Chloe Kim, the eighteen-year-old snowboarding phenom, the only woman to ever score a perfect 100 on the halfpipe, just appeared with her father in a Super Bowl advertisement for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. American fathers everywhere quietly cleared their throats and choked back tears. The ad deftly tells the real life story of how her father, Jong-jin, quit his engineering job when Chloe was only four years old in order to invest himself full-time in her snowboarding training.
The American media reaction to Chloe has been massive, and surprisingly positive in its portrayal of an intact, healthy, and thoroughly American family of Asian descent. This isn’t the first time an Asian American Winter Olympian’s relationship with their parents, and their father in particular, has been a big story. Michelle Kwan’s father, Danny, was often televised during his daughter’s competitions, with Scott Hamilton never forgetting to note the massive sacrifices he had to make for his daughter. The media also focused plenty of attention on short track skater Apolo Ohno’s relationship with his single parent father Yuki, an unusual and attention grabbing story about the athlete-celebrity.
There has always been a level of curiosity about the origin stories of Asian American athletes, for example the close involvement of both Jeremy Lin’s and Michelle Wie’s fathers. But this month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, brings a global significance to the marginal curiosity of Asian American athlete families, and helps explains why in addition to Chloe, the American media has been heavily showcasing Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, Mirai Nagasu, and seven others. In total there are eleven Asian American athletes heading to Korea.
Pyeongchang was selected all the way back in 2011, at a time when tensions in East Asia were much lower than they are now. It is by chance, then, that the Korean Peninsula has become the literal ground zero of the most important conflict on the planet. It goes well beyond Kim Jong-Un’s and Trump’s twitter battles, and into a much larger crisis in which America’s postwar dominance in East Asia is waning and under threat of eclipse by an independent economic and security system in the region.
Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in South Korea, where after 65 years since the end of the Korean War, the essential conflicts of that war still remain in play, perhaps even more acutely now than before. Few Americans remain aware of the massive and successful protests in 2016–17 that occurred throughout South Korea, sparked by a political scandal involving then President Park Geun-Hye. Fewer still will recognize the political significance of that protest, in which the America-aligned Park was removed from office and imprisoned, and a more independent-minded “sunshine policy” (i.e. open to dialogue with North Korea) president was elected in her place (who ironically is named Moon).
Moon Jae-in represents an assertion of Korean independence, a sharp rebuke of American foreign policy in Asia, and in particular Obama’s assertive “pivot to Asia” policy. With his grand strategies of naval relocation and TPP falling victim to incompetence, the Fat Leonard Scandal, and Trump’s isolationism, the American dream of East Asian dominance has never been in more peril since its apogee in 1945, immediately after World War 2. And from the perspective of the Koreans and its East Asian neighbors, America’s willingness to commit its money, power, and soldiers to their interests is being seriously questioned, particularly by the younger generation unaccustomed to Western hegemony.
America’s resort to nuclear threats against Korea — both a willingness to commit genocide against the North, and to sacrifice the South as an acceptable price — is a demonstration of the Foucauldian maxim that the threat of coercion is itself a failure of power, and not power itself. That is, if America were to have true power in the region, it would not need to resort to threats, for the threat implies that its will is being resisted.
Given the grave situation for America, there could be no better time than now to deploy Chloe Kim and her father to the peninsula, along with the ten other Asian Americans who will serve American interests the way miracles serve the Catholic Church. Despite the rapid rise in fortune of South Korea, it is a homogeneous and traditional society that is painfully confronting the gender inequalities that modern capitalism both reveals and makes socially intolerable. While the Winter Olympics will paint a rosy picture of a nation at its peak, South Korean society is plagued with youth disenchantment which at times mirrors America’s own. Note, for example, the rise of Korean youth reactionary politics on websites like Ilbe, and the youth feminist movements on opposing websites like Megalia.
The story of a Korean American immigrant father, who still retains a wonderfully thick Korean accent, who risked everything for his daughter, kept the family intact, and propelled her into achieving her self-chosen ambition, presents a side of America that is simply untouchable in its appeal. That America recognizes this and tells their story during the Super Bowl as a defining story of America itself, is a more powerful exercise of American power than any Titan missile could ever hope to achieve.
But does Chloe Kim’s story accurately reflect America? It’s hard to say, because her story isn’t a new one. The only thing new this time is how much big media has invested in its Asian American Olympians this time around. As surprising and refreshing as this is, my born-and-raised skepticism is always at work. Why now? Why this Olympics? Why does it feel that a variation of the model minority myth is being deployed again for America’s geopolitical aims, as Ellen Wu uncovered in The Color of Success?
In any event, here’s hoping Chloe Kim is going to absolutely dominate the halfpipe with her signature 1080s, bring the gold home, and end the first entry in her Olympic career by boarding right into her father’s waiting arms.