Paul Kariya. Steve Kariya. Richard Park. Devon Setoguchi. Brandon Yip. Andong Song. Vicki Sunohara. Julie Chu.
That’s about it isn’t it? All of the Asian hockey players of any consequence who have played at a high level? Maybe I a missed a couple but you get the point – Asian’s don’t exactly have a storied history in the game. This shouldn’t be surprising since no “visible minority” group has a particularly strong relationship with ice hockey, at least in the popular eye. To think of “Asians” connotes math, technology, maybe luxury and excess, but rarely physicality. The only exception being the equivalence of Asians with martial arts; still, despite the fact that there are a number of Asians in the UFC, none of them are exactly household names.
Asian-ness exists in a liminal space in the world of sports. When I refer to “Asian” here, I am including South, East, and South East Asian identities. It is in fact, a catch-all phrase that, while deemed politically correct, has usually little meaning to individual Asians. I was born a Chinese person in Canada but somewhere along the line, for the sake of white Canada, I have become “Asian” – a geographic term that, in many ways, nullifies my Canadian-ness. Asians, of most persuasions, have been pegged as “model-minorities” in North American culture. We are assumed to be a hard-working group that privileges education. We are your doctors, lawyers, and accountants but we are very rarely featured as the Highlight of the Night. Stanley Thangaraj, in his analyses of South Asian masculinity in basketball, explains that the
‘model minority’ myth emphasizes that ‘Asians are all brain and no body; blacks are all body and no brain; and whites enjoy an Aristotelian medium of body and brain’ [Prashad, 2000, p.111]. From the very outset, Asian American and South Asian American communities are collapsed into each other as racially castrated subjects with a brain devoid of a body. Devoid of a body (phallus), they are unable to perform normative masculinity and fail to penetrate American-ness. South Asian bodies then stand as queer bodies in relation to white masculinity.
In other words, the “model minority” has no place in the world of sports, male or female. This white dominance, arguably, stems from Western imperialism, in the literal sense, but also cultural imperialism. Susan Brownell writes in reference to the Chinese desire to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, that the motivation partly came from “China’s desire to erase the label of the ‘sick man of East Asia'” (p.1175). In 1911, American sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross wrote, The Changing Chinese, reflecting that the “yellow race” was in dire need of the YMCA because Chinese men did not walk around with weapons, surrender was not seen as a shameful act, men could cry openly without ridicule, and soldiers were rejects of society rather than the cream of the crop. As a result, the Western athlete was positioned in direct opposition to the effeminate Chinese intellectual. “For a century, the goal of erasing the ‘sick man’ label has been hailed as the justification for the quest for international sports success” (Brownell, 2005, p.1180).
While it is important that we gain a better understanding about, and make room for, multiple masculinities, we also need to explore the various “assumptions” that face Asian women who participate in physical sports, such as hockey. Asian women who swim, golf, play badminton or volleyball are not challenged because these are (1) sports that are valued in Asia, and (2) fit within acceptable forms of femininity (almost globally). However, telling anyone, as an Asian woman, that you play hockey challenges both the idea that women don’t play/shouldn’t play contact sports and that Asian women are frail – considerably more frail than our white sisters.
There are few popular representations of Asians in the media – period. The ones that we do see are shamefully stereotypical: numbers/tech geeks (Vince Masuka in Dexter), socially awkward (Happy Quinn in Scorpion), horrific “off the boat” accents (Mr. Chow in The Hangover), “dragon moms” (Jessica Huang in Off the Boat), or the “exotic” seductress (Kelly Hu in Scorpion King? or anything else that Kelly Hu is usually in). According to the Screen Actors Guild, in 2014, only 3.8 percent of all television and theatrical roles in America were portrayed by Asians (not sure if this includes Emma Stone as the Hawaiian character, Allison Ng, in the movie, Aloha, #facepalm). Percentage wise, this is slightly under the percentage of actual Asian Americans, which ranges between 4% to almost 6% of the population depending on the source. However, in Canada the “Asian” population accounts for approximately 15% of the total population. The lack of representation might be semi-accurate but it doesn’t account for the white-washing that often takes place. Aloha is a great example of this. Despite the fact that Asian Pacific Islanders make up approximately 60% of Hawaii’s population, the love story to Hawaii starred Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, John Krasinski and Billy Murray. Even the voices in Kung Fu Panda are mostly white; thus, it gives us the illusion of diversity where it’s really just the status quo. Because these stereotypical roles, and white-washed productions, lack diversity and nuance many people continue to react with shock (and sometimes laughter) that Asian women can be athletes in physical sports.
On December 30th, 2015 the NHL posted an article on their Facebook page, “[Julie] Chu excited to play in Outdoor Women’s Classic“. Chu has been a three-time Olympic silver medalist for the US Women’s Hockey team and a true all-star for the sport. As a Harvard graduate she is that quintessential/stereotypical Asian “brain” that I mentioned before, but she also has the Artistotelian body to go with it. Reading through the comments on the Facebook post there were a few statements about how women’s hockey sucks interspersed amongst a much larger conversation about how many people wished the Women’s Winter Classic would be televised. There were two comments that stood out that inspired this post. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a screen cap of them but I did copy and paste one of them to tweet to a friend:
Here we are in 2016, yet socially we continue to find it confusing/shocking/amusing that Asian women do and want to participate in sports like hockey. So much for the notion of a “post-racial” society. As a result, I thought I would share some insight into what it is like to be an Asian female in the hockey world.
I suck at math (like majorly) and the first thing I ever wanted to be was an NHL goalie. I never got to play ice hockey growing up because there was limited girl’s hockey at that time and both of my parents worked so I was unable to get to practices. My mother was born in Windsor, Ontario and my father in Hong Kong. No one in my immediate family plays hockey. No one in my extended family (growing up) played hockey either (maybe one cousin in Ontario for a bit). My mom was a Leafs and Redwings fan, and I naturally became a Canucks fan growing up in Vancouver. I played ball hockey as a kid, then roller hockey as a substitute for ice hockey. I don’t remember what exactly got me into hockey but for as far back as I can remember, I LOVED the game. I got hockey sticks for my sixth birthday. I got a hockey bag for my seventh birthday (with nothing really to put in it). I went to my first hockey game at the age of seven: Canucks vs. Jets. I (reluctantly) played piano for eight years, as we Asians do. I often played piano with my hockey stick beside me to protect me from the dinosaurs that I thought hid dormant in my basement (no thanks to Jurassic Park). I picked up basketball in elementary school and played through junior high school. Tennis quickly took over around 14, which meant that I became only a hockey fan and not a player. When I was 21, I realized that I had a car to get me to and from hockey and enough money to buy my own equipment – so I did. No one in my family has ever dissuaded me from playing hockey, although the size of my hockey bag constantly befuddles my father as to why anyone would want to lug around so much gear, and my grandma doesn’t understand why I need to use an ice pack so often.
I signed up for women’s hockey lessons – I was the only Asian. After a set or two of lessons (can’t remember how many) I decided to join a team that some of my tennis friends were on. I was one of two Asians on the team at that time. Ten years later, my team is almost equally Asian and white. I think this change is indicative of the demographic changes in Canada on a larger scale; however, I also notice that my team is far more diverse (both in race and age) than most other teams we compete against. Our team recently competed in an outdoor tournament in Penticton, BC, so I figured it was a good opportunity to try out my new tape recorder and find out how my Asian teammates got into hockey and what their experiences have been like.
Julie Chu started playing hockey at the age of 8 and by the time she was 10 played on a U-19 team. Unlike Chu, all of my Asian teammates picked up ice hockey as adults. We range in age from late 20’s to their 50’s. The family feelings about hockey range from very supportive to indifferent. Many of them played other sports growing up but none of us grew up with hockey gear in the home. Only one of us grew up on skates, and those were of the figure skating kind (not unlike Chu). While there was early interest in hockey for many of us (some citing the Olympics and World Juniors as being key), cost was an issue and, some of us surmise, the prospect of injury also played a factor. All of our parents put academics first. One of my teammates was influenced by her older sister to start playing hockey. They are a Taiwanese family with two girls and both are hockey players. Their dad is often a fixture at the rink watching both of their games. My mother has also become a late-life hockey mom.
One of my teammates picked up hockey in her 40’s. Her (female) friend convinced her to take up skating lessons, which quickly turned into a “learn to play hockey for women” course. Her husband loves that she plays hockey because she can no longer complain about how much time he spends at the rink. A meek-mannered Asian she is anything but; more like “Don’t mess with feisty-at-fifty Jules”.
We have made Asian friends from hockey but outside of the rink most of us do not coincidentally have other Asian female friends that play hockey. Perhaps, this is true for many women regardless of race. Even when other Asians find out that we play hockey they are often surprised, but usually impressed. I guess, then, if fellow Asians still hold certain stereotypes for each other, it is hard to expect “outsiders” to view us any differently. This is Orientalism at work: a cultural imperialism so strong that it has the ability to dictate what one is able to think about themselves. In other words, many Asians continue to believe the idea of the effeminate Asian that is a brain devoid of body.
Last year, at the same outdoor tournament, we lost to a team that had a significant number of young Asian women who clearly grew up on skates. I joked that it is hard for us to compete with Asian girls who clearly were not “forced” to play piano and violin, as my teammates and I were made to do. There is truth in jest. They must have had the time, money, and parents to let them play hockey from a young age (#jealous).
All but one of our Asian players plays forward. On the two teams that I have played on, there tends to be a distinct division between the (typically) smaller and speedier Asians and the (typically) taller and stronger white defence (wo)men. Our white teammates sometimes have trouble telling us apart on the ice (sometimes off the ice too :p). We joke, “all you Asians look alike.” We joke a lot about race “Whites on one line, Asians on another”, “this is the Asian side of the locker room (which I think happens to be accidentally divided by age more than anything else)”. Usually the joking is instigated by me because I think having a safe space to talk about issues such as race are important, and the locker room should be one of those safe spaces.
As an Asian woman, personally, I feel like I have extra to prove on the ice. I do not speak for my teammates here. I feel I have to prove my worth as a woman on the ice and, in addition, I have to try and disprove the stereotype that Asian women are weak, fragile, and un-athletic. It can be exhausting. Maybe it’s something that I am more sensitive to as a scholar of race and gender but I think, it’s probably there on some level, for many of us.
The power in ideology is not that it is entirely false, it is that partial truths stand in for whole truths. So yes, my teammates and I serve to embolden the stereotypes that Asian families put academics first, all play a classical instrument, and sports like hockey aren’t central in Asian households. But where is the other side of the coin? Where are the stories about our adult hockey parents hanging out in cold rinks to support their grown-ass daughters play recreational hockey? Where are the depictions about single Asian women showing up at the rink by themselves to learn how to play hockey? Where are the Asian characters who sound like us? Which, if you are wondering, (most likely) sound like you. Where are the beer commercials with Asian women sitting with bottle in hand enjoying the game? Where are the Asian Gongshow clothing models?
This Scotiabank commercial is a good start: “Gear of a Champion.” No accents. No “dragon mom.” Not just a boys sport.
We may not all be Julie Chu-good but don’t be surprised if we eat, sleep, and breathe hockey. We grew up in this culture; therefore, it is our culture too.
Brownell, S. (2005). Challenged America: China and America – women and sport, past, present, and future. International Journal of the History of Sport, 22(6), 1173-1193.
Thangaraj, S. (2013). Competing masculinities: South Asian American identity formation in Asian American basketball leagues. South Asian Popular Culture, 11(3), 243-255.