The ordinary Asian American dream

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When I was growing up, everything I did was tied to excellence. As the first child in an Asian American family, the signs of excellence were everywhere. My parents, both immigrants, were the best of the best in their own right, and they’d achieved the unimaginable: They were now successfully naturalized American citizens. They were proud owners of American passports, with the golden eagle emblem imprinted on the cover. That passport was, and still is, a status symbol for many immigrants. It was a sign of years of hard work, fearlessness and drive — physical proof that my parents had, indeed, achieved the American dream. Immigration to this country is difficult, and my parents, like many immigrants, are extraordinary people.

And this was what I grew up with. How does the child of extraordinary people become someone they can be proud of?

I played many sports growing up, but when it became obvious that I didn’t have an aptitude for them and expressed interests in different things — such as books — my parents encouraged these other interests more. I was a scrawny kid, and after multiple sprains and countless bruises, my parents must have silently thanked the universe when I disappeared into the library instead of the soccer field. When it came to excellence, it was quite obvious that I would never excel at the uneven bars or the 100-meter dash. I was also terrified of the water, so even sports that seemed cool — namely, kayaking (I was super into the kayaking aesthetic) — were out of reach. Sue me, I like the feeling of the ground under my feet.

I began to see sports as something that was reserved only for those who were winners. People such as Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Allyson Felix — these were the people who deserved to be athletic. Obviously in hindsight, this is absolutely ridiculous. As a society, we’ve assigned value to everything we do, including our hobbies. But as a 10-year-old, I didn’t really view it that way. Everything I did was in an effort to carry the unathletic figurative baton forward. I left the sports world behind and looked toward other things that my brain seemed to have a natural aptitude for.

All over social media, I see posts about how the United States demolishes other countries in the Olympics, how we assert our dominance over countries that often have sports budgets that are minuscule compared to ours. It seems that as a country, we scream at other nations to just “Be better.” And that’s because the U.S. Olympic team, such as most things in the United States, promises dreams of success. It is a derivative of the American dream, manifested in the form of athleticism. And, of course, as part of the American dream, being a U.S. Olympian promises fame, fortune and a life of happiness (and possibly a cool Nike endorsement).

Fulfilling the American dream means giving in to American patriotism, a problem that has constantly plagued me throughout my life. From birth, I’ve had to declare my American-ness, as if being born in this country isn’t a good enough reason to be an American citizen. I’ve had this conversation way too many times:

“Aarthi Muthukumar? So where are you from?”

“Hayward, California.”

“No, I mean where are you really from?”

The Olympics give us something to believe in. It brings us together, because it’s much easier to wave flags and count scores than it is to constantly insist that we are American. During the Olympics, my parents and I constantly speak about the U.S. Olympians to anyone who will listen — it’s our way of proving our American-ness. Yes, we are American. Look at how we gush about Simone Biles and Sha’Carri Richardson. It’s an easy way to prove our citizenship without waving our passports in everyone’s faces.

But my recent year in college has changed my perspective on the U.S. Olympic team. For the first time, I see people who go to school with me compete in the team trials, and I point them out on the screen as they’re announced. Every time I see a swimmer with a bright yellow Cal swim cap, I gush about the school. My parents are quick to add on to the excitement. But another thing has changed as well. For the first time, I’m interested in taking part in a sport — minus the competitive nature of it. I’ve realized that there’s no need for me to be an Olympian to simply enjoy being outside in the sun. There’s no need for me to justify being who I am: a human being built for the outdoors. The Asian American child of extraordinary parents has to do just one thing to make her parents proud: Do things that they could have never dreamed of doing. And yes, that includes learning to kayak and hiking Mount Tamalpais, excellence be darned.

So if you want to find me, I’ll be down at the Berkeley Marina, learning how to kayak.

Contact Aarthi Muthukumar at [email protected].