Growing up in China when I was younger, there was this one news story that would show up every time there was a major athletic event like the Olympics. The motif is always exactly the same: a tiny, remote village in the middle of nowhere is holding a glorious homecoming celebration for a native son or daughter who has won a medal. It starts off with clips of the athlete’s spectacular feat. Then, it’s interview after interview with happy townsfolk who just cannot contain their joy as they talk about how proud they are of their hero and how wonderful it is that their obscure hometown is being featured on national TV for the best reason possible.
These stories always made me smile, but I found myself unable to really relate to them. After all, I was growing up in the furthest thing from a remote village: Beijing, one of the world’s biggest megacities and epicenter of the world’s most populous country for the past eight centuries.
I assumed that I’d never experience what it felt like to be one of those celebrating folks in a small town. And yet, that was exactly who I became as I watched the video of Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel at the Pyeongchang Olympics again and again.
It’s one of those magical moments that just takes your breath away. But it was made infinitely more special because that Olympic history was made by someone from where I’m from. Mirai Nagasu grew up in Arcadia, California, my adopted hometown. She went to my high school. Her parents’ sushi restaurant is two blocks from my house. And as I watched that beautiful landing, I could just feel the entire community feeling that jubilation with her as we saw our remote little town get a spot on national TV.
It is, on some level, bizarre to call Arcadia remote, given that we are a mere 30-minute metro ride from downtown Los Angeles. But it sure does feel that way. I still remember when I invited some Stanford friends home for Thanksgiving my freshman year, and I could just feel their shock and bewilderment as they saw Arcadia for the first time, with its yellow faces everywhere and signs in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean lining the streets. And from their bewilderment, I felt deep in my gut how strange, remote, distant my community felt to most of America.
After Thanksgiving dinner, we went to a boba teahouse (which, in typical fashion, did not have special holiday hours on Thanksgiving). As we sat down, one of my friends observed: “you know, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a restaurant in America where the entire room is Asian.”
I looked at the rest of my friends, and they all nodded in agreement.
“Well, it’s pretty common out here,” I answered — and it is. But I couldn’t help seeing my community through an outsider’s eyes: a roomful of Asian faces consuming a strange Asian drink, but also speaking English while Chance the Rapper played in the background. It’s certainly different, but we are all different in our own ways. And Arcadia is not American despite being different: it is American precisely because it is different. America is a beautiful mosaic of communities and identities; Arcadia — and Asian America as a whole, too — is just another radiant tile in that mosaic. And that teahouse is a little slice of my America. It’s where I’m from, and it’s where I’m at home.
But I know all too well that there are plenty of people out there who don’t share this belief. To them, Arcadia is not really American. To them, that teahouse is foreign and undesirable, and the patrons are bad immigrants needing assimilation, never mind the fact that most of those people were probably born in the U.S.
So, even as I let that wave of happiness for Mirai Nagasu wash over me, I prepared for the inevitable, which came in the form of New York Times editor Bari Weiss retweeting the video with the caption “Immigrants: they get the job done.”
Which is a weird thing to say about someone born and raised in Los Angeles. But Weiss didn’t care, claiming her statement was still correct in spirit because “her parents are immigrants.”
And there it is.
The term “immigrant” bore no relation to Mirai’s actual immigration status. It was an indicator for the fact that she, like her parents, look different from, say, Bari Weiss. For people like Weiss, Mirai Nagasu was not a true American, just like Arcadia will never be a true American town. Mirai will always be just a perpetual foreigner, allowed here to “get the job done” — in this case, winning medals in the Olympics; her identity, personality and community are ignored altogether, all boiled down into some simplistic and inaccurate characterization of “immigrant.”
And similarly, Arcadia will just be the answer Mirai gives before people like Bari Weiss ask her: “No, but where are you really from?” And it’s not just Bari Weiss. I’ve encountered so many of these people in life who can make people who look like me feel un-American even when paying a compliment, and I’m sure Mirai Nagasu has as well.
Frustrated with it all, I go back to the video and play it again. And I hear the commentator say: “ … first American lady to to do the triple axel at the Olympics.”
First American lady.
And for a few moments there, our hometown of yellow faces sipping boba, too, could be just American: an American town, home to an American hero.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu