Words and imagery by Selina Lee
Growing up Asian in Georgia was like running a race with undone shoelaces. You’re doing your best to push forward, but you’re consumed trying to avoid falling behind or falling down. People underestimate you, and you absorb their pessimism.
Since the March 16th Atlanta shootings, my runs have not been the same. I run to process my own distress, and my distress numbs my arms and chest. I’ve started thinking about my relationships, my teammates, and all of the times I did not feel like part of either.
Living in proximity to the incident, I feel my thoughts weighing on me. I am an Asian woman in Georgia, and every social and news outlet reminds me that I’ve been in danger too. Though I’m grateful that reporting on anti-Asian violence is finally gaining visibility, the flood of support for the Asian American community arrives instantaneously. Asians now have the misfortune of revisiting much of the hurt and disrespect they have endured silently in the past. For me, those feelings are tied closely to my running and greater athletic career.
In my own mind, I am a failed athlete, and this thought is what I also assume others perceive of me. Too often, it’s been my experience that people have tried to make me disappear. At the end of each round, I feel like I have.
When I started playing soccer, the kids who were Black, brown and people of color were the ones who made up the recreational leagues because we all lacked the resources and the network to progress to serious clubs. At eight, I got my first club try out and happily participated, not knowing the opportunity was a one-time gift. As the only non-white player trying out, I was also the only athlete cut from the team. The explanation was that we “lived in a different zip code,” though that same zip code did not affect the other girls admitted. The second time this exact situation happened later in my life, the coach told me, “You just shouldn’t even be playing.”
To be reminded as a child that you’re unwanted outside of any metric of outcome leaves you paralyzed. Contrary to the mistaken idea that Asians can work towards their American dreams and succeed, I was dismissed before being given a chance.
“You’re not as exciting as the other girls,” one coach told me. He was from a different team and wanted to let me know how he felt in his spare time.
After finding a club that supported me, I held a critical left defender position for nine years. Then I made my high school’s Varsity team, but my teammates never accepted me. I was berated on a daily basis, blamed for our losses, and shoved around during practice. My teammates wanted me to tumble. I allowed it. I never fought back. I thought I was taking the high road by not engaging, but instead I let other people control my amusement, as well as my playtime. It didn’t help that my coach consistently touted me as “the most timid and quiet person [he] knew,” but I had no freedom to act forceful. As a runner, for every conditioning session where I was in the front, I was shunned later. It was incorrect of me to get ahead.
It’s cliche but if you think about Jeremy Lin’s NBA plateau from Linsanity, to benching the Toronto Raptors, to being contractless, then getting dangled over to China’s professional league, his downfall typifies the disappointing journey Asian athletes face when trying to establish their foothold in America’s patriotic and tribal sports scene. First Lin had to escape his invisibility on the bench. Coming into the limelight, he failed to meet expectations, which not only impacted his own performance, but confirmed the theories that he didn’t deserve to play in the NBA at all.
If you analyze my collegiate running stats, I was disappointing, and I never had a breakout Linsanity moment. I got injured almost every season, training so exhaustively just trying to get noticed. I was never present in the few race opportunities I had because I felt immense pressure to avoid repeating past upsets. I feared facing mass disapproval for thinking I could ever achieve my ambitions.
“Serena, get out of the way,” a coach screamed at me during a team picture. I was situated in the center by the photographer, but that position was intended for more deserving athletes. Also, my name is Selina. Depending on how many other Asians are on a team with me, it could have been Emily, Cameron, or Michelle. When running outside, it’s become Ling Ling, dirty ch*nk, and once a nameless primate.
I feel compelled to advertise my less successful credentials because if I don’t speak out, athletes like me will never reach their full potential; they will never have the opportunity.
Today, as I remain in my childhood home with my Chinese American immigrant parents, who are vulnerable to the cruel and desperate trend toward anti-Asian attacks, I am brought back to my personal history of systemic rejection when the only people who saw me were them. I think about the sacrifices they made for me to play out my dreams and the prejudices they faced on their own.
At a talk session for AAPI peers following the Atlanta shooting, I shook, cried, and spoke with a weak vocal oscillation, accosted by the overwhelming spotlight on my identity in relation to a crime scene. I am not enraged purely from my shared Asian features with the victims, but from the pattern of violent rhetoric, physical swings, and belittling that were socially acceptable before the most recent uptick in assaults on Asian Americans. Political antics make it distinct, but bias against Asians has always existed.
Seeing young Asian athletes emerge with a stronger presence than I had, I feel optimistic that their love for sport will be reciprocated. Their talent is harder to minimize, and the slightest tolerance for hate has become unacceptable.
But I still grieve because that is not my outcome. I envy the races and championships I was not a part of, and I’m hurt that racial trauma continues to afflict my ability to move on. How do I move on?
Logistically-speaking, I am taking a break from training plans and race registrations. For the last eight years, my relationship with running was based entirely around vindication and results. I don’t want to exist within those confines any more.
For Asian Americans, suppressing your voice also diminishes your capacity to take up physical space. As I think about my next run, I will make it a point for people to take notice of me. I am not a person you can ignore, and I am not an object you can taunt. You cannot look away from me.
Selina Lee is a visual artist and designer residing in Atlanta, GA. She is a member of the Asian American Journalist Association and worked previously at Foreign Affairs Magazine within the Council on Foreign Relations.
Donate to the Atlanta shooting victims' families and the Asian American Advocacy Fund.