What Emma Raducanu’s Rise Means To Me & British Asians Everywhere

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It’s been a funny couple of years to be a British Asian. Something of a rollercoaster. Our new normal involves walking on eggshells to avoid being publicly lambasted for starting a global pandemic with our feral eating habits. At our lowest, we’ve feared for the lives of our peoples.

So perhaps this is one of our peaks: half Chinese, half Romanian Emma Raducanu’s exhilarating US Open win. Just days after her triumph, the 18-year-old rubbed shoulders with celebrities on the red carpet for her Met Gala debut. The tabloids have been quick to immortalise Raducanu as a British star – even Piers Morgan, keeper of the gates of misogynistic Twitter hell, has commended her win (mere weeks since he slated her for pulling out of Wimbledon after suffering from breathing difficulties). But what does her achievement really mean for East Asian sportspeople worldwide?

East Asians in the West have not often been celebrated for leading in sport. In fact, with barefaced mockery high on the list of ways that the West has belittled us, we have been excluded from much of the sporting conversation which is so highly coveted in Western culture. Our sporting skill is assumed to begin and end with ping pong, which I happen to hate (though perhaps this is exactly why).

In his podcast, chef Dave Chang looks at why these sporting victories mean so much. “[I wait for] Christ-like figures that are Asian to happen in sports,” he says, hoping that they will be a “vehicle for understanding Asian equality”. He describes sport as a “platform of understanding excellence” and talks about the few monumental moments in sporting history that saw epic victories from East Asian teams or talents. He recalls his parents being glued to the television, missing church and even crying when a 17-year-old Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989.

Dave discusses this, and the emasculation of East Asian men, with restaurateur, TV host and director Eddie Huang, whose recent film Boogie tells the story of a Chinese basketball player trying to excel in sport while navigating his first romantic relationship. In the film, Alfred “Boogie” Chin’s father says: “No one believes in an Asian basketball player. We can cook, clean and count real good but anything else, we’re picked last.” Later we see Boogie about to lose his virginity and commenting on the condition of East Asian masculinity under a Western gaze as he confesses: “I’m trippin’ ’cause my dick might be trash.”

I didn’t know what representation meant to me until it was gone – or rather, until I moved far away from it. I started figure skating when I was 5 years old. My family were living in New Haven, Connecticut, where figure skating and ice hockey were commonplace. My childhood hero was Michelle Kwan. Born to Chinese immigrant parents, the highly decorated American figure skater won 43 championships, including five World Championships, nine US National Championships and two Olympic medals. Figure skating has long been a predominantly white sport in the US but to me, Kwan was the face of American figure skating.

In 2002 Kwan was one of America’s most beloved, representing the land of the free and home of the brave at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in a bejewelled red dress. Little me was in awe, taking figure skating lessons and rewatching a VHS recording of Kwan’s long and short programmes. To this day, I tear up as I watch her emotive closing ceremony performance. In it, Kwan, wearing a gold dress, skates to Eva Cassidy’s honeyed rendition of “Fields of Gold” – I can only assume in the hope that she’d have claimed the gold medal. It would be her second and last Olympic appearance, and she took home the bronze. She smiles through tears as she takes her final pose.

When I returned to my birthplace of London aged 9, skating was far less commonplace and offered me no Michelle Kwan counterpart. The nearest rink to my home in east London was Lea Valley, and to continue learning meant joining the synchro team and starting to compete. This was less fun than skating had been in the US. It involved many training sessions a week and having my hair scraped into a bun at 5.30am every Saturday. The other team members were mostly white, with parents who paid for them to have the latest phones, clothes, ice skating accessories and extra training. Though my mum and I stuck out unbearably, I loved skating and desperately wanted to fit in. For a couple of years I continued but by 11, my figure skating career was over. It would take me 15 years to get back on the ice.

When I look back on that time I find it interesting to think about what felt different about ‘us’ vs ‘them’. I knew that money was often tight for us – especially with the addition of my expensive hobby – and so the natural conclusion is that I felt out of place because I was poorer than the others. In hindsight I realise that while the crowd was not especially wealthy, it was entitled. I realise now that the white parents felt entitled to the space, to the coaches, to the best of everything for their children who, in turn, were born with a natural prerogative and innate sense of belonging. Had they felt any doubt, the media was there to bolster their sense of potential for success.

My immigrant mum’s attitude was different. She wasn’t pumping me full of E numbers and entitlement; she was being frugal, realistic. She was using her British name, not her Chinese name. She was not rocking the boat. Though I’m forever grateful for the way that she brought me up, it did not prepare me to feel the sense of self-worth that my teammates seemed to. Unequipped with the entitlement they possessed and without that revelatory nudge that representation provides, I couldn’t compete. This was the first time I felt like an ‘other’. And though perhaps I would never have had the drive to reach professional levels within figure skating, I can’t help but wonder if my experience would have differed had the face of the sport looked a little more like me.

Like Raducanu, I am mixed race. We’re both Chinese and proud. Raducanu is fluent in Mandarin, as seen in a YouTube clip where she thanks her Chinese fans and of which I’m deeply envious. I am half Chinese Singaporean. Raducanu is half Chinese and half Romanian. I travelled with my parents as a young child, following my dad’s teaching career that moved us back and forth between London, Texas, Amsterdam and Connecticut before the age of 4. Raducanu was born in Canada. We are both British. I wonder how the British tabloids would interpret my background had I been launched by sport into the spotlight. I also have OCD, anxiety and have suffered from depression. I don’t feel as though my identity in terms of my race and my mental health is fragile or questionable but Raducanu’s treatment by the media tells me that I’d be a walking target for the likes of Piers Morgan, who tweeted that Raducanu needed to “toughen up” when she excused herself from Wimbledon for health reasons and openly discussed her mental health.

Of the most perplexing of entitlement’s many shifting shapes is the clear feeling of innate ownership over the racial identities of others that is so often exhibited over us. I’ve spoken to countless mixed race people who have had their race questioned or denied. It happens with a flippancy that seems to reflect the amount of respect that much of the country has for its minority communities. Good only for takeout, manicures and massages, the model minority was previously reserved for those in the service industry, the voiceless and subservient. The West muted our women and castrated our men so it comes as no surprise that it’s taken until 2021 for us to meet an East Asian British sportswoman who holds the country’s attention.

Less surprising is the media’s response to Raducanu’s win, celebrating her as a “British winner” at a safe distance from the “China virus”. Being identified as British is a kind of reward for her win, perhaps, and shadowbans much of the rest of her identity in one fell swoop. Is this intentional?

Before COVID, existing as an East Asian Brit meant constantly feeling at least one of three things: ignored, hated or fetishised. Since COVID, the latter two are probably most relevant. Our starting point is shaky ground and being the beloved is brand-new; there is something eerie and unsettling about the way that the celebrated sportsperson gets to be British.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 13: Emma Raducanu attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue )
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 13: Emma Raducanu attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue )

This might read as a whiny liberal overreaction to the shining coverage of Raducanu’s win but this kind of behaviour is painted with the same brush that celebrated Black England football players only until they missed penalties. It’s this picking and choosing for white convenience that continues to dehumanise people of colour – this suggestion that who or what they are is up for debate and that it is whiteness which has the final word on all ‘others’. It is the idea that one can earn their worthiness, because a minority who doesn’t excel is not whole.

In order to redistribute privilege, we have to redistribute entitlement. Representation helps to breed the vital sense of entitlement that I believe we all need to strive for success. The same sense of entitlement that colourism awards certain people in huge supply leaves others lacking. Entitlement is a dirty word but I want entitlement for minorities. Beyond the tabloid habit of racialising public figures to suit their needs, I am comforted knowing that my sister can see herself reflected in the gleaming US Open trophy that Raducanu lifts to mark her monumental achievement. Her win sends a little entitlement to all of my East Asian brothers and sisters. We walk a little taller.

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