As an American of Chinese origin, David Lee always felt a disconnect with his culture. While his mother was born in China, he had never been to the country of his ancestral roots in his youth.
An unexpected meeting changed his trajectory. He met a girl at a birthday party who was into dragon boat racing. They bonded over the sport and Lee began dedicating himself to the art and power of dragon boat competition, a Chinese tradition that dates back more than 2,000 years.
In 2017, Lee went back to his family’s homeland to compete in a world dragon boat racing championship.
“It feels good,” Lee said. “I don’t have a very good connection with my ancestry. I don’t have a solid connection with China. For me to have something where I can connect, where I can talk to others about a shared history.”
Like many Asian Americans, Lee was prompted by cultural pride to partake in dragon boat racing, which is increasing in popularity in the United States and around the world. While the sport traces back to ancient China, it gained international popularity in the 1980s due to a tourism marketing plan in Hong Kong that boosted paddling.
Today, dragon boat teams are found throughout the United States near bodies of water. It’s not just young Asian Americans who are joining the teams. A wide array of participants of all races, ages and genders paddle for sport and fun.
At the Mercer County International Dragon Boat Festival in New Jersey, 72 teams arrived from all over the region, from Boston to Baltimore. Tommy Leonardi, president of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association and a board member of United States Dragon Boat Federation, joined his team from the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia team is the oldest in North America, having started in 1983, Leonardi said.
Leonardi started paddling when a friend encouraged him in 1997. He was suffering from insomnia then, so the early morning practice was a way to get out of the house.
“I might as well give it a shot,” Leonardi said. “It’s still going 26 years later.”
Training for dragon boat racing requires dedication for the serious racers. The Philadelphia team practices five times a week, Leonardi said. There are mixed gender, open, and women’s teams of all backgrounds at the Mercer County race, he said.
The teams travel without their boats and arrive at the race site with boats to race on the docks. The boats are adorned with dragon heads and tails and hold 20 people each. With a steerer and a drummer, the team works in synchrony to paddle for speed against other boats.
Dragon boat racing in China traditionally takes place on the Dragon Boat Festival known as Duan Wu, occurring on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar, which is around late June in Western calendars. The sun and the dragon are thought to be most potent during that time of the year. In North America, races are held from spring to fall.
Since starting his journey in paddling, Lee has not only connected with his culture, but married the girl who got him involved in the sport.
Lee now coaches and paddles with New Jersey Team Dragons, sharing his passion for dragon boat racing, while challenging himself.
“I’ve been doing this sport for such a long time, I want to be the best that I can,” Lee said.
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