Gender & Identity, Life

Michelle Kwan is the all-American hero I needed

While I now understand “All-American” isn’t exclusively white American, I wasn’t so understanding at seven.

As a child, I hated being misunderstood. I hated it more than most things in the world – so, of course, it always happened.

My parents didn’t understand why listening to TLC didn’t mean I was going to forget every word of Chinese I knew, stop eating rice, and quit the family; my friends didn’t understand my lunch; and nothing I read or watched seemed to understand what being Asian American meant for me in my life. How could Shelby Woo maintain good grades and solve crime all the time? Who did Claudia Kishi get to buy her junk food stash, and how did her parents somehow never find it? This was not – and would never be – my life.

[bctt tweet=”Even better, it felt like she knew me.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In popular media, it always seemed like two roads were diverging in a yellow wood: you had your rebellious girls, who defied their parents and were defined by a disconnection from their culture (whether emotional or real), like Jubilee or Claudia Kishi, and you had type-A, studious girls who were aggressive and unemotional (and may or may not have spoken English), like Deb Chen from season 1 of ER. While every Asian American girl character I encountered didn’t strictly follow those roads, their paths were similar.

And then I found Michelle.

Well, my mother did. In the midst of her channel-surfing, she stumbled onto the Olympics and so began my love affair with figure skating. Or, at least, Michelle Kwan. From that moment on, I was obsessed. I watched her programs when I could find them. I read the biographies. I searched the Internet.

The more I followed her skating, the more I learned about her as a person. As a teenage girl. There were interviews and fluff pieces, and I consumed so much that I felt like I knew her. Even better, it felt like she knew me.

Michelle was Chinese American like me, but she wasn’t like any other Asian American girl I’d seen on TV. Her presence on the ice was commanding, powerful, and refined, and her presence off of it was youthful, articulate, and spirited. She carved her own path.

Unlike the stereotypes, Michelle was known for her emotion. She cried – when she won, when she lost, sometimes even after she skated. After her Olympic loss at Nagano, her emotional pain became a shared national experience. It was everywhere, and frequently discussed at length and in a positive light. She no longer represented just emotional skating; she had heart and sportsmanship, two defining qualities for an American athlete.

[bctt tweet=”I now understand “All-American” isn’t exclusively white American.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Her grace in defeat flouted a stereotype of cold competitive East Asian women, and her public narrative shifted to reflect Americana.

East Asian American women figures in that time often had to align themselves with one side of the American/not American divide. Yet Michelle embodied that overlap in each interview she did – in how she spoke and what she conveyed about her family, in the pop culture tastes that she expressed, in her fashion– constantly defining herself among and between two cultures.

She was a proud California girl, named after a Beatles song, who loved listening to Jewel and Tori Amos. Yet one of her trademarks – the necklace she wore – was described as a lucky charm gifted from her grandmother. Her story reflected the hyphenated experience that many other Asian American women shared: something neither wholly Asian nor American, but somewhere in between.

Juxtaposed with her narrative as a typically American sports hero, this identity defined an accessible all-American narrative for Asian American girls, within a media landscape saturated with incomplete and unfinished characters.

[bctt tweet=”Every time she stepped on screen, she represented America.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In my eyes, our experiences seemed to align. She would understand my struggles balancing homework with the familial obligations and expectations of first-generation immigrant parents. She would understand feeling lost in either world. And while her own identity wasn’t something she spoke candidly about, it was enough to have her on screen; to have her reflect a world where East Asian American women weren’t solely defined by their relationship to academics and competition, but also by their expression, artistry, and softness; to see that my struggle to define myself between the bounds of both cultures was not individual, but a common experience.

Yet her legacy is larger than her skating or her position as role model. Having inspired a new generation of skaters to begin skating, the story she (and her predecessors, like Kristi Yamaguchi) wrote continues on. Scores of aspiring Asian American women skaters rose up in her wake, all of whom continued this hyphenated narrative in their own public personas.

[bctt tweet=”In my eyes, our experiences seemed to align.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The story isn’t over.

While I now understand “All-American” isn’t exclusively white American, I wasn’t so understanding at seven. Surrounded by images of blond white cheerleaders and petite white athletes, I had difficulty accepting that could be true. Michelle changed that just by being herself.

Every time she stepped on screen, she represented America.

And when I watched her, I realized America could look like me.