Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Tue Feb 18 2014

Michelle Kwan and the importance of mirrors

They say that when you’re a child, the world is a mirror. What you see becomes part of your identity, just like a reflection.

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I don’t think I can explain how meaningful it was to be a half-Asian girl growing up in the Michelle Kwan era.

Yes, there was Kristi Yamaguchi before that, and yes, she had an impact too. I was just 6 years old when Kristi won her gold medal, but I remember the excitement in people’s voices when they talked about her performances. And I remember feeling an instinctive pull toward her, a kinship based solely on the fact that we were both Asian. Not even the same kind of Asian, but who else did I have to choose from?

When I was growing up, there were not many famous people who looked like me. Not on television or in movies, not on the radio, and not in magazines. That’s why Kristi Yamaguchi made such an impression on me. That’s why the Joy Luck Club  became one of my favorite books. That’s why my friends and I watched Mulan over a dozen times.

Suddenly the world really was a mirror. One that I hadn’t even known I needed.

Suddenly I could see myself.

And for ten of my most formative years, Michelle Kwan held that mirror right up to my face and said, “You can do amazing things.” She was strong and elegant, kind and ambitious. She was hard-working and accomplished in an artistic field, one that garnered worldwide respect. If you think it’s a coincidence that there are so many young Asian-American women competing in figure skating today, then you’re delusional. Michelle revealed a new path that was open to us — and in doing so, made us wonder what other paths might be possible.

Part of the reason I love sports — and the Olympics in particular — is because they showcase the skills and achievements of all sorts of people from all walks of life. Children around the world can see athletes who look like them, or come from similar backgrounds, representing their countries, showing good sportsmanship to their competition, and maybe even taking home a medal. It’s inspiring in so many different ways.

True, we still have a long way to go before we reach fair representation in most fields — especially business, entertainment, and government — and even many sports have their skews. But every couple of years, when I watch each country enter the arena for the Parade of Nations, with athletes and coaches proudly waving and following their flag, I’m reminded that the mirrors do exist, and the reflections are only getting clearer over time.

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14 Comments
  1. Shari says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 7:58 AM

    Oh, I love this post so much. Obviously it isn’t/wasn’t quite the same for me as for you, but I’ve always adored watching the Olympics, too. Like you said, it is the epitome of inspiration and goodwill. I’ll be sad when they’re over on the weekend!

  2. Anthony Lee Collins says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 8:16 AM

    This is a good point (at least about individual sports — the team sports are much slower). It was a (justifiable) big deal when Ellen Degeneres came out, but Martina Navratilova was there ages before. There was no precedent for living as she did as an openly gay top sports star, so she set the precedent herself. That meant a lot to a lot of people

  3. Kristan says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 8:32 AM

    Shari-
    Thanks, Shari, and I’m going to be sad too. (And possibly more productive? :P) But today’s the day! Ladies figure skating begins! I think I’m going to DVR the whole thing, instead of relying on the primetime re-broadcast.

  4. Kristan says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 8:35 AM

    Anthony-
    Yeah, I think the LGBTQ community sometimes has a harder time finding good mirrors because sexuality isn’t necessarily a visual trait the way that ethnic background typically is. Fortunately, more and more prominent figures (like Degeneres or Martina, and recently Michael Sam in football, or Ellen Page just a couple days ago) are stepping forward and announcing themselves. I suspect it’s because they grew up without enough mirrors, and they’re trying to help the next generation see themselves.

  5. Shari says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 8:37 AM

    Times like this really make me wish I had a DVR. I’m usually writing when they air the competition live, and then since they always save the figure skating for the end during the primetime broadcast, I’m normally half asleep because it’s late. May have to switch up the writing routine today so I can watch live!

  6. Kristan says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 8:39 AM

    Ditto! Growing up in Central time zone was nice because things never went too late (not even the late night comedy/talk shows!). So yeah, DVR is great, lol. Highly recommend.

  7. jkftravel says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 11:06 PM

    If I haven’t said it lately, I love the way you write.

  8. Kristan says:
    Wed Feb 19 2014 at 11:10 PM

    Julia-
    Thank you. <3

  9. Natalia Sylvester (@NataliaSylv) says:
    Thu Feb 20 2014 at 11:15 AM

    I loved both Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. I love the comparison you use to mirrors, and the necessity for them. It’s why I get so excited to watch the Olympics opening ceremony, waiting to see Peru’s athletes. I think growing up, I wasn’t always aware of the lack of reflections…only once I finally saw one I recognized did I realize how much it’d been lacking, because it seemed so different to me, when it shouldn’t have been.

  10. Jonathan says:
    Thu Feb 20 2014 at 8:10 PM

    Such a nice post. I wish you could somehow send this to Michelle Kwan!

  11. Kristan says:
    Thu Feb 20 2014 at 9:46 PM

    Natalia-
    Exactly. People who lack representation just grow up learning to internalize and identify with whatever the norm is around them — and we don’t even notice it, until we see a better, more accurate reflection. That’s why diversity is sooooo important.

  12. Kristan says:
    Thu Feb 20 2014 at 9:47 PM

    Jonathan-
    Thank you! And hm, I guess I could probably tweet at her or something… but lol, I think I’d feel too weird about it.

  13. Sherrie Petersen Books says:
    Wed Feb 26 2014 at 8:23 AM

    I totally relate to this. I grew up in Ohio where I was the only child with parents from out of the country. I didn’t notice how different I was until another child “kindly” pointed it out. Being mixed race made it hard to find anyone similar to me in books or on TV. I can’t tell you how happy I was to finally find one of those stupid census surveys that actually included being mixed as an option. I no longer have to check every box!

  14. Kristan says:
    Wed Feb 26 2014 at 9:00 AM

    Omg the census boxes! I always always always ignored the “choose one” mandate and selected both Caucasian and Asian in proud defiance. :P

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