The 'Shib Sibs' Talk Asian Representation, Stereotypes And K-Pop

"Growing up as an Asian-American, there aren’t a lot of people that I was able to look up to," Alex Shibutani says.
Alex and Maia Shibutani with their bronze medals from the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Alex and Maia Shibutani with their bronze medals from the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Gabriela Landazuri Saltos HuffPost

In an ice dancing routine, a pair is often separated by no more than two arms’ length for much of the routine. Luckily, Alex and Maia Shibutani get along.

The brother-and-sister Olympic pair, known as the “Shib Sibs,” talked with HuffPost Asian Voices about skating together for the past 14 years and winning two ice dancing bronze medals in Pyeongchang. In between a few conventional, good-natured sibling squabbles, 23-year-old Maia and 26-year-old Alex also talked about facing stereotypes and becoming role models.

The Shibutanis, who are Japanese-American and grew up training in Colorado and Michigan, are aware of being put into various boxes: the sibling skaters, the Asian role models. But they’re decidedly laid back about it. In fact, they embrace it.

HuffPost: You two were a lot of fun to watch at the Olympics ― for everyone but especially for Asian-Americans. Asians don’t have enough representation, so if you’re in the public eye, you kind of automatically become a role model. How do you feel about that?

Alex: What’s a role model? Just kidding ― I think I know. I think that even before we won two medals at the Olympics, though, we carried ourselves with the understanding that people were looking up to us, even though we didn’t have two Olympic medals at the time. We were still running into young skaters and young people all over the place that looked up to us.

And we are the first team of Asian descent to win a medal in our discipline of figure skating in ice dance, and we’ve never really had role models to look up to that looked like us in our sport. So we’ve realized the importance of trailblazers.

Would you rather be thought of as a team? Do you feel there is almost too much attention on the fact that you’re the brother-and-sister skaters, as opposed to the fact that you’re this medal-winning team? Do you think that’s fair?

Maia: During the Olympics, I think there was a lot of attention put on the fact that Alex and I are siblings. And since we were the only sibling team competing in ice dance or pairs, that’s just kind of inevitable. We wouldn’t have been able to get those two Olympic medals if it weren’t for the relationship that we had.

Alex: I couldn’t do it without her. You need me, too, supposedly.

Maia: Yes, yes.

Alex: We’ve got this nickname, the “Shib Sibs,” and it’s gotten a lot of attention over the past few weeks, after the Games and during the Games, just because it’s an interesting dynamic. Not everyone has the opportunity to work with family or with a sibling. I don’t feel like anyone’s disregarding our accomplishments or taking away what we’ve done as athletes. It’s just interesting.

Maia: There’s something extra that’s interesting.

Alex: Yeah, we’re extra. (laughs)

The media likes to stereotype Asian skaters as being good at the sport because of having a “Tiger mom,” because of being lightweight and other reasons. Do you think those stereotypes take away from your own hard work and achievement?

Alex: I believe that stereotypes are a load of crap. Uh, supposedly I’m supposed to be good at math and science.

Maia: He isn’t.

Alex: I was terrible at math and science. I think that if you are a human being on this planet, you can be good at whatever you want to do. And for us, that was ice dancing, that was figure skating. And we’re passionate about it, and so we worked really hard, and it takes hard work. But you can do whatever you want.

Maia: We don’t really pay attention to what the media says. I mean, we’ve been working so hard, and at this Olympics, I know we did everything that we could do that was under our control.

Alex: It’s unfortunate that there are people that are ignorant out there, but we make sure to surround ourselves with people who support us and believe in our dreams. Our parents have been absolutely incredible throughout our entire career and our entire lives, and the great thing about what we do is that we’re able to support each other out on the ice and off the ice. We’re each other’s best friend, hopefully.

Alex: Right? Am I your best friend?

Maia: Yeah, yeah.

Alex: We back each other up, and that’s all that really matters to us.

Have you personally ever faced stereotypes as brother and sister ice dancing together or as Asian-Americans?

Alex: Throughout our career, I’ve never really felt blatantly stereotyped, but seeing the people that we compete against, I see that we are different. I’ve noticed that. It would be silly for me not to. But I feel like being different is a really great thing. It’s a gift. It’s an opportunity to be unique.

Maia: We’ve been different for a few different reasons, right?

Alex: Yeah, more than just being Asian-American.

Maia: We’re also siblings. There aren’t other sibling teams.

Alex: Yeah, it’s probably ― maybe it’s harder being siblings in ice dance, just because everyone has a preconceived notion, and there are stereotypes for every type of thing. And so, we’ve always had to believe in ourselves.

Maia: That’s served us really well, just trusting what we want to do.

If you remember, 20 years ago, MSNBC had a headline: “American Beats Out Kwan.” The American was Tara Lipinski, and the other skater was Michelle Kwan ― also an American. Does this point to the fact we sometimes have a problem seeing Asian-Americans as American?

Alex: Maia and I try to make sure that we are not overly sensitive to anything. Of course, there will be occasional headlines and things that can be seen as offensive. But we really stay focused. It’s always a challenge, when you see people who are judged for reasons that they can’t control, but we put ourselves out there in our sport.

Important wrap-up question: Do you two have any feelings you want to share about your love of K-pop? We wrote about your tweets about BTS, and the “BTSArmy” went pretty nuts.

Alex: BTS, the K-pop group that has been making waves all around the world, started off in Korea, obviously, but is now making waves in the U.S., too. We are very inspired by what they’ve accomplished. I think it’s a sign that talent will rise to the top.

Maia: So much respect for what they’re doing.

Alex: They are so appreciated because they demonstrate awesome choreography, they have great personalities, they stand up for what they believe in. Music is one of those things, like sports, that doesn’t have a language. And so people are really appreciating what they do with their music. And I think we connect to that, because with our skating, even though we’ve always been different, we always try to make sure that we’re as good as we possibly can be. So, yeah, lots of respect for BTS, especially growing up as an Asian-American, there aren’t a lot of people that I was able to look up to or see in movies in leading roles. And obviously BTS does music, but to see them experiencing so much success right now is inspiring for us. And we’re really proud of them.

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