By espnW | Illustrated By Mayumi HaryotoJune 19, 2018
As Disney celebrates the 20th anniversary of "Mulan," its first film to showcase an Asian woman lead, we reflect on our own real-life Asian heroes in sports. This year, athletes like Mirai Nagasu and Chloe Kim made history and redefined themselves, redefined their sports, and in turn redefined our ideas about physical, cultural and gendered limitations. In fact, there are now so many accomplished Asian women athletes -- weightlifter Udomporn Polsak, tennis player Li Na, swimmer Theresa Goh, golfer Michelle Wie, ice skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan, cricketers Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj -- that we do not have space to name them all. These are amazing athletes whose portraits fill continents and sail across oceans. These are Asian women athletes who brought all of who they are into the public arena, into the competition, and made us watch. These are athletes of indomitable character, athletes who pushed through substantial obstacles -- racial bias, brutal misogyny and significant personal difficulties -- to achieve extraordinary goals. These are the athletes who remind us that greatness is not achieved in spite of who we are, but rather that greatness happens because we are able to bring to the competition everything that makes us who we are.
In a collection of essays, poems and a reported piece, writers Sasha Pimentel, Shalene Gupta, Paul Tran, Cynthia Oka and Aishwarya Kumar share how they were affected by the movie, as well as by seeing these incredible Asian women athletes compete. -- Staceyann Chin
Our own representation
By Sasha Pimentel
Illustration by Jen Wang
In a photo of Singaporean swimmer Theresa Goh in resistance training, she's suspended in a pool, pulling a bucket loaded with weight -- the bucket pulling back as drag strapped above her knees -- her left thumb and index finger pressing into the hand paddle that's visible underwater as she swims a stroke forward.
This image is taken from underneath, from inside water, a point of view we're not so used to when we watch a competitive swimmer, and the athlete is so practiced at her craft, only the curve of her latissimus dorsi and a purple strap rippling hard at her hip tells us of the force and speed with which she must be swimming.
What's empowering here is the context: She was born with spina bifida, and she swims without using her legs. She's also Singapore's first athlete to come out as queer. But she's also a highly visible Asian athlete who has broken three world records and has won 30 gold medals in the ASEAN Para Games. She's a kind of woman and a kind of athlete that we as a viewing public haven't before seen: all at once a para-athlete, an LGBTQ ambassador, and an Asian in athletics.
Goh's strength and resilience over the 17 years of her career -- how each swim is made by the repetition of one stroke after another, the body pulling forward in insistence over what is trying to resist it back -- signal her imagination, her ability to create through her sport a version of herself that makes sense to her, even if she hadn't otherwise seen that version before in the world.
The jet of bubbles which must have come from the act of her breathing, but which flare softly in front of her swim cap; her goggles reflecting the passing tiled floor; and the disturbances of water which stream from her, are all reminders of how a competitive swimmer moves against the resistance of water that is always trying to halt her -- and a lesson too of an Asian athlete who is able to, with her own momentum, break through, change the environment, pierce through water.
In imagining such new reality for herself, Goh offers us a point of view we may not be so used to, but which advances our sight. "What we see changes what we know," the late psychologist Jean Piaget once said. We can add to that what historian Emma Pérez names "decolonial imaginary," a feminist practice that activates a new imagination for her community. Asian and Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) women suffer a range between misrepresentation, or lack of representation: between tropes which objectify and minimize the Asian body as weak or subjugable, and invisibility.
But Gol compels the kind of imagining which from invisibility births a new consciousness about identity -- how we conceive ourselves -- beyond the previously defined borders of who we thought we are, and who we thought we could be.
When I was 10 in 1992, U.S. ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi created the foundation of that kind of imagining for me, even if I didn't know it then. She appeared on the television screen from that strange and mysterious world of grown-ups, and my stomach compressed as "Malagueña" slowed to plucked strings, and Yamaguchi spun, her right arm raised like a single tulip.
But while my parents recorded her gold medal-winning program on our Betamax, what mattered to me was less those six minutes at the Olympics, and more the time after her performance, when she skated to a bench and waited for her scores. I wound the tape back to that moment, when her face of waiting filled the screen, all hesitation and expectation.
How could I articulate at age 10 that, in this moment of vulnerability in Yamaguchi, I could also sight the possibility of my own vague contours as I caught myself, sometimes, in the mirror? It's only now in my 30s that I realize that Yamaguchi, the first APIA athlete to win a gold medal in the Olympics, was also the first Asian or APIA face I saw outside of my home or immigrant community, the first APIA woman I witnessed on U.S. television characterized as a winner, a person of value in the culture. The first woman I saw in the country in which I lived who breathed hard, who anticipated her fate from a likeness adjacent enough to what I could call my own.
I'm not the only kid for whom Yamaguchi, through her athleticism, extended new perspective.
"Yamaguchi came along right when I needed her, filling a need I had long felt but didn't understand," Nicole Chung wrote in The New York Times Magazine. "It had never occurred to me that Asian-American heroes might exist. If you're seen as irrelevant, on the other hand, or rarely seen at all -- if your identity is reduced time and again to a slickly packaged product or the same tired jokes and stereotypes -- it can be harder to believe in your own agency and intrinsic worth."
But it wasn't just the celebrated portrayal of Yamaguchi's success that changed me; it was her vulnerability too. It was in the hesitation she showed while waiting, the unease there, where I recognized myself. When Yamaguchi entered my home in this way, she activated for me a new narrative beyond what this culture often tells people of color we must do: be perfect in order to belong. Be one of the few beyond minimization or critique, so we can be turned into a symbol for our race. Yes, it's true Yamaguchi was excellent, but she could also wobble at the triple loop, decide to turn a triple salchow into a double, and amid the great media pressure of Tonya Harding, Midori Ito, and the infamous triple axel, refuse to assimilate. And she could wait, breathing hard, not knowing.
It was her humanity which assured for me, and for other Asian or APIA children like me, that Yamaguchi at the Olympics was not an objectifying symbol, but representation: our own.
For other children, Disney's "Mulan," which turns 20 years old this week, may have been that image. The movie's hero is a flat image when compared to real athletes, and it's a movie disturbing for its racist tropes, from Mulan calling her dog "little brother" to the animalistic Huns, Mushu, and Chi-Fu. But I know too that a brown woman wiping off her whiteface to fight also carries cultural significance, even if part of the context is troubling.
Images can be both records of pain and concurrent beacons of hope, and imperfect as this version is, a physically able East Asian hero mattered for some Asian and APIA kids in front of their televisions too; allowed them to sight, even if diluted, possible versions of themselves through Mulan.
So when Mulan slings two weighted discs around the large wooden pillar, grimaces, then exercises both brawn and agility to climb it -- all to the chorus, "Be a man!" -- we're aware of the dramatic irony. Mulan becomes neither "man" nor "woman" -- the strength exerted there surpassing borders of identity -- but rather a person previously unseen, refusing invisibility or surrender. A force of will upward, against any gravity trying to resist it down.
That force, such will, originates for us from Mulan's struggle and her vulnerability: her metaphysical questioning when she asks, "when will my reflection show who I am inside?," and her physical attempts to find a version of self that made sense, in a world where that version did not exist for her. It's through the images of effort, in her struggle as much as her success, that we sight a hero who is a human model and not just an objectified subject.
When images of success lack the context of struggle, they can reinforce dangerous myths such as "the model minority" and the ways we've been socialized to internalize marginalization, how our full and struggling selves should not belong. This is why images of athletes are so powerful: we see the body working against its own limitations and its environment -- and we know struggle as immediate, evident, a necessary part of triumph.
So better than a flat cartoon are the visual representations, the true climbs, of world-class climber Ashima Shiraishi, 17, who, to ascend the most formidable rock in the world, first falls and falls, climbing from sunup to sundown, her hands bloodied and in tears. "Ninety-nine percent of climbing," Shiraishi says in a TEDx Teen talk, "is falling, and what you might consider failure."
Or Bhutan's Karma, who in World Archery says: "I didn't try [archery because it's] only played by boys;" who didn't pick up a bow -- archery deeply ingrained in male Bhutanese culture -- until she was 18, but then went on to the Rio Olympics; who struggles with tradition.
There is too the inimitable Chloe Kim at the Pyeongchang Olympics, her right ankle almost impossibly bent at 45 degrees, and the rest of her in air, seemingly weightless. Her athleticism utterly human: her force of will suspended in so clear and intimate a moment we bear witness to it. Kim made snowboarding history this year by landing back-to-back 1080s on her third run (a feat no woman before her has executed in competition), although she'd already all but clinched the gold medal before that last run. "I knew that if I went home with a gold medal knowing I could do better, I wasn't going to be very satisfied," Kim said. She didn't need to thrust herself so daringly high, again into the cold winter, straining gravity and risking fall, but in so doing, she taught us all who watched her, how victory derives from risk.
The thing about both imagining and seeing is that it's hard to "unimagine" or "unsee" once something has become visible. When each of these athletes imagines that new, thrilling, and terrible ascent -- that chilly swim -- or how, in overtime, to place the tired foot again on the ball -- they reimagine, again and again, who they are, and who they can be.
When Lao Khang, who from the region of Laos most bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, becomes such a striking rugby player in the women's sport newly flourishing there, when she imagines a kind of self that no one -- including herself -- had envisioned before, she imagines it for the young women running the field with her too, the 11-to-16-year-old players in the community teams she coaches
When India's Minda Dentler, a polio survivor, competes as the first female wheelchair athlete in the Ironman World Championship, she widens our field of vision. "One of the most notable characteristics of visual representation is its accessibility in the public sphere by an infinite number of individuals," cultural anthropologist Yasuko Takezawa writes in her book "Racial Representations in Asia." Dentler's refusal to be overcome, or to be reduced -- how it is she, who through sport, prevails -- activates our imaginations. She constructs, and becomes part of, a community of imaginers.
When Nary Ly, who survived the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, left her job to become, at 42, Cambodia's first Olympic female marathoner, she stirs in the multitude of us who see her, our own calculi of risk and passion.
It matters to see Ana Julaton, "The Hurricane," in an MMA match survive nearly a minute inside a guillotine choke, her deltoids popping while she struggles to breathe, all focus, all strain before she escapes to finish her opponent in a rain of strikes. She beckons in us endurance.
And it matters, so very much, that 15-year-old gymnast Sunisa Lee might become the first Hmong American Olympian in gymnastics, because of all the girls who'll watch Lee, perhaps one might begin to imagine her unseen self as seeable too. Or that Indonesian Diah Rahayu Dewi thrusts her board into the barrel of ocean water as Bali's only professional female surfer, her figure needling through and rising above the wave which threatens to submerge her.
"How we are seen," bell hooks reminds us in her book "Black Looks: Race and Representation" -- when we are people who come from colonized histories -- "rends us. It rips and tears at our efforts to construct self and identity." We are so often socialized in ways that perpetuate domination that perhaps we forget -- worse, do not even know -- to seek images of ourselves, stories like ours, or likenesses we can call "our own" in the world spinning around us. I didn't know, watching Yamaguchi on my television, that part of what drew me to her was the missingness of her everywhere else in the culture around me. But transforming representation, hooks argues, is also about "transforming the image, creating alternatives," asking ourselves what types of images can "transform our worldviews."
“It was her humanity which assured for me, and for other Asian or APIA children like me, that Yamaguchi at the Olympics was not an objectifying symbol, but representation: our own.”
Through skating, Yamaguchi awakened something in me then that shifted not only how I finally learned to see myself as I saw her, but also what was "there" and "not there" around me, and what should be there. And when later Yamaguchi publicly spoke about being the child of parents and grandparents who were born in, or were imprisoned in, Japanese American internment camps, I saw again, and recognized in her narrative, a likeness to my own immigrant's hypervigilance, and my own disturbed relationship with this country I live in that is part of me, with my colonized Philippines. Yamaguchi was a critical alternative I needed -- the historical and human contexts swirling around her and part of her as she carefully shifted her weight from limb to limb.
And swimmer Goh is a critical alternative I need now too, because, as hooks proposes, progress is made only by shifting paradigms, changing perspectives, ways of looking. Whether or not we recognize it, the ripples which stem from their motions when these athletes so sustainedly strain the limits of their sports and their bodies, especially when they reappear, again and again in our cultural consciousness as soccer captain Homare Sawa, tennis player Li Na, basketball player Shao Ting, and ice skater Michelle Kwan do, the ways by which we perceive, and how we see, are being remodeled.
Let us return again, because the image matters so crucially to see and re-see, it is transformative, to Goh, underwater: her breath streaming to the very edges of violet water. How she swims against, and through, her environment. Each stroke, each muscle, pulling the weight of the bucket -- and her body -- forward.
Sasha Pimentel is a Filipina poet and author of For Want of Water. Her work has been featured in New York Times Magazine, PBS NewsHour online, Poets & Writers, American Poetry Review, LitHub and Crazyhorse, among others.
Michelle Kwan: My fears were 'part of me'
By Shalene Gupta
Illustration by Tiffany Pai
Growing up as half-Chinese and half-Indian in the 1990s, I was always looking for representation on TV whether it was fact or fiction. Watching Michelle Kwan whirl across the ice as Mulan in ABC's "Reflections on Ice" was the height of TV perfection. Two of my role models had merged into one: the historical warrior Hua Mulan and Michelle Kwan, Olympic figure skater.
For me, Kwan, like Mulan, has always epitomized what it means to keep going and going. As a skater, she dazzled whether she had won or lost. The definition of grace is watching Kwan's lyrical performance to "Fields of Gold" after taking the bronze at the 2002 Olympics.
Although Kwan retired from figure skating in 2006, she has continued to thrive. She was appointed a public diplomacy envoy, traveling around the world sharing her life story. She followed that up with a degree in international relations from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In 2012 she served as a senior adviser at the State Department, and during the past presidential election she worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign.
I chatted with Kwan about the 20th anniversary of ABC's "Reflections on Ice: Michelle Kwan Skates to Disney's Mulan," (there were koi), Asian-American representation, and true hero stuff: balancing multiple roles and what it's like to keep fighting even when the going gets rough. Kwan was upbeat, reflective and, as always, graceful.
Shalene Gupta: Can you give me some background on how you got this offer to skate as Mulan on ice?
Michelle Kwan: Disney approached me. I was like, yes, I'm totally in. I remember thinking this is quite the responsibility because it was going to air before the movie came out. It was a real big production, the most spectacular production I've seen. It was beautiful -- one scene they painted the ice black, when it was a celebration, at the end where she saves the day. We had fireworks on the ice. It was just amazing. We had a bridge; we had an aquarium with the koi. I could go on and on.
Gupta: What does the story of Mulan mean personally to you?
Kwan: It resonates, because when I was skating I wanted to be this warrior, this strong woman, and you know, representing her country.
Also, this story I heard growing up as a child and my parents told it to me when I was a kid, so it was like "Cinderella," like "[The] Little Mermaid." I grew up with this story of this courageous young girl. It's interesting, it went full circle from hearing it as a child to skating to it at probably her age. I was 18.
Gupta: It was so groundbreaking at the time, as were you because there weren't a lot of Asian Americans on TV. What was it like being put in this place of representation?
Kwan: We didn't have a show like "Fresh off the Boat" or where Asian Americans were represented. To me, it was an incredible opportunity to be able to portray Mulan to inspire another generation, people wanting to be athletes or skating as a strong female Asian American on TV.
At the time, you don't really think about it, but I knew it was a huge responsibility. I grew up watching and hearing about Michael Chang and going, "Wow! Here's an Asian American who you know is climbing up the ranks." He won the French Open, I can't remember for what year. His story and how his parents immigrated, they are similar stories. I love this time around at the Olympics there were skaters such as Nathan Chen and Mirai Nagasu representing Asian Americans.
Gupta: Speaking of anniversaries and legacies, it's been 20 years since Nagano and you've worn so many hats. What would you like your personal legacy to be?
Kwan: I guess you really don't think about that. I mean 20 years ago in Nagano, being 17 years old. I was skating every day for four or five hours a day, just dreaming of representing, and then you make it and you have this incredible experience and then it's over. Then it's like, what else?
I look back at my skating career and think, "wow." It was a long career, and I followed my passion, whether it was going to school at the same time or always learning.
I think of life as a book, and there's different chapters. Skating was an incredible chapter and long, one which I look back and feel very fortunate, and then there are other chapters and experiences. You're never one person. Someone put it so well -- I am a bunch of slashes. I am a sister slash daughter slash figure skater, once an Olympian, always an Olympian, a diplomat, an entrepreneur.
Gupta: That's evidence of a rich life right there. Speaking of life being a book -- there are many ways in which your life has been very public. For me, you've always epitomized grace during hard times, particularly when you've been in the spotlight. Do you have any advice on how to be that graceful during hard times?
Kwan: Sports teaches you so much about teamwork and hard work and perseverance. You know going into it that the outcome isn't always that you win. I think that's the name of the game. To me, there were some hard moments and all eyes were on me, but [the question is] how did you react? For me, it was always part of the game. It didn't feel good sometimes, whether it was my own fault for not performing to my expectation. I'm always very honest. I didn't hide my fears. They were part of me.
It's always easy to win, right? You're on top of the world, but sometimes you're not the winner and you didn't skate your best. Then it's about how you handle yourself. That's what you have control over.
Gupta: I have to admit that when I feel low, I watch that clip of you skating to Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold" in 2002 and say, "I want to have that grace."
Kwan: Aww. I was hyperventilating then. I couldn't see -- I can't see, the spotlight and the tears; it was one of those moments that you look back and it was not the prettiest moment, but to me it was everything that I wanted. I was at the Olympic ice, the crowd, being in the United States. It was just perfect, it was an awakening of why I skate. Not the gold, it's the way it makes me feel, every second of that moment.
I remember in 2006 -- my sister was like, "You should check out YouTube." I was like, "What?" She was like, "There's old skating clips and stuff." So that was my very first time watching 2002. I remember being -- I relived it. It was too much.
Shalene Gupta is currently working on a novel about growing up Chinese-Indian in Minnesota. A former Fortune reporter, with an M.S. from Columbia Journalism School, she is currently a freelance writer living in Boston.
How 'Mulan' helped me accept my sexuality
By Paul Tran
Illustration by Alexis Jang
I thought it was her dress: fire-engine red, high collar, sleeveless, side slits, roughly 2,200 rhinestones. Mirai Nagasu moved like a lit match over ice. She blazed into a forward jump, arms crossed, spinning three-and-a-half times, and made history seconds later as the first American woman to complete a triple axel at the Olympics.
But what bewitched me was her music. Eclipsed by live television commentators and a roaring arena, selections from the musical "Miss Saigon" by Claude-Michel Schonberg did more than mark the moment Nagasu achieved the dream Tonya Harding and many held. It took me back to a cloudless morning in April 1975, when my mother watched the last American helicopter abandon Saigon as Viet Cong tanks crushed the city gates, and it scored for women like us -- like Kim, the central character in "Miss Saigon," who dies so her child can become an American, or Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the 9-year-old who, in June 1972, wore her own burning gown as jets unloaded napalm upon her village -- the will to survive leaping toward destiny while the world watched.
I first saw a woman wearing a face like mine charge at her fate in June 1998. It was nine summers after my mother came to the United States from a re-education camp in the Philippines and one summer before my father left me at a park with a box of KFC leftovers and a $10 bill folded in my palm. Mulan, the hero from Disney's "Mulan," bolted across snow at the Tung Shao Pass with a cannon aimed not at invading Huns but at a frosty mountaintop. Frost fell on her enemies and friends, driving her like a blown-out flame off a cliff, and just when all seemed lost, Mulan rose triumphant on her midnight steed. She did not die, unlike Asian women in Cold War inventions such as "Miss Saigon." Mulan was a hero. She briefly saved her country and brought honor to her family.
After she was exposed for impersonating a male soldier and deserted by her fellow troops and the Huns erupted from their winter sepulchers, Mulan had to marshal unmatched ingenuity to reclaim the Imperial City. It was proof that a woman of color could be powerful in the face of danger, failure and humiliation. Mulan's ability to "bring honor to us all" animated within me a knowledge about myself. I wanted to be that woman. I was that woman.
Mulan helped me understand my identity as a transgender woman. Though I lacked such language at 6 years old, happily going to the theater with cousins who lived in the affluent part of San Diego, full of sugar from Skittles and Coca-Cola, the movie delineated for me gender as strict performance. To have a gender meant obeying tropes, scripts and privileges typically assigned to that gender. To not conform, to seize agency by extricating my body and mind from the cult of state-approved and state-policed femininity and masculinity, meant great penalties. It meant, for example, dishonoring my family because "if I were truly to be myself," as Mulan observed, "I would break my family's heart."
Though for years I tried concealing this knowledge, afraid of the violence and abjection that nevertheless constituted my life, Mulan emboldened me to honor my family by honoring myself. I came out to my mother at 7. At 17. At 18. At 20. At 21. At 25. Every time, we screamed at each other on the phone or sat in obliterated silence across from each other in a room without an exit. My mother guarded the door behind her. I guarded the window behind me. Iron bars and a curtain we kept shut deterred our business from escaping.
She would not look at me. She would not look at anything, except what was, I imagine, beyond me: the window, the crack through which the sky and its exit wounds are seen. Perhaps she wanted everything closed. Perhaps she wanted to stand up, walk the length of the room from where she sat on the sofa -- her hands clasped in her lap, her hair whirled in hot rollers and away from her face, her eyes like two wells I could fall into and drown forever and ever or at least until I was rinsed clean -- and touch, for the briefest moment, the cool air blowing down from the San Gabriel Mountains, the song of crickets rubbing their legs raw. Perhaps she wanted to slam the window shut not to lock the world out but to lock us in, to punish me for the truth and courage that Mulan galvanized in me.
My mother wanted me to believe honor meant unbridled compliance. My mother staying in her place -- refusing to move until "I took it back," until I confessed my sexuality and gender were phases, some habit I picked up or some karmic debt I owed having sinned in my past or current life. I was her child. I was her subordinate. I was a shard of her. I was the self she could not be and as a result expected me to become. Her American Dream. Her Vietnamese Dream. Her Dream. Neither autonomy nor agency was available to me unless she approved or would do the same, and I understood these laws. I saw in every crease of her face the red sand beach where pirates fed her to sharks. I saw the mountainside where communist soldiers stoned her sisters, their blood spilling out from between rocks.
I saw her strapped to a bed at Sharp Memorial Hospital, motionless and silent, her eyes wide and staring into the overhead light, its fluorescent bulb mocking the sun, as a doctor slid a scalpel across her stomach, cutting open her uterus like the window we kept open at home to lift me out as though I was one of the lucky ones, the pretty-faced girls my mother watched lifted into the wind by American helicopters on that cloudless morning lifetimes ago.
Everything my mother gave up, every hope and dream and man waiting for her on the opposite side of a bridge bombed with no keel in sight, she buried in me. She gathered the bits and pieces of her hopes and dreams, unrecognizable, husked of history and future, and hid them as far down as she could in the plot of me she made -- the child who ripped her apart the way our homeland was ripped apart by foreign politicians interested more in neoliberal capitalism than in human lives at the 17th parallel -- and therefore owned and owed no explanation to. Being a good child meant doing what I am asked to do and nothing else. It meant having no separate thought, no separate feeling or ambition or fear or pain, and certainly it meant having no separate self.
Maybe this was the only way my mother knew how to love me. Maybe this was the only way her mother knew how to love her when she announced her decision to flee Vietnam for the United States, for a supposedly democratic life where women like us could decide the course of our lives. Maybe no child in our family stayed a child their mother could love, and maybe this was what love was for families like ours: a dance over thin ice, a forward-facing jump without confidence that we might land safely on our feet. Similarly, maybe this was the love Mulan and her family navigated in the midst of war.
Though critics have said that structures of power resumed their hierarchical operations when Mulan came home from battle, I still felt in my heart that her story, the story of women, particularly women of color, who manifested immeasurable genius and risked in the spirit of justice everything for their loved ones, for their country, opened the possibility for further critical imagination. Such women existed. Such women exist.
And for my 6-year-old self, swallowed by the theater's magnificent darkness, the silver screen bigger than I could have foreseen, that ability to imagine made possible my ability to choose, to determine, to fight against all odds the expectations stormed upon me by everlasting history and encroaching modernity, tradition and ritual, and pick for myself a body and identity and way of being that soared, too, in the spirit of justice.
Mulan expanded my view of the self. The movie and its evolving legacy instilled in me the command to be myself no matter what. Likewise, women such as Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan offered unparalleled models for discipline, strength and grace. I imagined that was also why cheering on Nagasu meant so much to me. Her desire to accomplish what few have accomplished inspired my own will to be excellent, to dare deadly and completely, and to give all I have toward the fulfillment of my goals. Her triple axel at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang went down in history not only because of its athletic feat. It announced that reaching the impossible is just an exercise of the mind, and that women can achieve whatever we put our minds to.
From "Madame Butterfly" to "Miss Saigon," most representations of Asian women for me growing up culminated in death. Seeing Nagasu launch toward her destiny, meeting it face to face, and marvelously survive, throwing up her fists with elation, knowing the glorious importance of that instant, reversed the stereotypes of those Cold War inventions designed to rationalize the project for U.S. global ascendancy. She lived. She won. She stood with her colleagues and proudly wore that bronze medal. And we stood alongside her. We, too, were crowned.
And let me not forget the dress. Red like all the blood spilt for that victory. Red like a slow, smoldering wick. Red like the cities we left in search of new heavens. Red like sunset over the Pacific. Red like the Commies and brutal names we were once told we were. Red like the tape we ripped through to seize better futures for our families. Red like the flashbacks when we close our eyes. Red like the dreams flowering in our skulls. Red like the heart, beating and beating, in its bone cage to remind us that every cage has a door.
Paul Tran is a 2018 "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Prize winner. They live in Missouri, where they are Poetry Editor at The Offing and the Chancellor's Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Their work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere.
By Cynthia Oka
Illustration by Maria Nguyen
"They say I have an alter ego when I compete," says Olympic taekwondo medalist Paige McPherson. "I'm yelling and screaming and kicking hard."
I have yet to see McPherson, aka McFierce, fight live, but I have watched her on screen with excitement over the past few years.
I had failed again and again to imagine
an opponent my own size,
[A girl of two earths, lifted from
the tumbling dark like a root]
a match with an end, I've been
chasing it since:
[into a snow called South Dakota,]
this kick, my chest
[where lonely crowned her]
when I give it permission,
my fighting hands --
[like warm-blooded petals.]
McPherson, who is of Filipino and African-American descent, was born in 1990 in Abilene, Texas. She was adopted by a couple living in Sturgis, South Dakota. With five children from all over the world, McPherson's adoptive parents had created what their neighbors called "a rainbow family." By the time Paige arrived, two of her older siblings had left the nest; she was raised with a younger African-American sister and an older Korean brother through whom she was introduced to taekwondo. In Sturgis, about 94 percent of the town's 6,700 residents are white, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report. As a young girl of color, one of McPherson's early memories is of a white neighbor threatening to shoot her and her sister because they had walked across his yard. At home, though, she felt adored and affirmed for who she was. "We were all individuals brought together by loving parents," she says. "I've talked to my biological brother and sister, and they've had very different lives with not as many possibilities from our birth parents. I know I've been able to do the things I've done because I was adopted, and I'm grateful for that."
I wonder if McFierce, McPherson's alter ego, was born out of that dialectic between what she experienced inside and outside her family's home. Did she, like me, have to build different versions of herself for different spaces to survive, to do more than survive?
“Mulan, too, felt out of place, inside and outside her home. She, too, created an alter ego -- Ping, the awkward, bumbling soldier who eventually became a hero -- to make a path for herself where only closed rooms had existed.”
In 1996, when I was 10, my family immigrated from Indonesia to Canada. Shortly after we landed in Vancouver, British Columbia, my parents began to rely on me to help them navigate our new environment. I became responsible for helping them find jobs, for interpreting for them and translating documents, for shielding my younger sisters from their growing frustrations as they realized our new life was not what they had hoped or imagined it would be. My parents had decided to leave Indonesia in part because of the discrimination we faced as Chinese Indonesians, a phenomenon that has taken many forms, including laws that barred Chinese Indonesians from specific professions and from practicing our cultural traditions, to assimilationist policies that urged us to change our names to sound more Indonesian, to scapegoating in times of turmoil. For example, ethnic Chinese were one of the groups targeted in the mass killings of 1965-66 in Indonesia, which left an estimated 1 million dead, and then again in the mass riots of 1998, during which hundreds of Chinese Indonesian women were gang-raped. In Canada, an explicit multicultural policy was in place and the racism was more subtle. For instance, no one was willing to give my dad, who was a dentist in Indonesia, a job in the town where we lived. My first year in Richmond, which is neighbor to Vancouver and has a large immigrant population, I was bullied by white kids for being a "weirdo" and by Chinese kids for not being "really" Chinese. Without an established Indonesian diaspora or support system, my parents found it difficult to rebuild a stable life for us.
The more I learned to function in Canadian society, the more insecure, fearful and angry my parents became. I felt as if I could do nothing but disappoint them. Soon, neither outside nor inside our home felt safe for me, and over the years, to protect myself, I began to cultivate alter egos for the spaces I had to inhabit. At home, I was the secret keeper. Everywhere else, I was a tough girl.
I remember my parents taking my sister and me to see "Mulan" in a theater in the summer of 1998. The Disney classic is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a woman warrior who took her crippled father's place in the army to save his life. My own father died in 2003, after a dogged but brief battle with cancer, and I am to this day, haunted by the image of Mulan standing in her father's armor just hours after she had tried (and failed) to present herself as a prospective bride. She, too, felt out of place, inside and outside her home. She, too, created an alter ego -- Ping, the awkward, bumbling soldier who eventually became a hero -- to make a path for herself where only closed rooms had existed. I wanted to freeze that frame and tell my parents, "Look. That is me. I'm trying to be anything that will make you love me again." I don't know that I've ever stopped using these alter egos, if they are at this point me, and I them. I do know that keeping them has something to do with my fear of being seen or, rather, of the consequences of being seen. Speaking with McPherson, I was reminded of love as an elemental and a practical condition for an individual's capacity to emerge, to say "yes" to herself even in hostile circumstances.
[She faces the snow's fear]
In the chain of cooled eruptions,
[of black dahlias] below
the equator, my home [holding
her sister's hand.] where mass graves
continue to be harvested, where
[She crosses] the holiness
of whom and what I love
is a wish, [a line in the grass.]
I imagine McPherson at 18, alone on a one-way flight to Miami, where she had decided to train so she could have a shot at competing in the Olympics. How scary it must have been to leave the family that had kept her safe in the heart of a country where girls of color have been neglected, marginalized and endangered with impunity for centuries. How determined she must have been to discover who she could be, to invite the world to witness her at her best. As a nonathlete, I often forget how intensely they have to prepare -- physically, mentally, spiritually -- for the extremely fleeting moments when we get to see them perform. Combined, training and recovery easily make up a full-time job, and in a niche (and expensive) sport like taekwondo, many medalists still have to maintain other jobs for their livelihoods. These days, McPherson is one of a small, elite group of taekwondo athletes who can make a living from their stipends -- a difference that can be determined by what McPherson describes as "a six-minute fight."
A welterweight, McPherson has represented the U.S. twice in the Olympics, winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games. In the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Games, she won gold in the Pan American Games and Pan American Championships. No question, her accomplishments have been impressive, but it is her sense of accountability to her own vision that gives me pause. "Certain tournaments are live or die," she says. "It could change your life, or all that work is for nothing. And no one wants to know the story of the person that didn't make it. That's what you have to accept, that you're gonna give it your all, regardless of the results. It has to be about you and your goals." This is neither hypothetical nor an exaggeration for her. After all the hype and anticipation, McPherson was defeated in her first fight in Rio. "It was a really hard loss," she shares. "Honestly, in my opinion, I did everything I could to put myself in a position to win the gold. I did literally everything my coach told me to do."
I stomped on the barricades,
["You do not stop
being afraid," she promises,]
licked the blood from my knuckles,
placed my love in the crow of strangers
[burning her voice,]
I have been bowed,
my fighting hands
[preparing for the perfect
day] turned to paper, [that never
To give one's all is both to surrender and to claim complete responsibility for actions that have outcomes one cannot possibly determine. It is pure hope. In this moment, attention is being directed to the creation of safe spaces for girls and women that I believe are both critical and long overdue. But I am also thinking about the need for spaces to foment our capacity to project ourselves into the future, the way stars send their light to us from eons past. Spaces that invite us to risk everything about who we are to discover who we could become. And loss might be an inevitable part of that discovery. I imagine there was probably a moment, after Rio, when McPherson just wanted to crawl into a hole and quit. In the lead-up for that competition, she had set aside her own self-knowledge to try other methods of preparation. "There is a specific portrait [of athletes] -- oh, they're so confident and fearless -- and if you're not that, then what are you," she says with a laugh. "But I'm a worrier. I don't like to look at who I'm about to fight, because if I think about them, I get distracted. Leading up to the Olympics, we started studying specific people, and I wasn't comfortable with it, but I thought I needed to do it to win. When I lost, I was really mad at myself for not listening to my gut."
Somewhere north, rain notching
scores on the oak's tough jacket: the way
[Paige says "worrier," it sounds like] gold,
["warrior," and] elusive,
pressed mineral, ["Paige," in my ear is]
of every dark ["page."] -- the fire
wood left of our fathers.
I don't believe there is a math for realizing our fullest selves -- history, privilege, training, preparation, talent, time, experience and even more factors are at play in constant shifting interactions -- but I do believe there are more or less useful stories for specific moments in our lives that can guide our efforts. I used to think it was enough to have my masks and my alter egos, to mitigate and control as much as I could Western society's (racist, sexist) imaginations of me as a Southeast Asian woman. For instance, that I will be submissive. That I will be obedient. That I will not fight back.
My alter egos, by requiring me to live up to "their" ideals, have helped me to discover what I am capable of, but they are also my harshest critics. They question every decision, every step I make toward change. I'll be 33 this year, and I am still learning to believe that just because there are many parts of my identity that have not been wanted by the cultural, political, familial contexts I've been part of, it does not mean I am disposable. That I have the right not just to survive but to participate in the making of the world; that my "faults" might be the midwives of a fresh vision for that world. This is a lesson that Mulan learned by the end of the film, and it is an acceptance that I also hear in McPherson's reflection about how she would advise a less experienced fighter: "We train and train to be perfect for a fight, but I've never had a perfect day. Whenever I've won, I was always off in something, but I learned to adapt, to find another way." I am thinking of the girls and women of color in my life who daily put on our armors to face the world, and how deeply conscious we are of the spots where the chainmail has been battered over and over, is being held in place by Superglue, or is simply missing because some losses cannot be undone. What is our tipping point for deciding to trust ourselves? Can we, like McPherson, see and accept and use what we have -- however faulty, fractured or, as I would prefer to put it, futuristic -- to make other ways? Even if, or perhaps especially because, we feel like no one is coming.
I am trying [Out of the blood
of rainbows,] to love
the blocks and jabs [rises]
taken from me, beheaded
flowers [Olympian.] whose
defiance made me
America rejects tragedy, but the comeback is one of its favorite alter egos: Our icons fall from grace then rise from the ashes, ordinary people are failed by the system yet "overcome" their plights. This is a myth we all participate in constructing, especially about our athletes. In 2017, McPherson won the silver medal at the World Taekwondo Championships. Yet the real victory for me here seems not the medal but the scream. As McPherson put it, "When a girl is screaming, we are letting go of other people's judgments. We scream because we are in our power, we are in our truest form."
Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage: Poems and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water. A three-time Pushcart Prize Nominee, her poetry has appeared widely online and in print. She has been awarded the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor's Prize in Poetry, and scholarships from the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and Vermont Studio Center.
The influence of India's women cricketers
By Aishwarya Kumar
Illustration by Aleesha Nandhra
Cricketer Jhulan Goswami walked to the crease wearing the blue India jersey, ball in hand. Her hair, as always, was so short she couldn't even pull it into a ponytail. Her face was tan.
I was transfixed. The world was always telling me -- and girls in India -- how to be: "Grow your hair out." "Your shorts are too short." "Stay out of the sun. It will ruin your skin," said neighbors, friends' parents and extended family. But here was this woman, so utterly herself, so utterly majestic.
She ran down the pitch like her whole life depended on it. It was a clean yorker. The batsman struggled to read the ball. Bowled in. She took off down the field, pumping her fists and high-fiving her teammates. It was 2003, and it was the first time I watched Goswami bowl. I was only 10.
Just like Goswami, Mithali Raj, the captain of the same team, is unflinching in her own right. For as long as I can remember, she has had a streak of blond or red in her hair. Through that small act, she took control of who she was, and that, to me, was inspiring.
Raj is calm and composed on the field, but I can see the defiance in her bold hairstyles and quick responses to sexist remarks by the world. Last summer, when she was asked who her favorite male cricketer was, she responded, "Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favorite female cricketer is?"
She didn't care what society would think. She didn't worry about the Twitter trolls. In that moment, she needed to say what was on her mind. Even after 15 years in international cricket, I saw her working every day to chip away at the ingrained patriarchy.
Both women, in their own way, were saying, "F--- you, world. We are who we are."
Before Goswami and Raj, it was hard for Indian girls to look up to female athletes, particularly in cricket. The sport was so male-dominated that it was tough to get even ardent fans to remember the names in women's cricket.
That changed in the early 2000s, when Raj and Goswami made their cricket debuts. On her international debut in 1999, Raj made an unbeaten 114. Goswami, in 2006-07, helped India win its first test series, picking up 10 wickets for 78. In their careers spanning 15 years, they have fought for equal pay for women cricketers, and they took India to the finals of the World Cup in 2017.
I saw them carving their own paths, and I saw them fighting to get what they wanted. And I did the same with my life. I spoke my mind, and my hair was like Goswami's, short and unruly. "Your hair mirrors your personality," my mom used to joke. And I saw other girls around me doing the same with their lives.
Goswami is a sports icon of her generation now. But when she was starting out, no woman had done what she set out to do: be an international fast bowler. She had to fight her family and the society to get a chance to hold a cricket ball.
Because Goswami and Raj fought hard to make their dreams come true, today, it is slightly easier for girls to ask for what they want and pursue their goals fearlessly.
During the ICC Women's Cricket World Cup in 2017, Pakistani fast bowler Kainat Imtiaz posted a photo with Goswami to Instagram with a short story.
"Let me share a story with you all. In 2005 I saw the Indian team for the 1st time as the Asia cup was held in Pakistan. I was the ball picker during the tournament. I saw Jhulan Goswami, the fastest bowler of that time. I was so impressed that I chose cricket as a career. Specifically, fast bowling. It's a proud moment for me as after 12 years today in 2017, I am playing this ODI World Cup with one of my inspirations and getting more inspired."
In March, I talked to Shebani Bhaskar, the current U.S. cricket captain, about her journey, and the first story she recollected was playing against Goswami's West Bengal team in a state-level match in 2009-10. Goswami's teammate dropped an important catch, and instead of getting upset, Goswami ran up to the teammate, patted her on her back and said, "It's OK. It happens. Concentrate on the next ball."
"I was part of the first Indian team, and I had to look up to idols like [men's star Sunil] Gavaskar," former Indian cricketer Sudha Shah said during an interview. "But for any young girl in the country today, you don't have to look beyond Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami for inspiration. That, for me, is their legacy."
And they've made India and the world care about women's cricket.
Aishwarya Kumar is an international writer at ESPN.com in Bristol, CT. She graduated with a masters degree from Medill School of Journalism in August 2016.