Friday February 21, 2020


January 10, 2018

The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships concluded this past weekend in San Jose, California with the selection of the 2018 Olympic Team. One thing was very clear: at this elite level of athletics, Asian Americans are leading the pack.

Of the fourteen figure skaters who will be representing the U.S.A. in Pyeongchang, South Korea next month, half of them are of Asian descent. And with many of them first-generation children of immigrants, they represent the quintessential American dream of success through hard work, along with their shared culture and friendship between two countries.

There is no doubt these athletes are American – and proud to be so. Seventeen-year-old Vincent Zhou took to Twitter the morning of the men’s team announcement to call his nomination to the Olympic team his “greatest honor to be representing the United States of America.” But their pride in wearing the stars and stripes doesn’t seem to have diminished their appreciation for where their families have come from, either.

During his free skate performance on Saturday night, the stands were crowded with people in matching red t-shirts, many holding signs in both English and Chinese. Vincent’s extended family and friends had come from as far as China to support him in his quest to achieve his Olympic dreams of representing the United States. This is not the first time Vincent’s Chinese family have shown support for him as he competes for the U.S.: at the Grand Prix Cup of China in Beijing earlier this fall, the Zhou Zhifang Qinyoutuan were in the stands to watch him compete. The Chinese Skating Federation used his Chinese name, Zhou Zhifang, in announcements, and Chinese skating fans affectionately refer to him as Fangfang.

Vincent’s parents moved from Beijing to attend graduate school in the U.S. In order to move with Vincent so that he could train full-time, his mother gave up her job as a computer scientist. Following the announcement of the Olympic team, Vincent was visibly moved when he told reporters, “My mother was part of the standing ovation [after my free skate], and she was crying. She never does that.”

Fellow Olympian and now two-time national champion Nathan Chen (Chinese name Chen Wei) is Chinese-American as well. Also like Vincent, his parents moved to the U.S. from China. Nathan will be performing at the Olympics to a musical selection from the movie Mao’s Last Dancer, based on the true story of Chinese ballet dancer and immigrant Li Cunxin. Of his family, Nathan has said: “There are a lot of cultural differences between Americans and Chinese, and I think that having both aspects be part of my life has helped me in a lot of ways, from an academic standpoint to an athletics standpoint … They came to the U.S. with not much, and it’s really inspirational to see how far they’ve come and how hard they worked for us.”

Nathan is an Olympic medal contender for the United States. He won an early-season competition over reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan, as well as the Grand Prix Final title in December, squeaking out only a half-point victory over another Japanese Olympian and likely medalist Shoma Uno.

Taiwanese-American and Olympian Karen Chen (Chinese name Chen Kaiwen), who last year won the national championship title and this year another place on the podium with a bronze medal, choreographs her own programs. Two of her exhibition programs, Butterfly Lovers and House of Flying Daggers, are clearly nods to her cultural background. However, it’s in her competitive short program to On Golden Pond where she most brilliantly shows it off. Karen specifically points to the influence of Chinese peacock dance in her choreography as she describes the movements of her arms down to her fingertips. This is the program Karen will be using at the Olympic Games.

Karen is also a published author at only eighteen. The very first chapter of her memoir begins with, “When I close my eyes, I see Taiwan.” A self-proclaimed “California girl at heart,” Karen nonetheless thinks of the place from which her parents emigrated in her “warm, wonderful” memories of Taiwan.

All three of these athletes (along with Japanese-Americans Maia Shibutani, Alex Shibutani, Mirai Nagasu, and Chinese-Hawaiian Madison Chock) will be proudly representing the U.S.A. when they are in South Korea in February. They represent a very important part of American culture as well: diversity, hard work, and success. The Olympics have always been a time for peace and friendly cooperation. In an era of tense international relations, perhaps people worldwide can look to the examples of athletes and their families who are bridging cultural divides.

For more reading on this topic, please visit the following links: 

New York Times“Nathan Chen Leads Olympic Figure Skating Team; Ross Miner Is Bumped”

Team USA – “Nathan and Karen Chen Leading the Way for an Asian-American Resurgence in Figure Skating”

Kore Asian Media“Asian American Figure Skaters Increasingly Visible at Top Levels”