Asian Americans Honored in Inspiring Game Changer Awards
Afghan Heroes Also Recognized
The Asia Society held its eighth annual Asia Game Changers Awards on Thursday night, recognizing seven extraordinary individuals in an inspiring virtual ceremony that, for the first time, celebrated an all-Asian American slate of honorees.
“We honor Asian Americans who have changed the game in business and technology, science and medicine, education and religion, and in the world of sport,” said Asia Society president and CEO Kevin Rudd in his introductory remarks.
The 2021 class of Asia Game Changers represent a diverse range of ages, professions, and backgrounds. There’s Dr. David Ho, a hero in the fight against AIDS, now turning his formidable talents to overcoming COVID-19; Kim Ng, the barrier-shattering first female general manager of an American professional sports franchise; Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the first Asian American — and woman — to lead New York’s Central Synagogue; Sal Khan, an impactful pioneer in online education; Sundar Pichai, the transformative head of one of America’s great technology companies; Dr. Morris Chang, a seminal figure in the semiconductor industry; and Suni Lee, the champion gymnast whose brilliance lit up the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The celebration of this year’s Asia Game Changers occurred during a challenging year for Asian Americans, amid a surge of racist and xenophobic violence in the United States — a subject explored in depth in Asia Society's weekly video series Asian Americans Building America.
That the honorees have distinguished themselves across such disparate fields illustrates the tremendous achievements of a community long accustomed to fighting for greater recognition and representation.
Ng, who fell in love with baseball as a Chinese American kid in Queens, New York, spent three decades in the game before being named the general manager of the Miami Marlins in 2020. She credited her unique background to helping her persevere after being passed over for the same job several previous times. “As I sit here today, it is those differences that have given me strength,” she said. “I’ve learned to embrace those things that have made me different.”
It’s a sentiment that Buchdahl can relate to. Born to a Korean mother and a Jewish father and raised in Seattle, Buchdahl recalled that, as a child, her Asian face prevented others from accepting her as fully Jewish. But this didn’t keep her from pursuing a calling as a rabbi. “Our covenant of God is how we all become family,” she said in accepting an Asia Game Changer award, “the foundation of Jewish people doesn’t come from myths about race but about our covenant with God.”
Three 2021 Asia Game Changers have harnessed technology to change the way we live, eat, and learn. Modern computing is unthinkable without Chang, who founded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company after a lengthy career at Texas Instruments. Tutoring his cousin in math inspired Khan to build an online education platform based on the idea of providing free instruction to anyone, anywhere. And a childhood encounter with a rotary phone led Pichai from rural India to the head of Google, whose parent company, Alphabet, he also now serves as CEO. “I’m a technology optimist,” said Pichai, “not because I believe in technology — but because I believe in people.”
When the Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, the news marked a major milestone in the global fight against AIDS. That Johnson is still alive 30 years later is due in no small part to the effort of Dr. Ho, whose development of an antiretroviral drug cocktail has prevented millions of premature deaths. In introductory remarks delivered Thursday, Johnson called Ho a “friend, father, brother, and trusted advisor. I call him for everything. And I cannot express my gratitude for how he has affected my life.”
Ho, recognized 25 years ago as Time’s man of the year, has since turned his attention to our current era’s defining pathogen: the coronavirus. “Much work lies ahead,” he said in regard to the fight against COVID-19. “But we are confident that we will ultimately conquer this pathogen and bring it under control.”
Up until the last moment, it was unclear whether the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games — already postponed by a year due to the pandemic — would be held at all. But in spite of strict protocols that prevented spectators from attending the events, the Games went on. "They wound up giving viewers all over the world a lot of reasons to cheer and celebrate the spirit of teamwork, determination, resilience, and grit," said Ida Liu, Asia Society trustee and global head of private banking at Citi, a founding partner of the Asia Game Changer Awards.
One of the indelible stars of these Games was 18-year-old gymnast Suni Lee, who made history before she even set foot on the mat: Lee became the first Hmong American to participate in the Olympics, bringing fresh recognition to an often-overlooked community. But Lee soon reached even greater heights, winning all around gold in women’s gymnastics and joining a pantheon of American greats in the field.
“This has been such an amazing year, and it means so much to me to represent the Asian community,” she said, in accepting her Game Changer award.
This year’s Asia Game Changer Awards also paid recognition to a story that will forever define 2021: The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Over the previous two decades, Asia Society has welcomed many Afghans into its Asia 21 Young Leaders network, including Saad Mohseni, an instrumental figure in the country’s burgeoning media industry. In 2004, Mohseni’s company MOBY Group launched TOLO TV, which has become Afghanistan’s most popular television network. Since the Taliban’s return to power, TOLO TV journalists continue to report the news at great risk to their lives. In a special video presentation, Yalda Ali, a daytime news anchor, described how she and her colleagues must navigate their jobs without clear guidelines from the Taliban on what is, and is not, now suitable for broadcast.
When the Taliban last ruled, Omaid Sharifi was just a boy, selling sweets and cigarettes on the streets of Kabul. In 2014, Sharifi founded ArtLords, a grassroots movement whose name was an intentional play on the word “warlord.” Over the next seven years, the group’s colorful murals across Kabul attracted international attention and earned Sharifi an audience with United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres.
When the Afghan government fell in August, Sharifi helped 54 Afghan artists and their families escape. He himself spent a month in a refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates before making his way to the United States. For his contributions to Afghanistan and his immense bravery in the face of danger, Sharifi was named the first recipient of the Sheeran Prize, an award named after Asia Society President Emerita Josette Sheeran.
“The reality of my country has changed,” said Sharifi, in accepting the prize. “These are dark times for Afghanistan. I’m sure with your support, the support of all of our fellows at Asia Society, this will pass. We will get our country back. And we will continue to build a prosperous Afghanistan.”
The 2021 Asia Game Changer Awards concluded with a stirring performance of the song “Rain Falling From the Roof" from two past honorees from the Silk Road Ensemble: the internationally celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Wu Tong, a genre-shattering Chinese multi-instrumentalist.
“In the toughest times, when hate and anger do so much damage, art and culture, in turn, can do so much to lift the spirits,” said Rudd.