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Chang Skates on Ice and Through Harvard With 40 Credits

By June Shih

The decades-old, grafitti-ridden surfaces and drawers of Alexander Change's standard-issue Quincy House desk and wardrobe have been carefully covered with smooth, black contact paper. Leftover bits of the paper--cut and arranged into decorative patterns a la Henri Matisse--frame a massive, gloomy Jane's Addiction poster. "Just call them shards of contact paper framing a poster," the artist Chang says.

There is more black--a black poster of various distrorted images of director Spike Lee, a class project, grace another wall--but Alex Chang is more than an artist who likes to make things black. Fluorescent City-Step posters and a wooden-encased, 70s family-style television break up the room's pretenses at modernism, as do the walls, which Change has repainted a "warm" white: "Dusky Santa Fe Rose." Two long rectangular mirrors hang horizontally, the longer on the bottom, above his bed. "People usually go, 'ooh kinky!' but I just though they made my room much larger." Except for a black satin bodysuit hanging in his closet amidst black leather jackets and old graphic design projects, one wouldn't know that the artist, a government and visual and environmental studies double concentrator, is also an accomplished figure skater.

These days, Chang is reluctant to mention his ice-skating past, a sport he began at age 5 but put aside after the 1992 World Championships to become a full-time student. The alarm clock set to 4 a.m., the practice rink reserved from 5 to 9:30 every morning, the late days at school to make up for lost time--they are in the past now. In fact, when Chang first arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1989, he didn't expect competitive skating to play any role at all in his college career. But the transition to "all school and no skating," as well as college life with America's best and brightest left the Seal Bench Calif., native disoriented.

"I felt everyone was so amazing. 'I have nothing,' I thought. Skating was in the past and I didn't know how to translate it into the present," Chang says. "I got here freshman year and realized we had to figure out 'where's my niche, where do I fit? What makes me special?...I didn't know how else I could do it other than skating. I'd done it for so long, committed my life to it."

Skating was reassuring amidst the "chaos" of his first year. "Freshman year I felt I needed something to give my life structure. I thought skating was something very centering, structuring." He decided to resume training and competing when he went home for summer vacation. During his sophomore year, Chang began competing on the East Coast and fulfilled his goal of qualifying for the national championships. "I didn't do that well, but...the judges and the skating community liked the fact that I was a positive role model--staying in school and skating."

But after sophomore year, he switched to skating full time. During his year on leave, he won the 1992 National Collegiate Championship. Representing Taiwan, he competed at the World Championships, finishing 26th out of a field of 40 skaters.

After the 1992 season, Alex realized that it would be difficult to continue both Harvard and skating. If he continued skating, he would have to transfer to a California college to be with his coach. He decided Harvard was too valuable to leave behind.

"It meant a lot to be able to get into this school, It meant so much just being here," Chang says.

Life at Harvard, before and after skating, was not so simple and structured as life on the ice.

"One of my biggest fears was coming to terms with my sexual orientation," Chang says. "I'm from Orange County, California. It's very conservative. I didn't really know [I was gay when I was younger] simply because I don't think I was in tune with anything. It was do what you have to do: School skating school skating. When I thought about being gay, I'd think `Maybe it's too early to say. I still haven't had any meaningful experiences that would allow me to know.'"

He began to accept his identity after a trip to a gay club during his freshman year made him realize that the gay community "was much more diverse than [he'd] imagined."

"They [weren't] all drag queens. I'd assumed it was all flamboyant; but it really is a wide-ranged community."

When he decided he was ready to come out, he was heartened by the support he found from his friends. "I didn't expect it. From movies you have a stuffy, stilted image about Harvard. I had no idea the whole area was as liberal as it was....Harvard is a very tolerant environment that allows people to be comfortable with themselves."

"I came out to my girlfriend [freshman year], but she was wonderful--we were best friends," Chang says. "I don't feel that I would necessarily have been able to do that at other campuses. People couldn't be that intelligent, tolerant, understanding about things and willing to put themselves on the line for other people."

But according to Perry Chen '93, his roommate of two years, Chang's own personality has played a major role in fostering and improving the very tolerant environment he lauds so much. "He's very generous and easy-going. He's not petty....We've had big talks where we've learned so much and challenged each other's thinking on issues."

Last spring, Chang became involved in the protests against the choice of then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell as Commencement speaker, because Powell had fought lifting the ban on gays in the military. When Chen argued that he didn't think a protest at the ceremony was appropriate, Chang debated the issue with him until 6 on commencement morning. "I think a lot of people would've been `Why don't you understand civilrights?'" Chen says. "I think his patience in talking about these things helped make me [understand] why the [protest] was so essential to him."

Coming out of the closet also catalyzed Chang's coming to terms with his identity as an Asian-American. "I became more self-conscious [about looks] when I came out. I started dating people I was serious about. I began to worry, `I wonder if he thinks my nose is too flat,''' Chang says. "I began thinking about what I thought was attractive and not attractive. When I thought about what I was looking for in a date, I realized that I appreciated white me more. I was brought up to appreciate white culture--The more white you appear, the more beautiful you are. It felt good when some people told me that I was an `exceptional' Asian. `You're different, you're a good-looking Asian.' The personal compliment overshadowed the negative implications.

"Then, I realized I was a self-hating minority. I couldn't find myself attractive if I [held these standards of beauty.] It was self-destructive. Once I realized that, my confidence went up. I think I started trying to date more minorities. There was no way I could ignore my ethnicity so I better be comfortable with it. Comfortable with myself so others can be comfortable with me."

Now Chang is happy with himself. "I'm Asian and I'm beautiful!" he say. "Even if you try to be as white-washed as you want to be, you're still Asian. No point in going to hide. you have to embrace your culture."

Chang began taking Chinese language classes, and he plans to live and study in Taiwan at some point in the future.

"I didn't realize how central language was in informing identification. Growing up I didn't want to speak Chinese. I believed I should have been excelling despite my race. [I had] no ties to people of my own ethnicity. I should be an American. I think by the time I came here I realized that there's a great deal of communicating lost between me and my grandparents."

Chinese classes are just a small sliver of Chang's daunting and diverse academic courseload that will total 40 credits in nine semesters. (Only 32 credits are needed for graduation). Though he will march in today's Commencement ceremony, he will remain in Cambridge for summer school and graduate in January with a dual degree in two very different disciplines, VES and governemnt.

It seems as if it were ages ago now, but Chang began Harvard in 1989 in the sciences, enrolling in Math 21a and 21b and Physics 11a because "I thought that was where respect came from." But in a fitting decision to change, he decided to concentrate in governement because he thought it was weakest. "I Thought the whole point of a liberal arts education was to be well rounded."

The moral reasoinng course "Autonomy and Alienation " lured him to government. " I didn't expect to find it very interesting at all. Political theory is very interesting. On a mundane level, it's listening to a person on how to construct a good society, what values they want to promote, what does this mean about human nature. I never thought I'd be able to relate. But it spoke to me."

Then, in his junior year, when he returned from his leave of absence, Chang stayed in government but also wanted to pursue something closer to his true interests. He found it in VES. "When I was young and was asked what are you going to be when you grow up, I always said architect. My forte was the visual arts-- drawing, painting--and math and science, which meant architecture. I felt architecture and urban planning to be more of my calling. I felt more of natural knack for it. It was more in line with what wanted to do [in real life]".

Chang admits that the addition of VES to his studies had "less to do with vision and more to do with circumstances. I had completed nearly all my requirements when I made the decision. I can work this out by taking a heavier courseload."

In addition to five-class semesters, Chang manages to keep his figure skater's physique by remaining an active member of CityStep, mainly Jazz, Harvard-Redcliff Ballet, and performing in the jimmy Fund charity event, "An Evening with Champions."

""I'm busy. I don't like wasting my time." I don't like think I'd have the stamina to keep up here if I didn't have a skating background."

Figure skating might return for a third act in Chang's life, though his future plans are hazy at best. Ask him what he is doing to do and a list of options files out: architecture, urban planning, design, film, advertising, and "by default, law school." He plans to take the LAST in October, Just in case.

There is always the ice rink, where he can either return to ameteure competition or skate professionally in shows promoted by Dorthy Hammill International. "I'm toying with the idea of competing again. But, I'm not sure I'd learn that much more if I stuck with it. I might go into skating to create a financial cushion for the future."

Has he been happy with his choices? "I think so. I look at what I came with and how I'm leaving. I feel academically there was a fundamental change--[higher] level of confidence, dealing with material I'm not comfortable with. I'm coming out of this with a good handle on a bunch of thing..."

Chen notices the change, too. "I think he's gotten a lot more confident, self-sufficient, and independent."

"[At Harvard], I found other ways of dealing with stress, of dealing with my identity instead of just skating. Now I'm reluctant to say I'm a skater. It used to be always, `Hi, I'm Alex Chang: I'm a skater.'"

Now it's Alex Chang: Chinese-American architect, filmmaker, graphic designer, teacher, political theorist, ice skater.

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