What did Suni Lee really do last week at the 2020 in 2021 Summer Olympics? She just smashed the biggest stereotypes that have burdened Asian Americans for generations.
But first she had to jump around in a Tokyo arena. And that was something special too.
The eighteen-year-old Lee made every Asian American, every Hmong American, every American, period, proud, when she rose to the occasion last week and won the gold medal in what has become a legacy event for the U.S. in the Summer Olympics.
Lee is the fifth straight American woman to win gold as best all-around gymnast in the world. And she did it in her very first Olympics.
It was an individual win. But she did it for the team and her country when Simone Biles, perhaps the greatest gymnast ever, also did something unselfishly for the team. Biles unexpectedly withdrew from the all-around, the vault, the uneven bars, and the floor exercises when she couldn’t compete. She said she suffered from the “twisties,” and “couldn’t tell up from down.” When she couldn’t perform, she knew her teammates had the talent to win for the U.S. And she graciously withdrew.
The shift in circumstances allowed Lee, who had her hopes simply for silver, to get the all-around gold. But then in her own key event, the uneven bars, for which it’s been said she possesses “genius,” Lee took the bronze on Sunday.
It was supposed to have been gold, and according to reports, Lee said she felt like she let people down.
“I don’t want people to think I"m not grateful for this bronze medal because I really am,” Lee said in the New York Times. “But I came here to win gold on the bars, and that was supposed to be my thing. That’s what I came to do, and people were putting pressure on me to do that. Winning the all-around was what Simone was supposed to do.”
Then she said it was overwhelming , and how she’s sad she didn’t do the bar routine she came here to do.
Her own Bilesian moment?
Lee has one more event—the balance beam, the event that kicked off her gymnastics fever as a young girl when her father John Lee built a homemade balance beam for her in their back yard.
But Biles too has just announced she’ll be back for the individual beam event, and now everyone will be watching her this week, especially if she attempts her signature “Biles” move–a dismounting double twisting, double back somersault that seems to defy gravity, but not always mental health.
It’s what people want to see from the four- time Olympic gold medalist. But Biles has already done so much more for these Olympics, which should have been cancelled in the name of public health.
Defying Covid in the midst of a worldwide pandemic really shouldn’t be an Olympic sport.
But Biles has brought to the games something that was lost when the Olympics, with its corporate obligations, continued awkwardly with masks, but without fans in the stands.
Biles brought that touch of humanity that seemed missing. These athletes aren’t robots. They’re trained performers, but they’re also human.
They just seem super-human when the Olympic rings are like a yoke on their shoulders.
Biles gets a gold from me for mental health awareness, something nearly everyone is experiencing during the pandemic.
If she competes as planned this week, we’ll all be watching. But take nothing away from Suni Lee.
LEE, OUR STEREOTYPE BUSTER
So what are the biggest stereotypes Asian Americans face? By consensus, it’s the “Model Minority Myth,” and the “Perpetual Foreigner.”
Take “Model Minority” first.
When I see Suni Lee, I see the entire Hmong community and its history. All 327,000 plus (according to Pew Research 2019), most of whom (81,000) live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Of the 23 million in the general “Asian American” category, the Hmong are such a small subset. But it speaks to why one can’t generalize about “us.”
Asian American intra-diversity is so rich. We come from 50 countries, including Laos, which has its own Asian American category and numbers around 254,000.
But Laotians are different from the Hmong, who are from the hills of Laos, but with a unique culture and history. They were also brought to the U.S. after fighting the CIA’s secret war in Laos against the North Vietnamese in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In America, they have been one of the leading exceptions to the “Model Minority” idea that indeed makes it a myth.
Asians so rich? Among all Asians, the median household income is $85,800, whereas the Hmong are at $68,000, according to Pew Research. The data also show that in the “Living in Poverty” category, the overall Asian category is 10 percent. Hmong are at 17 percent. And for those under 18 years of age, the percentage for all Asians (10 percent) is at 22 percent for Hmong youth.
Yet, at the same time, the Hmong have their success stories with political leaders emerging in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California.
And now there is 18-year old Suni Lee.
When I did my first stories on the Hmong in 2004, I was a columnist in Stockton, California. One of the cultural traditions of the Hmong are for families to offer their young daughters as child brides to older males in the community.
I recall doing a heartbreaking story in which a public high school offered day care for the children of 10th-12th grade Hmong girls. There were at least ten child brides.
Many of their children would be old enough to be young gymnasts now.
It reminded me of the courage—or maybe love—it took for John Lee, Suni’s father, to build that balance beam for his daughter when she was young.
Being American and being Hmong is not easy.
Even to this day, some Hmong families lean more traditional than not. Perhaps Suni’s example as a gold medal winner will be a new, better model for a modern generation of Hmong Americans.
Of course, the other stereotype Suni smashed is the “perpetual foreigner.”
You know, that “PF” thing means we don’t belong here. Again. No matter what. We aren’t American. What country are you from, right?
Why the U.S.A., of course.
Lee just had to do her thing. No small feat. She had to step up and perform when given the chance.
Last week, she looked nervous at the all-around event. With Biles’ blessing and with the champion and the whole world watching, Suni described how she tried to calm down.
“I was just telling myself to do nothing more and nothing less,” she told the Today Show. “Because my normal is good enough. So I don’t need to do anything more or anything less. I just need to do what I normally do.”
Good advice. Not typical “model minority” work hard till you drop. More tempered. Strategic. Human.
Suni finished just .134 better than the second place finisher.
But good enough to win for the U.S.A.
How do you put a dent in the “perpetual foreigner” myth?
When, in your special Olympics way, you make people realize we are all on the same team.
Suni Lee did just that standing on the podium, eyes lashed, face masked, all American, and pure gold, as they raised the stars and bars and our anthem played on.
Emil will read his column and add spirited commentary, live at 2p Pacific on Facebook Live or later at www.amok.com.