There is more to the Olympics than the athletics. As an event that brings several countries around the world together every four years, it naturally brings the potential to get politicized. Examples include the Russian rigging at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, the combining of the North and South Korean hockey teams, and the appearance of Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. Of course, the national pride of many is at stake because it is a unique moment when so many people of the world collide at one place with their home’s eyes resting on their shoulders. Though one might prefer not, the Olympics can serve an optimal opportunity to stage different types of power plays.
Beyond the politics, the Olympics display many countries’ growth. Although the US holds the most Olympic medals, the glory comes less from Americans’ inherent ability to be dominant in all sports and more from the ability of the US to put a lot of funds and effort into their national team. This observation is not meant to detract from the talent of previous US teams but to point out that if all countries were similarly endowed, the competition’s difficulty level would rise exponentially. So, when you are watching the Olympics and see some obscure country you have never heard of win a gold medal, rather than be angry, you should wonder what that medal means for that country. There is good reason to speculate that economic prosperity and population size are the factors that lead to higher medal counts.
While growth is most evident in these up-and-coming countries, a different type of growth can also occur in already well-established countries. For the United States, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have visibly presented new faces: Asian Americans. There has been Asian American representation in past US teams, but with seven out of fourteen figure skaters of Asian descent and Chloe Kim recently winning the gold for halfpipe snowboarding at seventeen, this American minority has received a plate of well-deserved attention. In addition, they help make up the most diverse Team USA at the Winter Olympics to date, with ten African American and two openly gay athletes.
Given the ethnic makeup of the United States and its promoted title of being one of the “melting pots of the world,” the growing diversity of the United States Olympic team is significant. The typical US Olympic athlete over the years has tended to be white presenting. When thinking of the current greats, an American might quickly point out Michael Phelps or Shaun White, but it would be a little harder if pressed to name a person of color. Giving screen time and glory to a different American ethnicity shows the world a better representation of what America truly is. More importantly, it reminds American people of color at home of the limitless bounds they can achieve, instead of reinforcing a psychological stereotype of what they cannot.
But why Asian Americans? Why put so much focus on them? When you think about the race-focused civil rights issues going on in the United States and across the world, Asian Americans are not the first minority to come to mind. Rather, examples of the pain and unfair treatment of African Americans and of President Trump trying to pull away the rights and homes of the Latino minority dominate the news.
There does not seem to be much of a fuss about Asian Americans. Sure, some ignorant person might pull the edges of their eyes to make them squinty. Yes, people make fun of recent immigrants’ thick accents. There is a stereotype of Asians being smart in school, but it does not seem that bad. It is these exact sentiments that make the representation of this minority important.
Asian Americans are often made out to be the Model Minority. We have tiger parents who want us to become doctors or lawyers. We work hard in school to meet the expectations of our parents, get all A’s, and steal the valedictorian spot from many privileged white kids. We exit high school with ridiculously high SAT scores and have seemingly amazing chances of getting into any college. Despite many of us having modest backgrounds, we work hard and have the best chances at social mobility upward. This is what allowed the white majority to don us with the name of Model Minority.
One problem with the Model Minority status is that the majority then uses Asian Americans’ positive development to make the argument that if one minority can pull themselves up the social ladder with their hard work, the problem is not the opportunities America is offering but an internal problem with the minorities. This false but widespread claim drives a division between minorities, for the Asian minority’s example seems to threaten their well-warranted claims of unfairness and discrimination.
The Asian stereotype is, as stereotypes often are, not reflective of reality. Despite our good performance in school, we are often rejected from prestigious schools in the multitudes, leading to outrage that can even involve the Supreme Court. Our performance at the highest tier in education does not seem to correlate with a rise in our representation among the richest, as the CEOs our peers thought we would become. The public often exaggerates school performance, ignoring great parts of the minority that struggle in poverty, unable to do their best in academics. African Americans and Latinos do seem to experience a more direct discrimination, but this should not invalidate the struggles of Asian Americans or forget a history of hurt as seen by the mistreatment of the Chinese in California in the United States’ formational years or the Japanese American internment during World War II.
It is not the reality, but rather fragments of truths that support the Model Minority idea and its prominence in the population changes how Asian Americans view themselves and how they are viewed by others. We are caught in the middle with the title of “Model Minority.” We are not truly a part of the majority with their privileges, but we cannot complain about being a minority since we seem to overcome the difficulty of social mobility without a problem.
This thinking easily infects Asian Americans as well and rings even more deeply into how we live our lives. We do not complain because somehow we are still “privileged.” Our parents might tell us that we should be doctors or lawyers, and though American society says we can do more than that, the bubble expands only slightly to, perhaps, a software developer or a businessperson. Why would we dream of being an artist? A singer? An athlete? Why would we think that? Are we not asking for too much? And so we keep silent. We are shown to the nation as a “Model Minority” and taught to be a “Silent Minority.”
Seeing other Asian Americans on TV and winning is so important because it means a change in thinking. Chloe Kim is winning gold in snowboarding, while Nathan Chen and Mirai Nagasu are making history with their beautiful spins on ice. If they can do it, the box we were in was simply imaginary. A new possibility emerges that we can do something different—that we can do anything at all.