13 moments in Asian America that moved us in 2018

"It's an honor just to be Asian."
Chloe Kim, Hasan Minhaj and Kelly Marie Tran
Chloe Kim, Hasan Minhaj and Kelly Marie TranAP. Getty Images

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By Traci G. Lee

It was the year of cheering for “Crazy Rich Asians” and crying over Pixar’s “Bao”; of Chloe Kim winning the world over and of Sandra Oh declaring, “It’s an honor just to be Asian.” From Hasan Minhaj making history on the late-night stage to a viral prank that opened a conversation about diversity in advertising, 2018 was full of laughter, happy tears, and moments that filled us with pride.

Here are just some of those positive moments that moved us in 2018:

1. Asian Americans wowed at the Winter Olympics.

Chloe Kim made taking home a gold medal look easy. She became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding medal with back-to-back 1080-degree spins on her second and third jumps at the PyeongChang Games – a combination no other woman has done in competition. Since her win, she’s continued to show why she’s the best, winning the women’s halfpipe competition in December at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix.

Gold medallist Chloe Kim celebrates with an US flag during the victory ceremony after the women's snowboard halfpipe final event at the Phoenix Park during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 13, 2018 in Pyeongchang.Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images

Mirai Nagasu made history when she became the first American woman to land a triple Axel at the Olympics during the team event free skate. Her 137.53 score helped Team USA win the bronze medal.

Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. reacts after the Women Single Free Skating of the Figure Skating Team Event competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena during the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games on Feb. 12.Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA

Years of hard work paid off in 2018 for Maia and Alex Shibutani, known as the Shib Sibs, who walked away from the Winter Olympics as ice dancing bronze medalists. The brother-sister duo not only became the first ice dancers of Asian descent to medal at the Olympics, they also are the first sibling pair from the United States to do so.

Nathan Chen had a rough start to the Olympics, but came back at his final event to pull off a historic performance. The buzz was high for Chen leading into the PyeongChang Games, with a gold medal expected for the figure skater who was undefeated in the 2017-2018 season. But multiple falls and stumbles during the team event, followed by an individual short program that landed him in 17th place, left fans disappointed – until his free skate, which made history with five clean quads during an Olympics game (he had attempted six quads during the program, but touched the ice with his hand on the third). His 297.35 score catapulted him from 17th to first until the final group of skaters of the night. Chen finished fifth overall, but his redemptive skate showed promise for what could come in 2022.

Nathan Chen competes in the men's single skating free skating of the figure skating event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung on Feb. 17, 2018.Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images

2. “Asian August” topped a year of milestones for Hollywood representation.

“Crazy Rich Asians” made history and started off strong with a $35 million opening at the box office. The film’s success has been credited with opening more doors for Asian American-led stories, and heading into 2019, it’s been nominated for two Golden Globes, four Critics’ Choice Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. A sequel is currently in development, meaning there’ll be a lot more to celebrate about this franchise in the coming years.

“Searching” (a thriller told entirely through screens that was #StarringJohnCho) captivated audiences at Sundance, taking home the Alfred Sloan Prize and the NEXT Audience Award. Its nationwide release in August brought the film’s total gross to over $73 million worldwide – not bad for a $1 million budget for this indie film, which was the directorial debut of 27-year-old Aneesh Chaganty.

Director/writer Aneesh Chaganty on the set of "Searching" with star John ChoElizabeth Kitchens

Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” an adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel of the same name, won hearts with its endearing main character and a teen love story that had fans swooning. Starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, “To All the Boys” was one of Netflix’s most-rewatched original films in 2018, according to the company, and a sequel is already on its way.

3. With midterm election wins, 2019 will kick off with the most Asian Americans ever in Congress.

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Three new Asian American and Pacific Islander freshmen representatives-elect will bring the total number of AAPIs elected to Congress this year to 20, according to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Andy Kim, who will represent New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, unseated Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur in a race called a week after Election Day. Kim became the first Korean American elected to Congress in nearly 20 years. Then there was TJ Cox, whose race for California’s 21st Congressional District was initially called in favor of Republican incumbent Rep. David Valadao. But as the votes continued to be counted, Cox didn’t lose hope. He refused to concede – which ended up being the right move because, a month after Election Day, the calls for Valadao were retracted and Cox was declared the apparent winner by 862 votes.

Democratic congressional candidate TJ Cox speaks at a 2018 mid-term elections rally on Oct. 4, 2018 in Fullerton, California.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

4. Kelly Marie Tran spoke out against online harassment in a powerful op-ed.

Two months after deleting her Instagram account, Kelly Marie Tran responded for the first time to the harassment and online bullying she received since joining the “Star Wars” universe as Rose Tico in 2017’s “The Last Jedi” film. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Tran wrote candidly about the shame she had been made to feel as a woman of color, and how she came to realize that the shame she really had was for a world that still “others” people like herself.

“You might know me as Kelly,” Tran concluded, with resonating words as people shared her essay across social media. “I am the first woman of color to have a leading role in a ‘Star Wars’ movie. I am the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. My real name is Loan. And I am just getting started.”

Kelly Marie Tran attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on March 4, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images file

5. “Bao” brought moviegoers to tears.

In the allegorical Pixar short film, which played before the highly-anticipated “Incredibles 2,” a mother raises a dumpling baby, only to lose control over him as he becomes an adult. “Bao,” filmmaker Domee Shi’s directorial debut, is the first Pixar short to be directed by a woman, and has been praised for telling a story so deeply connected to Asian American culture.

6. Sandra Oh became the first actress of Asian descent to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the Emmys.

The Canadian-born actress has been outspoken on the need for better (and more) representation across the industry, and the well-deserved Emmy nod for her “Killing Eve” lead role – the first time a woman of Asian descent was nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress category – was another reminder that Oh is not only talented, but a trailblazer. She may not have won an Emmy yet, but watching Oh with her adorable parents on the red carpet and Oh’s declaration that “it’s an honor just to be Asian” made fans fall even more in love with her.

In 2019, she’ll kick off the year hosting the Golden Globes with Andy Samberg, where she’s also nominated for Best Actress – Television Series Drama.

7. Awkwafina’s star continued to rise.

The rapper turned actress had quite the year: Awkwafina starred in two major summer films (“Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians”), released a new EP, and became the second Asian woman to host “Saturday Night Live” (Lucy Liu was the first in 2000). The Queens native, born Nora Lum, rose to fame in 2012 when her song “My Vag” went viral on YouTube. Since then, she’s continued to release music, act, and even published a book in 2015, but 2018 was undoubtedly the year that made her a household name – something she’s grateful for, but also humble about.

“Everyone keeps telling me this will be the best year of my life. That’s kind of a two-sided statement because if this is the best year of my life, then what will I have to look forward to if I already lived it?” Awkwafina told NBC News in May. “What I’m most proud of is that I definitely proved to myself that I can do it. Everyday as Awkwafina was a test for Nora to show her that she can do it. I’ve come this far and this year has really solidified everything that I have been working towards.”

8. Hasan Minhaj became the first Indian-American host of a weekly comedy show.

With his weekly Netflix show, comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” is a news and information show presented with comedy and giant screens – all in an effort to dive deep into issues ranging from affirmative action to the problems surrounding streetwear brand Supreme. The ex-”Daily Show” correspondent is no stranger to a late night-type stage, but there’s something about “Patriot Act” that is so distinct to Minhaj’s voice and style. His 2017 Netflix comedy special “Homecoming King” was presented with similar visuals to “Patriot Act” and his connection with the audience is what makes each episode feel like Minhaj truly cares about each topic he’s discussing.

(He’s also one-half of our new #friendshipgoals. We can’t wait to see that tiger bomber in 2019.)

9. A journalist detailed her late father’s friendship with NBA legend Charles Barkley.

The unlikely bond between Lin Wang, a cat litter scientist and a Chinese immigrant, and former NBA star Charles Barkley became a trending topic after freelance journalist Shirley Wang, Lin Wang’s daughter, shared the moving story on NPR sports podcast “Only a Game.” Shirley Wang’s account and interview with Barkley about his friendship with her late father is truly unforgettable.

10. Actress Josie Totah came out as transgender in a moving essay for Time.

After years spent “halfway correct[ing] people” who made assumptions about her as “J.J. Totah, gay boy,” Josie Totah came out as transgender with an essay for Time in August that told her journey toward understanding her identity and accepting who she was.

“But when my friends and family call me Josie, it feels like I’m being seen. It’s something everyone wants, to feel understood,” the 17-year-old actress, who most recently appeared alongside Mindy Kaling in NBC’s “Champions,” wrote. “I don’t feel like I was put in the wrong body. I don’t feel like there was a mistake made. I believe that I am transgender to help people understand differences. It allows me to gain perspective, to be more accepting of others, because I know what it feels like to know you’re not like everyone else.”

11. An antique Japanese sword that was lost during the 2017 Tubbs Fire in California was found.

The October 2017 Tubbs Fire that spread across Sonoma County, California, burned down the Paradise Ridge Winery, taking with it historical artifacts that many feared were lost forever, including an antique sword that once belonged to Kanaye Nagasawa (known in his time as the “Wine King” of California). The sword, along with other of Nagasawa’s artifacts, had been housed at an exhibit at the winery, which was built on land adjacent to the area where Nagasawa had once lived and operated one of the state’s largest wineries in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

But in March 2018, the sword was finally recovered. “The gentleman who helped found it, celebrated, and sent us a picture,” Sonia Byck-Barwick, co-owner of Paradise Ridge, told NBC News in March. “I started to cry. That was something that was so sentimental and symbolic of how history still lives.”

A training sword that was part of an exhibit about Kanaye Nagasawa recovered after a wildfire.Courtesy of Paradise Ridge Winery

12. Aziz Ansari became the first Asian-American actor to win a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy.

Following two back-to-back Emmy wins for writing (shared with co-creator Alan Yang and co-star Lena Waithe, respectively), the “Master of None” star won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy, and made history in the process as the category’s first Asian American winner. There’s been no word on whether or not the critically-acclaimed Netflix series will return for a third season yet, but the streaming giant is ready whenever Aziz Ansari is.

13. This fake McDonald’s ad calling out the fast food chain for a lack of diversity in its advertising went viral.

After noticing a lack of diversity among the advertising photos at their local McDonald’s, University of Houston students Jevh Maravilla and Christian Toledo pulled off an epic prank that involved creating and printing a fake ad, dressing up as McDonald’s employees, and hanging the giant photo of themselves on the wall. Two months later, the fake ad was still on the wall, so Maravilla tweeted about it and the stunt went viral, resulting in an invite to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show," a promise from McDonald’s that the restaurant would better reflect the community’s diversity, and $25,000 each.

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Charles Lam and Saleah Blancaflor contributed.