Winter Olympians of color - American like us
During the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, my daughter M and her friend C, the only two Chinese-American girls in Mrs. Schroeder’s first-grade class, were excited about watching Michelle Kwan compete for the gold.
C was planning to invite Michelle to her upcoming seventh birthday party, an ice skating party at Buhr Park. M loved the video clip of Michelle eating dinner with her family—using the same bowls and chopsticks that we did. For them, Michelle was an admired “older sister” that they looked up to. None of the other first-grade girls really knew who Michelle Kwan even was, but after two weeks of hearing about Michelle Kwan every day in class and at soccer, every girl in that class stayed up late that final night of the Olympics to watch Michelle Kwan’s bittersweet final performance.
During those same 2002 Winter Olympics, Apolo Ohno crashed onto the scene with such a flurry of energy and style that we could not help but be transfixed by this hunky hapa “older brother” and the story of his dad’s tough love to keep him out of trouble. We laughed at the images of women fans and even Gov. Gary Locke sporting electrical tape soul patches in his honor. Add on the stories of speedskater Derek Parra who, as the first Mexican-American Winter Olympian, broke both world and American records, and bobsledder Vonetta Flowers who became the first African American to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, and we were complete converts.
During the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, then 2-year-old Little Brother skated around and around our family room with Apolo Ohno and jumped off the couch with mogul skier Toby Dawson. This year, we read bedtime stories about the first Asian Pacific American Olympic gold medalists — swimmer Duke Kahanamoku (1912, 1920, 1924, 1932) and diver Sammy Lee (1948, 1952).
These Olympians of color look like us, face the same challenges as us, inspire us. They are Americans, but Americans like us.
When a national network news site cheers “American beats Kwan,” we know that hurt. When Toby Dawson talks about the bonds formed at Heritage Camps, we have been to those cultural camps. When we read about how Duke Kahanamoku struggled with the cold water and cold weather in his thin Hawaiian clothes, we have worn those same thin (Made in Taiwan) clothes and felt the shame of our parents’ frugality as sharply as the cold. When we hear of the sacrifices parents made for their children and the food these Olympians miss most while training away from home, that is our story, too.
So much prejudice is based upon how our bodies look, assumed inferior because they are smaller or shorter or darker. Yet these Olympians of color show that our bodies work just fine, thank you very much.
This pride goes to bursting when other Americans like ice dancers (and University of Michigan students) Meryl Davis and Charlie White show respect and care toward our cultures. They worked with an Indian dance teacher (Anuja Rajendra, BollyFit), watched Bollywood films, created costumes from clothes bought at an Indian boutique, even got the hand gestures and eye movements down. The Indian and Indian-American communities loved it. They did not just make stuff up (like Russian ice dancers Domnina and Shabalin whose gaudy brownface costumes and inaccurate and insensitive appropriation of sacred dance offended Australian aboriginal leaders).
Just as speedskater J.R. Celski revealed an enormously proud tattoo combining both Filipino and Polish flags when he took off his shirt, the Olympics can also reveal who we are underneath.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.