As many of you already know, one area in which Asian Americans have slowly been achieving success and popularity is professional sports. Although many athletes from Asia such as Ichiro and Yao Ming have become superstars, only a few Asian American athletes have climbed to the top of their sports. For members of Generation X like me, one of the earlier such star Asian American athletes was professional tennis player Michael Chang.
Michael Chang turned pro while still a teenager and most famously, in 1989 dramatically beat the heavily-favored and #1 ranked men’s player Ivan Lendl to become champion of the French Open. In the fourth set of that match, Chang experienced severe leg cramps that would have led most players to quit. But Chang doggedly persevered and used unorthodox tactics such as hitting “moon balls” and underhand serves to disrupt Lendl’s timing, finally winning the match in five sets.
Chang was never as flashy or a media superstar like his modern Asian/Asian American contemporaries such as Ichiro, Yao Ming, or Michelle Wie, let alone like his main tennis rival at the time, Andre Agassi. Instead, through his athletic talent, numerous charity work for the sport and the Asian American community, and his quiet but confident demeanor off the court, Chang focused on “walking the walk,” rather than just “talking the talk.” In other words, his actions spoke for themselves.
This past weekend, Michael Chang was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In addition to summarizing his career, the ESPN article links his achievements as a Chinese American to China’s hosting of the Summer Olympics later this summer and how Chang’s 1989 French Open win took place during the Tiananmen Square uprising.
But for me personally, Michael Chang’s significance goes far beyond that. At a time when Asian Americans were still firmly associated with being computer nerds (the “Long Duk Dong” stereotype), Michael Chang quietly but firmly showed American society that we could be equally accomplished in other professionals and pursuits as well. He was a role model to many young Asian American males like myself, who finally saw a successful professional athlete who looked like us.
I will also associate Michael Chang with one particular moment in my life — the moment in which I changed from being a quiet and passive young American just looking to fit in, into a proud and angry young Asian American who finally became tired of being the target of racism and was now going to stand up and resist.
That moment came in the early 1990s as I was nearing the end of my college career. I was just beginning to become “re-ethnicized” after switching my major from pre-med to political science with a minor in sociology. After taking my first sociology course in race and ethnicity, I was finally learning the true history and nature of American race relations and the inequalities and injustices that groups of color such as Asian American had and continue to face.
At that time, I also became more aware of prejudice and discrimination perpetrated against Asian Americans like myself and many of my White friends were taken aback by my new “militant” and “angry” attitude. This situation finally came to a head one day as my roommates and friends and I were sitting around our apartment watching TV.
A commercial came on that featured Michael Chang endorsing the Discover credit card, if I recall correctly. At the end of the commercial, one of my roommates, a White male named Owen, just casually remarked, “So the nip has sold out, I guess,” a derogatory reference to Michael Chang.
Upon hearing that comment, something in me snapped. I immediately became enraged and yelled back, “F*** you, Owen! Is that what you think of me? Am I just a f***ing nip to you?!?”
Owen sheepishly apologized by saying, “Oh sorry, C.N.” Clearly, he considered me to be invisible, literally and figuratively. The room immediately became silent and the other four or so people in the room (all of them White) all lowered their heads, hoping that things would calm down. But I was still furious and was ready to escalate the situation by physically confronting Owen.
In the end, I decided to leave the apartment and go for a walk to clear my head and calm my anger. As I was walking around the apartment complex, I vowed that I was never going to sit by and quietly take that kind of prejudice — that kind of racism ever again. When I returned to the apartment about 30 minutes later, everyone had left and from that point on, my relationship with them changed forever — for the better.
While there were many significant moments in my personal and intellectual development during that time, that was definitely the turning point in my personal identity as a Vietnamese American, an Asian American, and a person of color.
Thank you Michael, for your quiet but firm dignity and determination to define yourself, rather than letting others do it for you, and for serving as a pioneer and a role model for all Asian Americans.