach, California, to Japanese surfer parents who moved there before he was born so that he could become a world championship surfer. We follow diver Jordan Windle’s and gymnast Yul Moldauer’s adoption stories. We cheer for weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz who won the Philippines' first gold medal ever and for Native Hawaiian surfer Carissa Moore (representing U.S.) who won gold in women’s shortboard this first time that the Native Hawaiian sport of surfing was in the Olympics. Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua caused a stir (again) when he walked in the opening ceremonies barechested in heritage dress and glistening in coconut oil. And we are charmed by the very youngest Olympians winning gold in skateboarding (Japan, Great Britain) and diving (China).
Still, the most Asian American moment of the Olympics was seeing a packed room full of Hmong American family and friends in St. Paul, Minnesota, gathered together to watch and cheer gymnast Suni Lee win gold, silver, and bronze. Despite our jokes about our parents’ and communities’ impossibly high standards for us, we know they are with us and cheering for us.
Creating such community is the hope of every Olympics. In 1956, a 17-year-old Asian Australian named John Ian Wing wrote a letter to the organizers of the tumultuous 1956 Melbourne Olympics suggesting that instead of another country-by-country procession of athletes mirroring the opening ceremony, for the closing ceremony, all the countries’ athletes should march in together, no more than two teammates together, so that "there will be only one nation. War, politics and nationality will be all forgotten."