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Asian American Olympians Discuss Facing Hate


A portrait of karate athlete Sakura Kokumai who will compete for the United States during the Olympics in Tokyo, taken July 1, 2021.

From racist slurs and gestures to harassment while working out in public, Asian Americans representing their country at the Olympics in Tokyo have recounted some of the discrimination they have faced in the United States.

Sakura Kokumai is competing in karate, a sport being contested for the first time at the Olympics.

She described in a May post on the Team USA website how a man at a park in California “verbally harassed me because of my race.”

"It was my first experience with such an aggressive and obvious hate crime," Kokumai wrote. "I was a target because of how I looked. Not because I am an athlete. Not because I compete in karate — but because I am Asian. And no matter how you look at me, I will always look Asian."

Kokumai said she had talked about such crimes with friends, but experiencing it firsthand made her really understand and want to be vocal about the issue.

"I wish there was one thing that would fix this problem, but the first step is spreading awareness," she wrote. "And then we have to have empathy and compassion for one another. Over time we can help change things in the world for the better."

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country have faced verbal and physical attacks, with the group Stop AAPI Hate reporting in May that from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021, it received 6,603 incident reports.

According to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, the number of hate crimes against Asians reported to police in large U.S. cities rose 189% during the first quarter of this year.

For gymnast Yul Moldauer, who is competing in his first Olympics, an incident with an angry driver prompted him to share his story in a March Instagram post with the caption: "Asian American. The United States is my home."

Moldauer said the woman, who had cut him off, yelled to him at a traffic light, "Go back to China."

"For me, this really shocked me," he explained. "I was confused. I felt uncomfortable. I really just tried to act like it didn't happen. When I put USA on my chest when I compete, it hurts to know that I have to represent people like that."

Erik Shoji, a two-time Olympian on the U.S. men’s volleyball team, used his social media to call attention to the suspension of a Serbian player who during a match in June used her fingers to narrow her eyes in a gesture toward players from the opposing team from Thailand.

"On behalf of the Asian community and the Asian volleyball community, I just want to thank the [International Volleyball Federation] and the [Volleyball Nations League] for taking a stance against racist gestures like this one, against racism as a whole and making our sport an even safer place," Shoji said.

Alexander Massialas, competing in fencing in his third Olympics, wrote on his Instagram account about the need to confront and push back against acts of hate.

“Being half Chinese, I often experience racism through a different lens, not as a direct target but as a witness and secondhand victim,” Massialas wrote.

He describes a time when he went to get into a ride share car driven by a Chinese man, when a passenger getting out of the car objected to the driver taking photos of the back seat where the passenger had spilled alcohol and drug paraphernalia.

"The man stumbled over to me and tried to get me to join him by saying, 'can you believe this f***ing ch**nk?'"

Massialas said he intervened when the passenger tried to steal the car, going against what he says is a cultural norm in his community to "ignore what everyone else says, no matter how wrong or hurtful." He writes that the driver even told him he should not have put himself in harm's way, but that the incident was an example to Massialas of what needs to change "when it comes to racism."

"Today I think about the victims of the senseless attack on Asian women in Atlanta, the Thai grandfather that was murdered within a 10-minute walk of my own home in San Francisco, and the countless acts of racism and violence against the AAPI community," he said. "Instead of ignoring and internalizing the ignorance that propagates hate, we can combat this by sticking together, speaking out, and standing up to hate against vulnerable communities."