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Three share what AAPI heritage means to them

Current and former student-athletes celebrate their Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures

May has been recognized as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month since 1990, when it was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. But in 2021, college sports celebrates AAPI Heritage Month with a renewed sense of purpose — one that celebrates the achievements of those who represent AAPI culture and pushes back against stereotypes amid rising reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans nationwide.

Here are three stories from those who have competed in college sports across all three divisions of the NCAA on what AAPI heritage means to them.

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Azusa Pacific sophomore Paige Uyehara readies to shoot a free throw against Point Loma during the 2020-21 season. (Photo by Azusa Pacific University)

For Paige Uyehara, an allied health major and women’s basketball player at Division II Azusa Pacific, AAPI heritage means recognizing the people who have come before her, including members of her extended family and AAPI figures in sport.

“AAPI heritage means a lot to me,” Uyehara said. “Having my great-grandparents and just other family members who immigrated to the U.S. so many years ago. Just to kind of take those people who were brave enough to come over and start their lives, them being the steppingstones for our future and future generations.”

Uyehara, whose family is Japanese American, added that maintaining traditions from her grandparents and great-grandparents also is important. She learned to make the Japanese rice cake mochi with her family and shared special celebrations around the New Year’s and Girls’ and Boys’ Day holidays.

Named to the NCAA West Region All-Tournament Team after leading Azusa to the NCAA Elite Eight in the 2020-21 season, Uyehara described basketball as a part of her. Though she was one of only a couple of Asian Americans on her high school team, she played for a club team made up entirely of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

“We would go to club tournaments and people would see all of us — also us not being very tall. They would see all of these little Asian girls walking in, and we’d get looks,” she said.

Uyehara defends against UC Irvine during the 2020-21 season. (Photo by Azusa Pacific University)

Uyehara added that those looks didn’t matter compared with her team’s play on the court. “It was like, yeah, people are going to look at us, but once we’re on the court, that’s not going to matter. It’s just going to be who can play and who’s going to leave it all out there,” she said.

On Azusa’s campus, Uyehara has found several clubs and opportunities to connect with other members of the AAPI community.

“It’s kind of cool to see that we can all come together, even people who necessarily aren’t part of the AAPI community will join the club to learn more,” Uyehara said. “It’s so cool to see that other people want to learn about our heritage and get to know different people from different places, as well.”

Uyehara described an incredibly welcoming and supportive environment at Azusa and on her team in the wake of recent attacks on the AAPI community.

“The attacks upon the AAPI community do kind of hit close to home,” she said. “I think just the fear sometimes of going out. Even to just to go get groceries, go get gas, never knowing always having to look over your shoulder, watch your back.”

The Azusa team and community have made a conscious effort to provide a safe space to those who wish to talk about occurrences of AAPI hate. Some of Uyehara’s teammates also reached out to her after seeing several reported attacks on the news.

“Even though it didn’t necessarily affect them in a way, that they were still willing to reach out and check in on me,” she said. “It meant the world.”

Off the court, Uyehara wants others to know that AAPI members are all individuals, with the same goals as everyone else.

“We’re just like everyone else,” she said. “We go to school. We play sports. We excel in different things. We all just want to succeed in life. We want to do well, while not just bettering ourselves, but the people and the community around us, as well.”

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Justin Park, who graduated this month from Illinois Wesleyan with a degree in accounting, helped lead the Titans to a team title in the Division III Men’s Golf Championships, posting his team’s best score in the final round. Park’s parents immigrated to the United States from Korea and Guam. (Photo by Illinois Wesleyan)

Growing up just north of Chicago in Vernon Hills, Illinois, Justin Park said he was fortunate to live in an area that was extremely welcoming to members of the AAPI community. The 2021 Division III champion golfer and accounting major from Illinois Wesleyan added that his hometown was one that accepted all cultures and that he was able to learn from many.

Being surrounded by many cultures at a young age, Park acknowledged that he didn’t know as much as he would like about his own. “I personally don’t know too much about my own culture,” he said.

Park added that Asian American heritage is “pretty valuable in my heart” when thinking about how his parents immigrated to the U.S. and started a new life as Americans. He actively seeks out and enjoys learning more from his mom’s side of the family, which is Korean, and his dad’s family from Guam. Particularly, Korean entertainment interests him.

“It’s pretty electrifying,” Park said about Korean entertainment and particularly Korean music. “They really put their heart out into the music. So it’s pretty cool to see that they have so much passion into it.”

Park added that he enjoys seeing elements of Korean culture, like K-pop, becoming more recognized and celebrated in America. But he would like to see more of Korean entertainment incorporated into U.S. society.

“I think it just brings in a different perspective and to give a different taste of what that Asian culture is,” Park said. “America is just a big melting pot, so to speak, so bringing that different taste to it is pretty cool.”

Golf also provided Park another way to learn about different cultures and an opportunity to represent the AAPI community, as well.

Park (second from right) hoists an individual trophy after Illinois Wesleyan’s victory in the 2021 Division III Men’s Golf Championships. (Photo submitted by Justin Park)

“Being a national champion and being an Asian American, as well, it’s just astounding to me,” he said. “I’m just really grateful that I’m able to speak pretty loudly for the Asian American community because they do deserve such great recognition. To be seen and heard based off of our culture, and that we can do it as well.”

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Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, who graduated from Virginia in 2017, competes for the Cavaliers during the 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships. (Photo submitted by Thai-Son Kwiatkowski)

Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, former NCAA tennis champion and information technology major at Virginia, grew up trying to fit in. The now pro player recalled being one of only a few Asian American students at his school of 800 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I just wanted to fit in as a kid in a predominantly Caucasian school,” he said. “I would get upset at my family when they would speak to me in Vietnamese. So, for the longest time, for lack of a better word, I was kind of ashamed of being Vietnamese.”

While also being part Polish, Kwiatkowski wanted to learn more about his Vietnamese heritage as he grew older. As he moved through college and into his professional career, Kwiatkowski found pride in his Vietnamese roots and celebrated this AAPI Heritage Month with a greater meaning.

“I came to be a lot more proud of being an Asian American,” he said. “Having this month, especially with how 2021 has gone so far for our community, it’s been a time of a bit of reflection but also a sense of pride for my heritage for the first time in my life. … It’s also called upon myself to look and see ways in where I’ve kind of marginalized my own community by not embracing it as much as I could have throughout my life.”

Kwiatkowski described lessons he’s learned from his younger brother.

“My brother, who is seven years younger, went through the same things I went through,” Kwiatkowski said. “And the way he embraced being of Asian heritage was something I never thought of. Honestly that’s something I learned a lot from him and the way he was always just super proud to just, not stand out and be disruptive, but be himself, not shy away from our culture.”

Kwiatkowski went on to say that his brother helped inspire him to embrace his heritage more.

“He’s worn a Buddhist necklace around his neck for as long as I can remember,” Kwiatkowski said. “That was always something I kind of shied away from talking about. We didn’t know too many other Buddhist families, so for that to be something he’s outwardly proud of … was kind of inspiring for me.”

Moving forward, Kwiatkowski hopes the rise in popularity of Asian culture — such as yoga, sushi and Asian cartoons — will help to further highlight AAPI members and their history. He also hopes that those who are not Asian Americans but are interested in the collective culture will step up to be allies and support the AAPI community when able.

“If you do any of those things, then you do appreciate on some level Asian culture, and it’s important that you’re an ally and you recognize this month,” Kwiatkowski said. “If any of those things strike you as something that you do, it’s important that you’re also an ally for Asian Americans, as well.”

Kwiatkowski (center) poses with his Virginia team after winning the 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships. (Photo submitted by Thai-Son Kwiatkowski)