THE BLOG
02/14/2016 08:10 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2017

Running Race: Reflections While on Angel Island

As I have taken up running, I see again how race influences our perceptions of everything. Our understanding of ourselves reflects cultural upbringing as well as stereotypes that we have accepted for ourselves.

I recently completed a half marathon on Angel Island. Although the place is sometimes called the West Coast counterpart to Ellis Island, it has a very different history. A ferry ride from San Francisco, it was a port of entry that doubled as a prison for Chinese and other Asians who were "quarantined" if not excluded outright when public officials openly declared that California should be white and had to be protected from invasion. Instead of the Statute of Liberty with its welcoming words, Angel Island had cells in which captives would carve their own poetry into the walls. In the interpretive center of what has been turned into a national park, they sell a new book describing an astonishing aspect of our shared past: Chinese soldiers fought on both sides of the United States Civil War.

As I labored up Mount Livermore in the middle of the island on the second loop, I chatted for a moment with the woman beside me; we had alternated back and forth at what I was sure was the very end of the pack of joggers who had to meet a strict time limit to catch the boat back. I have learned that while running you are expected to exchange pleasantries about, of course, running.

We assured one another about our prospects.

I said, "My goal is to finish."

She replied, "My goal is to have fun."

I was surprised. It never occurred to me to engage in this exercise for "fun." I could conceive of many other activities that would be "fun," but trying to climb a steep hill (twice) would not make the list.

For that matter, I have to confess I don't do much for fun at all. I run because it is good for me. I suppose I enjoy it to an extent.

To tell the truth, I was not raised to regard pleasure as a worthwhile aspiration. My Asian immigrant parents, whether because they were Asian, immigrants, parents, or due to their specific personalities, instilled in me that life was about hard work and success. I rebelled at the time, but I turned out to be their child after all.

That is why I lack a framework for processing fun. "Fun" is what other children were able to experience as they moved comfortably and easily through the latest slang and the newest fashion, instead of the Saturday Chinese school, extra math homework, and piano lessons.

So I do what I do because it is right or a responsibility. Perhaps I am overstating the case, as a colleague of mine pointed out as I was eating French fries -- he suggested that my dietary choices indicated I was not immune to normal hedonism. And anyway, the young lady with whom I was chatting was Asian, too, albeit a recent arrival (while I am native-born); the strictness of my elders might be the result of a specific moment for Asian Americans, prior to legal reforms that opened the doors to many others.

Asian athleticism surprises non-Asians. It is at odds with the popular image of the super-nerds. Long before Linsanity, when basketball rookie Jeremy Lin set records while enduring racial taunting, Asians, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans played every type of sport -- not only ping pong. In Japan and Taiwan, professional baseball and Little League are even more popular than here. The American pastime has been transformed with an emphasis on teamwork. During the World War II internment, when they were locked up based on racial suspicion, Japanese Americans still played ball and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Creed highlights a "firm belief" in "American sportsmanship and attitude of fair play" -- to this day, the JACL hosts bowling tournaments. Chinese immigrants and Korean immigrants have their respective basketball leagues, centered within language schools and ethnic churches.

Even my father, who seemed to be an authority figure frowning upon fun, always displayed with pride a college newspaper reprint with a headline about his basketball team's intramural victories on the Midwestern campus he attended fifty-plus years ago; it said, "Orientals Win Another!" He and my uncles enjoyed watching hoops, like any other spectators. A friend of mine from a Chinese American civic group, who serves as a mentor to Asian American professionals starting out, tells of how he was different from other newcomers: at an NCAA Division I school, he played on two teams, soccer and fencing. That discipline no doubt contributed later to his business prospering.

Race and national origin worry some fans, not in a positive manner. As African marathoners (Black Africans) maintain their dominance, more than a few observers have complained about the absence of Americans (meaning white Americans) among the top prize-winners -- they are not appeased when darker challengers naturalize and become citizens themselves.

Athletes are symbolic. We root for our hometown champions and teams, out of kinship. More than twenty years ago, barefoot women's title-holder Zola Budd applied for a British passport to avoid problems that arose when she represented apartheid South Africa. Next week, the movie Race opens nationwide. The biopic depicts Jesse Owens, a Black American, at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Whether he wished for it or not, when he lined up at the starting line Owens was entering a racial contest, in Hitler's regime as well as on our own shores.

In the solitary moments when I wonder if I have wandered off course on a trail, I am an individual competing against only myself. Yet there is no escaping identity, whether of our invention or as imposed upon each of us. As I try to go faster, I tell myself I am defining my own path.