As attacks on Asian Americans escalated throughout the coronavirus pandemic, each new reported case triggered painful memories for pioneering Yale Athletic Director Vicky Chun, culminating in shootings at Atlanta area spas killing eight, including six Asian women, in late March.
Chun, 52, thought back to her youth when she had racial epithets directed at her even though she was an American citizen, and people would speak to her mockingly in broken English. She recalled being told to go back to her country even though the United States was the only home she knew.
In those moments of reflection, it became agonizingly more difficult for Chun, born in Southern California to Chinese parents who immigrated to America, to refocus her attention back to her job overseeing 35 varsity sports at one of the world’s most prestigious institutes of higher learning.
“I’ve had people squint their eyes, say things derogatory,” Chun said in a telephone interview last week. “It would affect me, but to the point where I just pushed it out of my mind. With the rise in Asian hate crimes, it did bring up memories, and not good ones.”
Chun came to Yale in 2018 after serving in the same capacity at her alma mater, Colgate, where she became the first female Asian American athletic director at a Division I school. An accomplished volleyball player, Chun remains the only person to have been named both Patriot League player (1991) and coach of the year (1996) in any sport.
All her accolades – and there are plenty more – did not, however, prepare Chun to navigate the dark space associated with anti-Asian vitriol that surfaced with former president Donald Trump invoking terms such as “Kung flu” and “Chinese virus” during the pandemic.
Chun reached a point where she could no longer suppress her many emotions, so she finally sought support from a network of friends during a period when she at times feared for her well-being and that of her family and close friends of Asian descent.
It was the first time Chun openly addressed the systemic racism she faced and the ongoing spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans that have taken on more gravity during this month recognizing the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“Really, really difficult, and I didn’t expect that,” Chun said. “I think there were some tearful moments that I also didn’t expect either, and I just think growing up with two immigrant parents, I mean it’s just our nature to stuff those things down and not talk about it.”
Chun grew up in the Los Angeles area in a household where parents raised their children with rigid discipline, straight A’s were expected and not necessarily celebrated and participation in sports was a distant afterthought to time spent in the classroom, library and study hall.
So when Chun informed her mother and father she intended to pursue a career in athletics, first as a coach then in administration, they reacted predictably. For the next decade or so, her parents would present her with newspaper want ads.
“For anything, even a dishwasher, because they just didn’t understand that you could actually make a living in sports,” said Chun, adding her parents, in a comical twist, initially believed their daughter worked for the NAACP rather than as part of the NCAA. “I think that they thought it was just a nice hobby.”
Eventually they came around, thanks in large part to Jeremy Lin, who became a cultural sensation during a stirring run with the New York Knicks in 2011-12. The point guard helped the Knicks to the playoffs that season, and “Linsanity” was born.
Lin, a former player at Harvard, was the first American of Chinese descent to play in the NBA, and Chun’s parents were so enthralled with the phenomenon that they would cut short phone calls with their daughter so they could get back to watching Lin on television.
But Lin also impacted how Chun viewed her own path in athletic administration, which at the time was in its nascent stages as she began transitioning out of coaching. Long after the hype surrounding Lin subsided, he still advocated for more sweeping Asian representation.
As a groundbreaking athletic director, Chun’s platform was about to grow exponentially as well, and she embraced the responsibility that came with her newfound standing. She was finding her voice on issues related to the Asian American experience, however limited historically, in athletics.
When Chun arrived at Yale, her perspective continued to evolve, especially over the past year amid the pandemic. She would hide her face mask in airports, for instance, before they became required, only wearing it on the plane, in order not to draw attention.
It was the first time since 1982 Chun had been frightened for her safety because of her ethnicity. That was the year Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man living in Detroit, died from injuries following two White autoworkers brutally beating him with a baseball bat during the rise of Japanese manufacturing in the auto industry.
The men were convicted of manslaughter, but a judge sentenced them to three years’ probation. They were ordered to pay a fine of $3,000 and did not spend a day in jail.
“I felt people were staring at me just being Chinese or Asian wearing a mask,” Chun said. “Not even realizing, ‘What’s the big deal, Vicky, like why are you ashamed?’ Then I talked to our AAPI student-athletes, and they have the same concerns. It’s unique because we really haven’t addressed it.”
Chun is doing so these days after co-founding and launching the Asian American & Pacific Islander Athletic Alliance, or 4AAPI, in April along with Asian American peers Pat Chun (no relation) and Amy Huchthausen.
Pat Chun became the first Asian American athletic director at a Power Five school when Washington State hired him in 2018. Huchthausen is in her 10th year as the commissioner of the America East Conference.
The mission statement of 4AAPI is to advocate for Asian American and Pacific Islander representation within college athletics and beyond and to support, mentor and empower those in the AAPI community who are interested in pursuing a career in the sports industry.
Vicky Chun points to Kim Ng, the first female Asian American general manager in Major League Baseball, as another example of how inclusion can lead to opportunity. Chun even sought out Ng at a conference in which the Miami Marlins’ executive was speaking and hugged her, calling Ng “sister” despite meeting for the first time.
“You are not surprised by her success because of the quality person she is,” Pat Chun said of Vicky. “Fortunately for all of us Asian Americans or those that identify as AAPI in college athletics, you have a pioneer who has broken ceilings, who continues to represent the AAPI community at the highest levels. She’s a universally respected administrator and someone that I admire in everything she’s done in her career.”
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com