As the Stop Asian Hate movement grows in the wake of tragedy, the sports world is helping drive the conversation. We talked to seven people of Asian heritage working in the Canadian sports industry about their lives and careers.

On March 16 of this year, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long went on a shooting spree targeting three massage parlours in the Atlanta area, killing eight people and injuring one. Of the eight who lost their lives, six were Asian women: Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Suncha Kim, 69; and Soon Chung Park, 74.

Despite the apparent targeting of Asian women, however, Long has not been charged with a hate crime. Instead, his motive has been pegged to a self-confessed sexual addiction.

This mass shooting came on the heels of a rise in racist attacks against people of Asian descent, which can be traced largely to ignorant representations of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate, there were nearly 3,800 incidents of hate — which include shunning, slurs and physical attacks — in the U.S. between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021. And in just one example of the way this hatred impacts the sports world, in late February, former NBA star Jeremy Lin revealed he had been called “Coronavirus” on the court while playing with the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors.

And this is hardly just a U.S. problem. A recent report entitled “A Year of Racist Attacks: Anti-Asian Racism Across Canada One Year into the Pandemic” analyzed 643 complaints of anti-Asian racism in Canada between March 10 and Dec. 31, 2020. Based off the data, almost half of the incidents took place in a public space with close to 73 per cent coming in the form of verbal harassment. Eleven per cent involved unwanted physical force and aggression, and 10 per cent of reports included individuals being coughed at or spat on.

Of course, anti-Asian racism has been around for quite a bit longer than just these past 14 months. Now, however, the Stop Asian Hate movement has helped to finally shed light on the realities that people who look like me have dealt with their entire lives. From celebrities like Sandra Oh giving an impassioned speech in Pittsburgh to the thousands of people who gathered at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, momentum has finally built and it won’t be stopped.

Our voices will be heard.

Thanks to the courage of people like Lin, and strong responses from not just the NBA and its players but many other professional leagues, pro sports has been a central driver of this conversation. As such, it feels important that the sports world helps keep it going. Over the past few weeks I chatted with seven people of Asian descent within the Canadian sports industry to hear their stories and about some of the hurdles they’ve faced in their lives and careers.

The seven people I spoke to are Charzie Abendanio, manager of corporate communications at MLSE; Chris Cheng, Windsor University’s head men’s basketball coach; Gil Kim, director of player development with the Toronto Blue Jays; Hazel Mae, Sportsnet’s Blue Jays sideline reporter; Nikki Reyes, co-host of Toronto Raptors broadcasts on TSN 1050 Toronto; Courtney Szto (pictured at top), assistant professor at Queen’s University and managing editor of Hockey in Society; and Rob Wong, co-host of Jays Talk on Sportsnet 590 the FAN.

A member of the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 championship team, Lin has been vocal in standing against anti-Asian racism
“CHAPTER 1: Growing Up Asian”

With the luxuries and opportunities this nation provides its citizens, growing up in Canada can be a wonderful thing. However, it isn’t without its challenges, particularly for kids who don’t necessarily look like everyone else around them and don’t bring the same kind of lunches to school.

Rob Wong: I think for me it was mostly when I was a younger kid in elementary school or in high school people would make jokes about my last name and try to rhyme it with something, or they would talk in a Chinese accent. And the thing for me in Bradford [Ontario] when I was growing up — the demographics have changed now with more people moving there and purchasing homes — but when I was a little kid growing up there, there were not many Asian people. I remember in my elementary school it was me, my three next-door neighbours, who are Chinese, and there were two other kids who were Chinese. So there were six Chinese people going to my elementary school. And just in the town, in general, there were really a handful of Asian kids that were around my age.

Courtney Szto: It was definitely the microaggressions you get while you’re in school like, “Oh, your lunch is different, your name is weird,” not wanting to speak Cantonese in front of your white classmates and being different in that way.

Charzie Abendanio: There are little things that happen and you think, “Okay, I’ll just adapt and I’ll change because that’s just the way it is.” You just have to learn and move on from it. But then I realized, now that I’m older and [with] everything that’s happened in the last few weeks and also throughout the whole pandemic, is that these little things that people say to you are not right or come from an ignorant place.

Gil Kim: My sister and I, we went through a lot of experiences as younger children where kids would point out that we look different or make jokes about our facial features, about the food that we ate at home or would compare us to just about any other Asian person who’s on TV or who they know. And so, as a little kid, it’s confusing at first, but like with anything that’s presented as a challenge you can look at it as something that you can get upset at and fight or you can look at it as something you can process and work with.

And, honestly, going through those experiences … helps you realize very quickly that everybody has different viewpoints and opinions and biases based on their life experiences, and not everybody is going to see things the way you see them, and that’s okay. The world is not perfect; people are not perfect. So it taught me very quickly that we have two choices: You can get upset and shy away from interacting with people or you can bring people in and learn about perspectives and talk through these things.

“CHAPTER 2: ‘Where Are You Really From?’”

It’s a question nearly every first-generation Canadian with Asian heritage has been asked at least once in their life — and more likely dozens of times: “Where are you really from?”

Courtney Szto: It just kind of goes with the territory, unfortunately. I notice it more, I think, when I travel in the States. Like I’ve had door people bow to me at hotels — man, that was weird — or I’d go to a Starbucks and the baristas would just sort of stare at me until I said, “Hello,” because, I think, they just assume that I don’t speak English.

And, yeah, in Canada we still have a lot of the “Where are you really from?” That [implication] of, “Okay, you’re born here, but you’re really from somewhere else and your allegiance must be somewhere else.” It’s definitely a frustrating one.

Rob Wong: When people say, “Where are you really from?” I say, “I’m from Canada.” “But, no, where really?” And I say, “I’m from Canada.”

I’m Canadian. I was born in Bradford. Like, this is the only country I’ve ever known. Yes, I’ve been to China when I was a little kid to visit family members and relatives, but this is who I identify as. Do I identify as being Chinese as well? Yes, because that’s my heritage, that’s my ancestry, but I am Canadian. I grew up experiencing a lot of the same experiences that other people that grew up in this country did. Whether they were Caucasian or whether they were not, I still feel the same level of pride of being Canadian as any other person that’s grown up in this country.

Gil Kim: I think we all go through the same thing. When I was younger it would bother me, especially when it felt like the question was being asked to poke fun at my culture and background, and I would take so much pride in being American, in showing people that I spoke fluent English, but as I got older, again, I think it’s about learning other peoples’ perspectives and asking yourself, “Well, why are they asking me this question?” And when I started really realizing that was … I had such an interest in Latin American culture and Latin American baseball, and I would find myself being bothered if someone asked me where I was really from, yet I would be extremely interested in maybe a first-generation player and asking them about where are their parents from and wanting to speak Spanish with people.

I realized that when someone asks where I’m from, I’ll — depending on the conversation — I may say I’m Korean or I may say I’m from Philadelphia, and I take pride in letting people know that I’m Korean-American, and that my parents are from Korea.

So, sure, at certain points in my life I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. But now, as I’ve gotten older, it became something where it became an opportunity for me to take pride in my background and let people know I’m of Korean descent and I wanted to tell people that I was of Korean descent.

Chris Cheng: Usually when they ask me that I say, “I’m Filipino, but I was born and raised here,” and that’s always been my response. So I am Canadian and kind of avoid the second question.

On top of his head coaching duties at Windsor, Cheng has helped coach the junior national team and the U19 national team
“CHAPTER 3: Being Asian in the Workplace”

Be it coaches, front-office personnel, media members or the athletes themselves, Asian representation in the North American sports industry has long been sparse. That has started to change, but there is still a long way to go.

Hazel Mae: When I turned on the television [as a kid], there was no one that looked like me covering sports. I saw plenty of Asians doing weather and news, but I didn’t see an Asian woman doing sports. So, in my mind, I’m like, “Okay, I’m allowed to do news, I’m allowed to do weather, but there’s no one who looks like me and maybe that’s because we’re not allowed to do sports.” And maybe “allowed” isn’t the right word, but it just, to me, not seeing anyone, I just assumed, “Well, maybe it’s because that particular area of television is only supposed to be for this type of look.”

Chris Cheng: Being Asian and not being very tall and coaching basketball, especially at our level, I get mistaken for not being the head coach. I remember one incident when I came off the bus and there’s a liaison for one of the universities who was supposed to direct us to our team room. They asked if the head coach was around and I said, “Yeah, I’m right here.” And he goes, “C’mon, seriously — where’s the head coach?” And so I say, “I am the head coach.” And he’s like, “No, c’mon, you’ve gotta be like the team manager or the math tutor or something.” And so I said again, “No, I’m actually the head coach.”

Charzie Abendanio: I find, in my industry anyway, it’s very hard to find anyone that is not white. There were definitely different cultures when I went to school, but it’s a small percentage. And then even when I worked at a global PR agency, I was maybe one of five who were Asian and the rest were white people. And when [that’s the case], you kind of feel like you stand out in a bad way and you want to prove yourself more. I would stay later, I would work harder, I would try to prove myself more and more. When you know that you’re one of the few Asians in the room or in the company and there aren’t many people like you it can be challenging.

Hazel Mae: Nobody’s ever said it to my face, but I’ve heard myself be described as “exotic” — “Oh, you know, the exotic-looking reporter.” I’ve heard people refer to me that way before. Or the “Asian reporter.” I was never just “the reporter.” I was always the “exotic-looking reporter, the Asian-looking reporter” and some people that didn’t know that I was Filipino would say, “She looks Hawaiian, she looks Cambodian,” and you can run the gamut. It was just never “the reporter.” I always had that adjective before reporter. There was always a description.

Nikki Reyes: Well, exotic to who? Because if I’m in the Philippines, I’m not exotic. You know what I mean? I’m exotic because I’m different? So to use the word “exotic” is a microaggression in a sense. Like, you can just say “beautiful.” You can just say “pretty.” You don’t have to say “exotic” like I’m a beautiful alien. Like, I’m not. I’m just a Filipino, and in my country I probably look like a lot of other Filipinos.

Gil Kim: A lot of people will be more inspired and more connected and motivated when they see somebody who looks like them or maybe has a similar backstory or can relate. When people can share experiences and find some sort of connection, it opens the door for participation and engagement. And that’s good for an organization, that’s good for society, that’s good for the world to continue to break down barriers based on physical appearances or ethnic or cultural backgrounds and foster a culture of love and care.

Hazel Mae: Representation matters because you’re able to show people what can be attainable. So when I get emails and letters and people stop me in the street, and especially young women of Asian descent, they want to be just like me and I am honoured and flattered, of course, but I think to myself, “That’s great because they can strive for the pinnacle of their profession because people before them were able to succeed.”

Mae anchored and reported for NESN and MLB Network before returning to Sportsnet in 2011
“CHAPTER 4: The ‘Asian’ Monolith”

The word “Asian” is a catch-all that accurately describes the geographic origins of a certain group of people, but encapsulates far more than a single culture. The word also appears to have taken on a different meaning in respect to stereotypes — both negative and positive.

Nikki Reyes: The Asian diaspora is not a monolith. There are so many nuances to it. Like, I’m Filipino, [but] my great-grandfather is Spanish so my last name is Spanish. It’s also why I look very white and I’m very tall for my people. And so that in itself is like, “Well, you’re not supposed to be so tall and white,” but it’s like, no, even if you look at Filipinos, there are Black Filipinos. The original settlers of the Philippines, they’re called the Aeta people, they’re Black. Like, our people are a spectrum…. And so I’ve had people say, “You’re not Filipino. How could you be Filipino?” And it’s offensive in a sense because it washes your other cultures away.

Courtney Szto: If we don’t grow up around a diversity of people, and if we don’t see it in the media we generally just kind of go with the simplest answer. “Asian” — this huge continent with billions and billions of people — has become a simple way to categorize folks and also kind of move us away from more problematic terms that we’ve used historically like “East Indian” or “Oriental.” It’s kind of like the safest version that we have found, and because if white folks don’t understand the difference between a Chinese, a Korean, a Vietnamese person, then “Asian” is the safest way to go.

So in order to kind of pretend that we’re a colour-blind society and not offend people, then we go with a very generic and bland term, but I think once people know that somebody is Chinese, somebody is Korean, somebody is Pakistani, we should be using those terms to help identify them and then, hopefully, draw more attention to particular communities and their plights.

Chris Cheng: When you’re Asian, it’s kind of hard for people to say you can step outside of that or be something different, and it’s the whole stereotype I’ve always found. Like, I remember when I started coaching and I was a provincial coach, there were some club coaches who didn’t want to send their players to play for me because they would be like, “Well, what are you gonna learn from that guy? That guy hasn’t played. He’s Asian, so what does he know?” And that was a big obstacle for me trying to recruit players, and it might still be an obstacle for me today.

Like, I don’t know if it’s used against me. So I’m not sure. But I’ve been fortunate to create my own credibility with my resumé coaching the provincial team and national team. And now, head coaching at the university level, I kind of use it as fuel to say, “You know what, if they’re gonna use stereotype and race against me, then I’m just gonna work harder and fuel that fire elsewhere.”

“CHAPTER 5: The Model Minority”

The idea of the “model minority” has come up a lot in news articles in regards to anti-Asian racism, particularly in regards to how that image has been weaponized to pit racialized groups against one another.

Courtney Szto: The model minority came about in the 1960s in the United States, specifically as a way to counter the civil rights movement. The “model minorities” are generally seen as East Asian, and then sometimes including South Asian folks, as well, and we are used as a weapon against Black and Indigenous folks, because what they did in the civil rights movement was to say, “Well, look at those Asians. They’re working hard, they go to school, they don’t march in the streets, they’re not raising any trouble and they’re doing fine. They’re doing okay, right? So why don’t you folks just work harder like them and then we won’t have any of these problems.”

There is kind of that tension that white supremacy has created between racialized groups.

Gil Kim: I had never specifically heard of the model minority concept, but the second I read it I was like, “Yup, I got it.” I had never really thought about it as much, but there’s this perception that because there are some positive stereotypes about Asians, it’s like, “What are you complaining about?” It’s almost this feeling of, “You don’t have a right to feel like you’re discriminated against because the reputation is that you’re smart, hard-working people.” That’s challenging to navigate. But I’ve talked to a lot of Black teammates and colleagues who they’ve also felt like in the past their role was to not rock the boat and not say much, and now they’re some of the most passionate, outspoken people in the organization with some of these issues.

So while the model minority is specific to Asians, I think that the feeling of holding in these thoughts in order to not cause problems, [losing] that’s probably the biggest advancement and probably the most positive advancement that we’ve had, not just as an organization, but as a society over the past year.

Chris Cheng: I don’t think I’ve avoided situations. I think it’s important that I understand situations regarding race. I think I understand that there are different races and cultures and you can’t avoid it, and I’m a very outspoken person. If I see something that I feel isn’t correct, it’s something that I’ll speak my mind to and voice my opinion, and I’ll support those I feel should be supported.

I’m not one to stay quiet and, if anything, I think this past year and a bit has told us that we can’t stay quiet. We’ve got to break the silence and make it heard and support those who need support, and call out those who need to be called out. It’s always been my mindset and my attitude.

Rallies and vigils as part of the Stop Asian Hate movement appeared across North America in recent weeks
“CHAPTER 6: Hope from Tragedy”

Anger, sadness, shock, disappointment. These are just a fraction of the emotions many experienced upon hearing the news of the Atlanta shootings. But the outpouring of support and the increased awareness of the issues the Asian community faces in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy has been truly inspirational.

Gil Kim: The biggest thing that I’ve learned over the last year has actually been from … Anthony Alford and Jonathan Davis, who’s on our roster now. When a lot of the events unfolded last year, I personally didn’t know the best way to handle them or how to engage in the conversation, and … these were two young men who gave me advice and encouraged me to dive into the uncomfortable conversations with them, with other people and how impactful that could be and how that would be the vehicle for change. And what I learned from them impacted how I handled the situation over the past month, which is try to learn as much as I could about it, tried to reach out and engage with as many people as I could about it and [set aside] those feelings of, “Well, it’s not affecting me on a day-to-day basis” or “I feel uncomfortable talking about this.” Those are the things that I’ve learned to move past that maybe a year ago I wouldn’t be able to.

So while there are a lot of these events and incidents, and they are shocking and unfortunate, at the same time they do allow society to raise awareness and learn about some of the realities that people go through…. I think it’s forcing us to engage in these issues. It’s forcing us to have these conversations. And, ultimately, it’s forcing us to progress and get better with it.

Charzie Abendanio: The incidents and violent acts don’t seem to be stopping. They just seem to be ramping up and people are noticing it more now than before. But I hope that because of this heightened awareness, there’s a greater push for change and for people who are bystanders to actually be part of the action to stop it from happening.

Hazel Mae: I think because we’ve grown up in a time where kids are, with social media and with the internet, I think kids are smarter at their age now. They’re more aware of their surroundings, their environment. They’re aware of the news. They’re aware of social justice. I think the younger generation growing up in these times are better informed, and when they see injustices and when they see things that are wrong … they’re armed with the knowledge and they have the courage to put an end to things via ballot box, via doing initiatives, rallies, stuff like that.

So what I really love is that the perception of Asians is these meek, mild, very soft-spoken, quiet [people], but we are standing up for ourselves. Watching Sandra Oh, the actress, at that rally in Pittsburgh up there with the bullhorn and just encouraging people to say to themselves, “We belong here and we can’t keep quiet. We have to stand up for ourselves.”

Photo Credits

Courtesy Courtney Szto; AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying; courtesy Chris Cheng; Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images; Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images