How Patrick Chan is hoping to change figure skating from the inside

Patrick Chan opens up to Donnovan Bennett about hate crimes against the Asian Community, the racism he’s felt in the figure skating world, and how he had to deal with an identity crisis of being both Chinese and Canadian.

When the Canadian skating team heads to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing next February, they’ll be comprised of an ensemble of athletes that reflect ethnicities from around world. The look and experience of Canadians skating in China will be in large part due to a Chinese Canadian skating legend, Patrick Chan.

Chan didn’t have idols in skating that looked like him when he started in 1996. So, the Lou Marsh Trophy winner and Olympic gold medallist is actively trying to change that. He helped shape Skate Canada’s Commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion which includes an Education Plan that he is particularly proud of. One to shy away from the spotlight, he’s even put himself out there to have the uncomfortable conversations, recently taking part in a “Talking About Race Panel.”

Chan even leant his voice to this ‘We Belong” essay written by Sonny Sachdeva in conjunction with the #StopAsianHate movement.

As Asian Heritage Month ends, I caught up with Patrick Chan to discuss his racial identity, his journey in skating and how he’s helping to pave the way so that those that follow have a more welcoming path.

SN: We have seen hate crimes against people of Asian descent. How have you dealt with seeing it?

Patrick Chan: I struggle with it myself because I proudly represented this country all around the world, stood on top of the podium singing our national anthem, which is one of the most patriotic things you could ever do. And now, as a contrast, I’m living an everyday life now out of competition, not representing Canada on the international stage in sport, just being a regular human being day to day and where I used to feel comfortable signing autographs, taking pictures with people on the street, feeling really comfortable where I am, these little events, these large impactful events remind me I can’t get too comfortable.

And it makes me think about my parents. Do I need to worry about my parents walking down the street every day and going about their lives? I have to accept my privilege as well, as an athlete. I had a very successful career and supported every step of the way by Canadians across the country.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t lend my voice for those that have a hard time being heard.

SN: Some of the things that we heard are terms like ‘China virus.’ Why do they really matter in terms of this broader conversation that we’re trying to have?

It’s unfortunate, but it’s an uneducated way of looking at the issue. We’re blaming one race, one type of person, and we’re better than that. I think we’re, as Canadians and North Americans, we’re better than that. We should be doing our homework in a day and age where we can get information at the click of a button that we shouldn’t be pointing fingers at anybody.

And this is a global pandemic. We have to get through this together with love and care for each other. So, it’s tough to hear those types of words in 2021.

SN: Words really matter. What have you started to realize about the portrayal of females that are Asian?

Well, if I look at my sport, figure skating, we’ve seen many skaters skate to Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon. These are stories that sexualized Asian women. Even what happened in Atlanta, the shooter saying that he has a sex addiction, and he was tempted by Asian women, to feed his sexual fetish. To even allow him to use that as an excuse is absolutely ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s something that’s been in our dialogue for years.

Austin Powers, how women are sexualized in those types of movies. And we laugh about it. And so, we’re part of that problem, of allowing that kind of portrayal to happen and continue to happen all these years. So, I think it’s time to change the perspective we have towards Asian women being weak and being the centre of attention for fetishes and whatnot.

SN: We were starting to have a conversation about change in terms of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic and then Memorial Day last year, George Floyd died, and the conversation really switched. Unfortunately, we don’t often have multiple nuanced conversations at the same time. Now we’re starting to have it again. What have you realized over this racial reckoning on multiple fronts that maybe you didn’t contemplate in the past?

That we need to stick together. We’re all guilty of some form of racism.

My parents and my family in the Asian community, sometimes we’re guilty of it as well. This isn’t a time to divide each other and to pin each other against each other, and ourselves against each other. It’s a time to come together and work together and be as one to fight this injustice and these crimes. Asian hate, Black hate, all of it. We should be working together because, it’s cheesy, but love prevails at the end of the day.

SN: There is real discrimination among minorities, among BIPOC people, and there’s a thought that people who are Chinese or of Asian descent are the ‘model minority.’ Why is thinking that way problematic?

It’s generalizing a whole population into one way of thinking that Asian people are the most successful. We’re good at school, we’re good at math, we’re good at working hard. And that’s why we’re successful. But we’re still a marginalized group of people, the Asian community, just like the Black community, we are marginalized. And yes, there’s really successful Asian Canadians, Asian Americans, but we also forget about essential workers that are Asian, have Asian background that work hard to keep the society running every day. And we don’t talk about them.

SN: What’s your specific immigration story?

Both my parents are Chinese, born and grew up in Hong Kong, ran away from China during the Cultural Revolution. My dad came right to Canada at age of three. My mom, at age twenty-five, decided to come to Ottawa and start a new life and start fresh. My parents worked really hard to make it happen. My mom packed one suitcase and like $100 in her pocket, moving to a country with nobody around. No friends, start fresh, having to create a new community of people. And they worked hard to give me the life I had, to allow me to chase my dream to be an Olympic figure skater. None of that would have been possible if my parents didn’t sacrifice a lot to be in this wonderful country. And growing up, I had almost an identity crisis of my Canadian or my Chinese and not knowing where do I fit in between those two.

So, as a first-generation Canadian, that’s maybe one of the struggles that I share with many other first-generation Chinese Canadians. Just, should I be more Canadian, or should I be more Chinese? And that’s been a struggle all these years.

SN: How did that struggle impact your career and your skating?

Trying to find my authentic self was the hard part, because you’re being distracted, or you’re being pulled in different directions. As a person of colour, you feel isolated. And thank goodness I had a solid group of friends that supported me along the way, made me feel accepted in the sport. So, I never had any kind of traumatic event. However, there is these little moments that I remember. Hearing about all these things that are happening lately, it’s bringing up some old memories of my mom telling me to tell the coach not to pick Chinese music to skate to, making sure that I don’t wear a Chinese-styled costume. Those things I would just repeat, and delivered the message. But I never really understood why my mother would say those types of comments.

And now, looking back, I think it goes back to that European influence of figure skating and wanting to fit in and be more proper. Taking etiquette class to be more proper and almost elitist, because at the end of the day, figure skating’s origins are very much elitist and white.

SN: Now that you look back and you examine the fact that you had to take etiquette class to skate, those things aren’t really related. What does it tell you about where maybe the sport was at the time?

That’s a good point. It’s the culture, because my coach at the time saw the future of me going to international events, sitting down with other judges, figure skating officials, and maybe having to sit with them and having to carry a certain confidence, of being proper and being educated, because it’s all for how I look. It’s how I present myself that was so important.

And it still is important. It’s such a big part of figure skating. So, finding that balance of yes, learning a new way of life, but not losing where I’m from and where my parents are from and being proud of that and talking about it and sharing it as a part of my identity. I think unfortunately I didn’t get that chance to really wear it proudly.

SN: We love sport because it’s about competition and some of the inequities go away. Figure skating is a judged sport. Some of the stereotypes potentially about Asians bleed through. How does that play itself out for Asian skaters historically?

So, in figure skating, typically Asian skaters were kind of labeled as very technically sound athletes and skaters. When it comes to the artistry and musicality, that’s where we’re maybe weaker. We’re kind of put in that box of just like really good jumpers. But I like to think that I maybe changed that mentality. I love the skating and being able to skate to music and expressing myself through music.

That was actually something I really loved more than I did jumping. And now at my old age, I don’t jump anymore, but I can still skate and perform and move to music. And that’s something I will cherish. And I hope that I inspired future generations, future Chinese Canadians, Asian Canadians to feel confident in the way they skate.

SN: Well, you don’t have to hope. Look at the country, look at the skaters coming through. You didn’t necessarily have a Patrick Chan to look up to, but there is unquestionably a ripple effect of Asian skaters that have come after you. How does that make you feel?

Proud, honoured, and appreciative of every single person that helped me along the way. You could say that Asian skaters are dominating the sport in some disciplines, but there’s still work to be done.

I hope to be, again, inspiring others to join the fight and make figure skating more approachable for all people.

SN: What you’re hitting on is there’s a difference between causation and correlation. There’s more diversity but it’s not because the sport has become more inclusive. You are doing some work to change that in terms of equity in the sport with Skate Canada. What are you up to?

It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s been over a year now that we’ve been working on this. We meet weekly, whether we’re changing policies or finding new materials to educate everyone in the sport. Speaking to members all across the country trying to get more Indigenous participation, more people of colour to participate in figure skating and to make it more approachable.

I think that’s the hardest part about figure skating. The biggest challenge we have is how much it costs and the financial burden it puts on athletes and their families. We still have a lot of work to be done, but I’m just glad to be a part of it.

SN: You’re a part of something much larger as well. You’re doing what you’re doing in figure skating, but across sport, across arts and music we’re seeing at this time Chinese Canadians, many of them first- and second-generation, having wild success in areas where you didn’t necessarily see them in the past. What’s it like for you to see some of your brothers and sisters doing things that you’re doing?

It makes me proud. It’s such a great change in terms of my identity. We talked about that the very beginning of my career in figure skating. I was almost ashamed of being Chinese. I was ashamed of my parents, having my mom speaking with an accent. I would feel ashamed of that. And now I’m proud because I see others who share the same parents and share the same struggles, and yet they’re immensely successful and respected. That makes me feel confident.

That gives me confidence and makes me feel proud of where I’m from. So, it’s a bit of a full circle. I’m so appreciative of what my parents did. And even during that time where I felt shame and disappointment, they were still there every day supporting me, almost like they knew I was going to get through this and figure it out.

With the younger generation, my generation, moving into roles where we can make change and we’re getting recognition, we’re being heard. We’re being given a voice to voice our opinions and our experiences. And it takes time, and it will take a long time and now you look at the Academy’s Chloe Zhao won best director, first woman of colour to win that Academy Award.

That’s the beginning of many, many more success stories, I hope. And we need more people like that to shine some light on the challenges that we went through growing up, what our families went through. So, I just look forward to seeing more success stories. But there’s a lot to be done still.

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