Earlier this month on a snowboarding trip, I was in the gondola with my friend and two strangers at Jackson Hole when the lone skier in the car struck up some conversation. He looked at me and asked, “What nationality are you?”
“American,” I replied.
He waited for me to elaborate. When I didn’t continue, he goaded, “No like, Asian or anything?” I repeated: “My nationality is American.”
A few years ago, I would’ve spent more energy explaining my existence in response to these questions. Where are you from? What are you? I’d have gotten sucked into it. “I was born and raised in Wisconsin, but my ethnicity is Taiwanese,” I would have answered.
This time, when he kept talking, I didn’t engage.
I’ve gotten used to getting questions like this at many resorts. I first discovered snowboarding in college, and as I got hooked over the years, I idolized various pro female snowboarders from the X Games circuit and snowboarding videos. But I never became so excited about a rider as I did three years ago, when I first heard about Chloe Kim. She was already dominating contests by the time I heard of her, and just like me, she was an Asian-American California girl who trained at Mammoth. I was quickly obsessed, and started keeping tabs on her competitions.
After this exchange at Jackson, I thought of Kim, who is Korean-American. I wondered if she ever gets asked the same alienating questions when she’s on the lift with her friends. Does she also get tired of having to answer for all Asian-Americans when she’s just trying to train, or enjoy a nice day in the mountains?
For much of my childhood, the most Asians I ever saw on TV at one time was during the Olympics. But they represented other countries, and watching them actually made me feel even more isolated and estranged from my own identity. Like many Asian-Americans, I grew up with a dearth of people who looked like me in popular culture, competitive sports, and my own community. By the time I reached high school, in the outskirts of Milwaukee, I was one of just a handful of Asian-Americans in a sea of 1,400 students.
As a kid, I happened to excel in areas that were prescribed—even stereotypical—for Asian-Americans, like piano, violin, and ice skating. I liked skating, but I longed for more outdoorsy sports, and I didn't see much precedent for that. After a year of ice skating lessons, when I was 7, I was facing time constraints with too many activities. I quit skating to focus on music, in part because of my parents’ encouragement.
A few years later, beginning in 1991, Kristi Yamaguchi went on to become a national, world, and Olympic figure skating champion. It made me miss skating just a little, but more importantly, her mere presence in the world championships and the Olympics, singing our national anthem and wearing a gold medal, meant that even I could represent America, too. I hadn’t seen any other Asian-Americans competing in these events, and besides Connie Chung, she was the only other Asian-American I knew of on TV. She had features like mine, represented the country where I lived (but didn’t always feel like I belonged), and she was the very best. Twenty-seven years later, half of the 2018 Olympic U.S. figure skating team is Asian-American.
Chloe Kim is one of only two Asian-American snowboarders at the highest level. (Hailey Langland placed sixth in the Slopestyle event in Pyeongchang.) I’m hopeful and confident that she’ll have a similar impact on the next generation of snowboarders as Yamaguchi did for young skaters.
I’d always wondered what it might be like to live among lots of other Asian-Americans. So when it came time for me to go to college, I chose UCLA, where 33 percent of the student body is ethnically Asian. But once I got there, I realized that after years of feeling like I wasn’t white enough (no matter how much I tried to blend in), suddenly, I wasn’t Asian enough. As a result, I became involved with an Asian-American college group, and one of their traditions was an annual ski trip.
I joined the trip freshman year to Lake Tahoe and decided to try snowboarding. I had skied just once in Wisconsin, where there is barely any elevation to speak of, and had never been on a snowboard. So my skills were pretty non-existent. But snowboarding in the California mountains got me hooked. As I grew more proficient and determined on the hill, I became addicted to the rush of speeding down groomers and pillaging bowls of powder. I perfected my carving skills at Snow Summit whenever I didn’t have class, before eventually graduating to the five-hour weekend treks to Mammoth once I started my first job. Aside from the pure thrill of the sport, it delighted me to crush all the stereotypes of Asian-Americans that I previously conformed to.
Following Chloe Kim’s career over the past few years, as a fellow Asian-American female snowboarder, has been an exhilarating ride. At only 17, she’s constantly pushing the sport to new levels, and consistently performs well under pressure. My friends (of all races) who don’t snowboard have suddenly expressed interest in learning just because of watching her. I’ve replayed her gold medal run from last week probably a dozen times. To see her win Olympic gold with such style, ease, and grace actually brought me to tears. Every time I watch it, I think about all the young, Asian-American girls who don’t see anyone like them on their local hill, with their eyes glued to a televised Kim as she triumphs on the world stage.