There was a meeting we had a few years ago about concerns that some teammates raised about a staff member. I remember showing up to support my friends because talking about these concerns was difficult. Initially, I had no intention of saying anything because I didn’t think I had anything to say. One of my teammates, who I particularly look up to, started to talk about how she had experienced a lot of racism from the staff, and that she had to laugh it off for more than three years because of the power dynamics involved. She is someone that I looked up to for being confident, independent, and strong-willed, but that day I saw her be vulnerable. I am so grateful that she shared her story and feelings of constantly experiencing microaggressions; it made me confront my own racial experiences that I had suppressed my whole life.
I am a Korean American who was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina in a predominantly white neighborhood with K-12 schools, and I was on a rowing team.
As a POC, I had to either learn how to fit in or be outcast as a foreigner. I assimilated into the whiteness around me because for me that was the easier way to grow up. I chose to fit in, which led to me being who I thought people wanted me to be. I started to internalize the stereotypes of being an Asian student, and I began to have unrealistic expectations of myself and my success. So, whenever I didn’t achieve my personal goals, I instantly felt like a failure.
I think many of my white friends don’t understand that I don’t feel like I belong as an American or a Korean. At school and rowing, I was always seen as Korean or Asian, not American.
People would often predict my success without knowing anything about me.
My peers would always comment on how jealous they were that I didn’t have to study for any class because I was Asian, which in their eyes meant that I already knew everything. But when I’m with other Asians, I feel too American. I can’t speak Korean, despite trying to learn for three semesters at UNC (이 선생님, 미안해요:), so I can’t communicate with my grandparents or relatives. When I went to a restaurant in Korea, the waiter automatically assumed my family was from America because of how tan I was.
I’m too Korean to be American and too American to be Korean.
But if you asked me two years ago if I had experienced any racist incident, I probably would have said no. I tried to push away my Korean side whenever I was at school, at practice, or doing anything not related to my family. So even though I experienced many microaggressions growing up, it took me more than 20 years to realize how harmful they were to me. My classmates in high school would butcher my middle name (my Korean name), making it sound more Asian. While being recruited, a coach asked me about my high school ranking and told me they expected me to be at the top of the class. So many microaggressions, but my defense mechanism was to laugh it off. It was better than making the situation awkward and showing my discomfort. And I think that’s what a lot of BIPOC experience growing up.
I’m not an exception.
Looking back, I used to think that being a coxswain was me playing into my stereotype. In rowing, a coxswain is the brain of the boat and typically not the most athletic person in the crew. Of course, there is very little Asian representation within the sport, but most of the time when I see an Asian person, they tend to be a coxswain. Unconsciously, I was internalizing many Asian stereotypes, such as assuming that Asians are passive, small, and nerdy, so for a while, I believed that by being in a position of less athleticism, I was conforming to my racial stereotype.
For the first eight years of coxing, I always questioned my ability and skill; I felt like a fraud for being in a leadership position without holding leadership qualities. I had extremely high expectations for myself and felt disappointed when I failed to reach them. Sometimes I felt disconnected from the team because I was different, but I never said anything. But in that meeting, when my teammate shared her own racial experiences with the staff, suddenly, all the suppressed memories of racist encounters I had with this staff came to the forefront of my brain, along with all of the emotions.
Not to be dramatic, but I think I was hyperventilating because I had never talked about my racial experience, and so 20+ years of suppressed emotions came out all at once.
That was the first time I had ever confronted my racial identity.
After this meeting and the semester, I started to see my role from a new perspective. I stopped degrading my purpose and role on the team, and I began to understand that being a coxswain was inherently a leadership position. I had to work hard to understand every technical aspect of the rowing stroke to fix the rowers’ technique. I had to come to every practice awake and attentive because coxswains don’t get second chances. If you mess up one day, everyone remembers, and it’s extremely difficult to gain people’s trust and respect again. On the water, I was not only steering a 60-foot boat, but I had to run practice, run the warm-up, run the workout, fix technique, understand the rowers’ current mental and emotional state, and make calls off of that to make them go faster.
I am not, as society would say, a weak, submissive Asian woman. I’m in charge, and now I own it.
I became so much more confident in my skills, and I didn't second guess my decisions nearly as much anymore. I worked out when I could with the team, and I started to lift with the rowers – something I was terrified of doing (coxswains can opt to do cardio during lift sessions). But it felt so good to know that I could be strong, I could build muscle, and I could feel so much more confident in who I was as a coxswain and as a teammate.
Since this meeting, I have also started to become more confident in my Korean American identity. I decided to join the Korean American Student Association (KASA) as an executive board member, and last year I was vice president. I loved my sociology classes because I understood my own lived experiences in the context of societal and cultural influences. I started to take classes on race and racism in America and became more aware of the different BIPOC experiences. I have also been active in bringing these conversations to the rowing team along with my other teammates. We have listened to podcasts, watched movies, and discussed current social justice issues inside and outside of practice.
But even though I have made larger strides in understanding my identity as a Korean American woman, I am only at the tip of the iceberg in comprehending race in America.
Especially with the rise of anti-Asian sentiments during COVID-19, I hope that if even one Asian American is reading this, you can gain a bit more confidence in who you are, even if it’s just baby steps, such as understanding why you perceive yourself in a specific way.
The small steps eventually turn into character growth, and then you’ll be able to look back at your past self and be proud of the changes you’ve made.
Something I hope to change in the Asian American community is the stigma against playing sports, especially in high school and college. In my opinion, I have grown more and learned more about myself from training and competing with my teammates than from studying and taking notes for my classes. Though I won’t be going professional in rowing (I’m a 5’6” coxswain), I don’t regret my last four years on the team. Being a coxswain for ten years has taught me the skills to be confident in my opinions and decisions. When our team initially had that meeting over a year ago, I was still struggling to find my voice, but now,
I can navigate and control my own direction.
- Ashley Lim