As Nathan Chen spun in the air with a flourish again and again, few were surprised that he captured the gold medal in men’s single skating this week for Team USA. But none were more excited to watch Asians winning for the United States than the more earth-bound members of the Asian community.
“I’m all pro-USA, but when I see an Asian person, I’m like, ‘YES!’ It’s good,” said Hansol Kim, pumping both fists with enthusiasm. “I’m going to be honest. When you see ‘American,’ still the depiction is white, right? You have different races here. So many Asians. Nathan Chen is breaking down that stigma.”
And he was no anomaly, others in the Bay Area pointed out. Chen’s teammates in Beijing included Vincent Zhou, Karen Chen, Alysa Liu and Madison Chock, all Asian Americans. Together, they’re the latest symbol, following Tiffany Chin, Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, of the three-decade dominance of Asian Americans in a traditionally white sport.
Sarah Shang, a parent, joked that the impeccable performances could even set off a figure-skating craze among Chinese families. “Chinese people tend to practice this kind of hero worship. When a role model stands before them, Chinese motivate their children to do the same,” said Shang.
Shang also found the parents impressive. “I see some similarities between these skaters and Jeremy Lin,” the Palo Alto native turned basketball star. “Their parents must be very supportive of their children’s interests and willing to invest a lot of time, energy and money, even at the expense of their own lives and careers,” she continued.
At the very least, the performances of Chen and others have triggered a lot of pride.
“I’m glad to see Asian Americans winning in sports. I’m always happy to see people from my culture succeeding in sports, and particularly the Olympics,” said Justin Z. Zhao, 22, a local resident.
For some, their success is just a small part of something larger. Kaman Au, a mother of two, said, “Their victory also shows that Asians have contributed to the glory of America. Hopefully the discrimination against Asians will be less severe.”
Others felt it was the best response to the stereotype of Asians as test-taking machines. “It’ll smack people in the face who call us nerds,” said Shurrin Zeng, mother of a seventh-grade student.
Some argued that much of the Asian success in individual sports. such as figure skating and gymnastics. reflects the same ability to perform well on standardized tests. “On top of your natural talents, you can control how hard you work. I can control how hard I work for a test, it’s the same,” said Ann Hsu, 54.
Hsu felt both pride and some concern. “I’m worried that Asians are doing too well and will cause jealousy,” said Hsu. “It’s like why Harvard raised the bar for Asian Americans.”
But for Donna Li, 54, the achievements of the younger generation are a sign of the “radically changed” attitude of Asians toward education. “My father only wanted me to learn math and science well, and didn’t support my brother in learning music,” she said. “Nowadays, parents not only ‘force’ their children to learn math and science and get good grades, but also encourage them to pursue interests outside of school.”
Chen’s performance has stretched perceptions of the entire ethnic group. Li said, “This is true for figure skating and other sports like swimming. We thought Chinese were born with poor physical conditions, but now these shackles no longer exist.”