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Chinese Americans Bask in Olympic Spotlight

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page C10

Snack food and a bowl of Pan-Asian noodles were on the table at Christine Chen's apartment in Arlington, where the 28-year-old lobbyist was entertaining friends.

Like millions of Americans, they gathered Wednesday night to cheer U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan, performing her short program at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. But to them, Kwan was skating for more than a gold medal. She was skating for her people. For them.

Chen and her friends are Chinese Americans, and they say Kwan represents a generation of Asian Americans eager to play a more visible and vocal role than their parents' generation did.

From Tiger Woods — whose father is African American and mother is Asian — to "Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi or Michael Chang, they're sort of changing the picture of what America looks like, when it's usually white and black," said Chen, whose mother, like Kwan's parents, is from Hong Kong.

Across the Washington area, many Asian Americans view Kwan, who grew up in Torrance, Calif., as a paradigm of success. Raised by Chinese parents from Hong Kong, Kwan not only has assimilated into American culture, but excelled to the point that she has appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and on the cover of Sports Illustrated — quintessential measures of success in this country.

Yet during her performances, she invokes her heritage by wearing a Chinese pendant and, for her short program, a sequined costume that is vibrant red, a color that Chinese regard as lucky.

"My family is rooting behind Michelle Kwan because she represents not necessarily the American dream, but the feeling that Chinese Americans can successfully assimilate in American society," said Diana Wang, 20, from Baltimore, a junior at the University of Maryland.

Will Liu, a lecturer on Asian American studies at Maryland, said some Asian Americans look to athletes to fill a role left empty by Asian political leaders.

"There is a need for Asian American role models," Liu said. "You can only pinpoint two or three visible Asian leaders, like [Washington Gov.] Gary Locke or Bill Lan Lee — not really that many. Part of it is that historically, Asian Americans have not run for public office as frequently as other groups."

Indeed, some Asian Americans are critical of themselves for staying out of the public arena.

"Traditionally, Asian American families have not had an emphasis on being open or sharing your feelings," and that limits their public involvement, Chen said. "And lots in the Asian community are not politically involved because they come from war-torn countries where they are not allowed to get involved."

But many young Asian Americans say high-profile figures such as Kwan can help change that by putting a successful Asian face in the spotlight. Judy Tseng, 24, a Georgetown University law student, said she wishes there had been more Asian American role models when she was growing up in Stone Mountain, Ga.

"I was ashamed to be Asian," she said. "I didn't eat Chinese food, I hated going to Chinese school, I only spoke in English with my parents."

Her feelings changed after she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where she suddenly found herself among many Asian Americans. She became the co-chairman of the Alliance of Asian Pacific Americans and was an editor for Slant Magazine, a student publication that covered Asian-American issues.

Chen says role models such as Kwan can help younger Asian Americans feel confident about their identity. In fact, Chen, who tracks legislation on Asian American issues for the District-based Organization of Chinese Americans, is negotiating with Kwan's agent to have the skater speak at the OCA's 25th-anniversary convention in Washington in July.

"We're always trying to present to the youth that here in the U.S. you have different options," Chen said. "Traditionally, Asian Americans have gone into engineering and science fields. But even if they're not thinking about going into ice skating, at least they'll learn the idea of, 'Follow your dream.'"

As Chen, Tseng and others watched, Kwan's music began.

"Look, she's wearing the lucky necklace her grandmother gave her," Tseng said. "It's a gold Chinese pendant, and I think it has some Chinese characters on it."

After landing a final jump, Kwan spun, then came to a stop. The crowd in Nagano — and in Chen's apartment — cheered. Nine of 10 judges placed Kwan first heading into today's long program. The problem that created for Chen and her friends is that they're headed to an OCA fund-raiser tonight featuring former Star Trek star George Takei, which clashes with the time Kwan's program will be broadcast.

"I guess we'll have to set up a TV in the banquet room," Chen said. "Won't George be surprised when we start cheering and it's not for him?"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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