Commentary: Swimming, AAPI Identity and Changing Mental Health
Commentary – By Quinn Bunnag
As we head into the fourth quarter of the pandemic, it is safe to say that we are entering a time of change. The world we knew before COVID-19 will never be the same. The pandemic has brought out our demons, as we face horrors such as a rise in gun violence i.e. 20,000 deaths in 2020, an increase in hate crimes against Asians by nearly 150 percent and an account with systemic police brutality.
But there is an element of sanity to it all, that’s where I focus my energy. May was AAPI History Month, and I am compelled to share my experience with the issues facing the Asian American community.
My parents met in Oklahoma City while they were studying at college. Eventually they decided to call Oklahoma home. My younger brother and I have lived in Oklahoma our entire lives and we visit Thailand occasionally during the summer. During my childhood, I was not in tune with the story of the Bunnag family when it comes to the royal family of Thailand, mainly because my parents wanted us to live our own lives and didn’t feel like we had to ‘chase the ghosts’ of the past. The climax of my family history came when the most important figure, Chuang Bunnag, took control of the country as regent until the fifth king, Chulalongkorn, came of age. It wasn’t until my sabbatical in 2018 that I learned the full extent of my family history and was able to appreciate my legacy.
Generations later, my parents came to the United States as immigrants. It was a bold decision to move there, especially for my dad, given his family history. My grandfather married my grandmother, who resided outside of Bangkok, which was a big deal then as there was a tradition in place that limited who he could marry. When he broke that tradition, it allowed my father to live his own life.
My father has told me countless times how he immigrated to Oklahoma. He had just finished his university studies before taking the first flight of his life across the Pacific. He barely knew how to speak English, so he worked with a tutor for a month to learn the basics of dialogue. He started from scratch. Today, through hard work and persistence, he is realizing his American dream as a co-founder, board member and director of Valir Health.
My passion for the sport started when I was eight years old and continues to be influential today. When it comes to mental toughness, the thrill of competing in a high stakes environment gives me a unique feeling. Nothing is given. It must be earned. The sport of swimming has done so much for me personally as I have been able to foster so many relationships and create some of the best times of my life.
Until my sabbatical, swimming had also been my therapy. When I dive into the icy pool in the morning, I feel like I’m entering a different world. I was able to disconnect from the real world for the solitude of my thoughts. If I was frustrated or upset I would use it to fuel my training or competition. For some reason my best performances came when I was in this area. When I was 11, my father was seriously injured in a fatal car accident. The fear and trauma of this incident stuck with me, even though I did not receive any treatment to deal with it. Swimming was an outlet to make my parents proud and overcome my difficulties. I think this event inspired me to take my swimming career more seriously and shaped my swimming career. Now when I think about the accident, I just remember enjoying the little things and not getting bogged down in meaningless drama.
When it comes to my AAPI identity, I wouldn’t consider myself a stereotypical Asian. I’m not a math genius. Unintentionally, my groups of friends don’t include many people of Thai descent. It bothered me in high school because most people that age just want to fit in and be “normal”. I felt like I had a major identity crisis during my gap year, and I knew I had surprised many of my peers by choosing not to pursue swimming in college. As I got older, I learned to appreciate my differences and slowly come out of my shell to engage with my heritage.
When I moved on to the next chapter in my life, I had to reinvent myself. Mental health is an area that fascinates me and motivates me to get more involved in issues in my community. It all started out as just wanting to help solve a problem on campus, involving a racial incident in February 2020. I never imagined it would get to where we are today.
After many false starts, the opportunity to partner with the Bandana project popped up as they kicked off their Bandana Project 2.0 campaign. The project serves as a mental health awareness and suicide prevention program implemented at more than 40 college campuses. The program provides students and staff with a lime green bandana to clip to their backpack to show they have resources on mental health and suicide prevention and can direct people to the Bandana Project website, to more resources or information on how to create a chapter.
I felt that Project Bandana was the perfect organization to communicate with because their values ââmatched what I had discussed with friends, teachers and staff. We have grown together and I can’t wait to see what the future holds with this group. In April, I was the subject of a racist incident with another student on campus. (I choose not to go into the details of the incident to avoid paying attention to this student). The incident was handled quickly because I was able to defuse the situation. Honestly, I was lucky that the individual did not appear to have any malicious intent. This experience made me think about what other members of the Asian community have faced over the past year, and my thoughts are with the families affected by these horrific acts of cowardice.
All of my energy and focus is on what I can control, which is my attitude and my ability to find sustainable and proactive solutions. I give my support by taking action to uplift the whole community. I am an ambassador for the Bandana Project and I will be the president of the student-led mental health awareness organization. OUR mental health in autumn. Our Mental Health will be adding a position to the Bandana Project next semester.
Our Mental Health will launch a fundraising event in October for underserved communities that do not have access to mental health resources. It’s a problem that affects everyone, that’s why we need to come together as a community.
As my focus on who I am and on the mental health issues in my community has converged over the past year, I’m proud to say I’m Thai and American, but we can always be better.
– Quinn Bunnag is a student at the University of Oklahoma. He was a junior national swimmer with the American Energy Swim Club, Highlander Aquatic Club and Casady School. He represented Oklahoma locally and nationally as the Oklahoma Athlete Representative from 2016 to 2018. A version of this story appeared in the OU Daily.
All comments are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, or its staff.