COLUMN: Celebrate Katelyn Ohashi's individuality, not just her ethnicity


University of California at Los Angeles' Katelyn Ohashi competes during the Bruins' season-opening meet Jan. 4 in Los Angeles. Tribune News Service

A video of Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine has gone viral this week, gaining over 28 million views. Ohashi, a senior at UCLA, earned a perfect 10 for her routine set to music by Michael Jackson. 

From “For Katelyn Ohashi, Viral Gymnastics Joy Was No Act” to “UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi rediscovers her joy of gymnastics and becomes an internet sensation,” the headlines center on how Ohashi overcame body shaming and self-doubt to fall back in love with her sport.

Ohashi is of German and Japanese descent. What is not discussed in the news is her identity as an Asian-American. This understated form of representation is a positive thing.

What has troubled me in the past year has been how celebrations of Asian-American representation have homogenized the Asian-American experience.

Let us remind ourselves that many Asian and Asian-American narratives are omitted in films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” and that Asian actors and actresses should be able to gain high-profile roles in films that don’t require an all-Asian cast.

As an Asian-American, I take notice when I see someone I can identify with in a space where few people look like me. I think a large reason of why I love watching Katelyn Ohashi and other Asian-American athletes — people like snowboarder Chloe Kim, basketball players Jeremy Lin and Yao Ming or figure skaters Nathan Chen and Mirai Nagasu — is because I can relate to their experiences. 

But their Asian-American identity isn’t the main reason I admire them. 

Each athlete has their own experiences and stories, and I want to hear more about that than a platitude along the lines of, “Isn’t it nice to see an Asian-American in this sport?” 

Of course, this is complicated when someone has mixed ancestry, like Ohashi, but these distinctions remind us of the individual experiences encoded in a general term like “Asian-American.”

Aside from Ohashi, many recent stars on the UCLA gymnastics team have Asian ancestry, but each have their own story. 

Kyla Ross, who was a member of the Fierce Five at the 2012 London Olympics, has Puerto Rican, Filipino, African-American and Japanese roots

Christine Lee, who scored a perfect 10 for her final beam routine at the 2018 NCAA National Championships, prefers to use her Chinese name, Peng-Peng, in competition because it makes her “feel like a completely different person.”

Too often people forget to leave room for individuality, instead focusing on a person's race or ethnicity. When I meet someone new, people often ask, “Where are you really from?” 

As others have noted, the question makes one feel like he or she doesn't belong. It also makes me feel like the only thing people want to know about me is my ancestry. Being Chinese-American is not the only aspect of my identity.

I hope to see more stories like Ohashi’s in the future, which celebrates personal narrative over and above race or ethnicity. 

In entertainment, representation can sometimes overwhelm an actor or actress’ personality. But in Ohashi’s case, her individuality shines.

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