Running for a Change

Courtesy of Runner’s World

I’ve worked out every single day since 7th grade. I’ve been able to do 100 pushups in a row. I’m no stranger to the burning of lactic acid in my legs. I’ve run 2,000 miles in less than nine months. I’ve pounded out 80-mile weeks in the sweltering July heat. I’ve staggered home from 15-mile runs drenched in sweat and barely able to walk. There’s no doubt that I love exercise. But there’s always one thing that I can’t outrun, that I can’t outwork. It’s an insurmountable hill that I’m running up until my legs turn to rubber and I’m gasping for breath. It hurts, and there’s no end in sight. That hill is my complexion.

Racial prejudice has manifested itself to me since third grade. I was selected as part of a special group of children to learn at an accelerated pace, called the “academically independent,” or AI. I was as ecstatic as a young child could be. What I didn’t know was that just a few kids were white, with the majority being of either Chinese or Indian descent. The racial disparity was so obvious that we even changed the acronym AI to mean “Asian invasion.”

Growing up in Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School, I’ve had my fair share of racial harassment. Again, I was taking part in all “E” classes, an enriched course for advanced students. There was one class that wasn’t an “E” class, and that was Italian. I was the only Asian in the class. At the beginning I was continually persecuted. The other kids would poke me, copy my homework, and make me dread going to class everyday. Was this what it felt like to be a minority? Why did these people pick on me, a quite shy and peaceful fellow? I wasn’t small or fat. I didn’t look ugly. I was just a normal, fairly fit kid.

I realized the reason they were harassing me was hidden within their words. Remarks such as “hello yellow” or “how’s math?” reminded me of a indelible stereotype linked with Asians, including the Chinese.

All Asians are good at math. They suck at sports, besides maybe soft sports like Ping-Pong. They all eat rice. They all do homework every second they’re free. They furiously take notes in class. They play a musical instrument, and practice it for hours everyday. They’re all scrawny or chubby, but never in shape, probably never exercising ever.

It was this last stereotype that I’ve been trying to break. Have I done it? Probably not. Will I ever? Doubtful. Systemic racism is nearly impossible to eradicate. I can change my body all I want. I can be a scrawny runner or a buff bodybuilder with monstrous arms and an eight-pack. But I’m always identified as Asian.

When I take my shirt off, people often called me “jacked” or “ripped.” But with my shirt on people think I’m just another “un-athletic Asian.” Yet I’ve worked my butt off for hundreds upon hundreds of days. I’ve woken up at 5:30 AM to run. I’ve endured sub-zero temperatures and 100-degree heat to get a workout in. Yet, I’ve realized that no matter what kind of shape I’m in, people will judge me by what they see. The contrast in responses between my having a shirt on or off is incredible. It shows the power of human sight, and the deep implications of prejudice that have been imbedded within us to the point where they have became human nature.

Racism and stereotyping radiate beyond my own experience. Just take a look at the world of athletics today. Black? Oh, he must be a great sprinter. White? Stick to an expensive sport. Asian? Go read books. Race and ethnicity play have such a large spotlight in athletics today. For instance, sprinting is dominated by Jamaicans—long-distance running by the Kenyans. And they have statistics to back them up. No Asian-born man has broken a 10 second 100 meter. China’s 1.5 billion people have a ridiculously slow 10k record of 28:08 (in comparison to the 26:17 world record).

But there will always be people like me that want to do something unique. Something different. Something that doesn’t fit in. Pioneer in a sport that your country lacks interest in. Work endlessly to break the stereotypes that seem to hold me in chains. Japan is the best country with regard to athletics in the entire world. They have Olympic caliber sprinters and a myriad of distance runners with enough depth to put even Kenya and Ethiopia to shame. They love athletics over there. Yet, when we think of Asian, we think video games, nerds, homework, and studying for the SAT. Why is that? That is quite a question to ponder. Something I’ll think about, probably on an early morning run. For tomorrow I wake up at sunrise to continue a daily religious ritual. Miles stand no chance against me. Stereotypes and prejudice do.

-Kevin Sun