The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eileen Gu offers Chinese Americans a hard lesson in the paradox of belonging

Gu’s triumph can’t support the hopes for our own acceptance that we want to pile on to her.

A woman walks in front of a billboard featuring Eileen Gu at a shopping mall in Beijing. (Noel Celis / AFP)
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There’s a joke circulating on Chinese American social media that goes something like: “You told us to go back to China, and Eileen Gu finally did.” This claps back at the blatantly racist rhetoric directed at Gu by the American conservative media, which accuses her of being ungrateful and brands her a traitor for rejecting the honor of being a member of Team USA. It certainly doesn’t help the pundits’ collective blood pressure that the three medals Gu nabbed at the games will go to China, where Gu is the toast of the nation.

It’s all too tempting for Chinese Americans to feel roused by Eileen Gu’s example. In the United States, we’re often treated as perpetual outsiders who must constantly prove our loyalty. The freestyle skier has flouted expectations that she act like a grateful little model minority who expresses constant thanks for the honor of representing the United States. Instead, she has charted her own path to glory, finding enthusiastic support from the people of our shared sourceland. But if you dig even a little deeper, that support turns out to be rigidly conditional. Gu’s triumph can’t support the hopes for our own acceptance that we want to pile on to her.

I immigrated to the United States when I was 9 years old, and, like many of my Chinese American peers, I speak fluent Chinglish and have a passing familiarity with the finer points of Chinese etiquette and prevailing public opinions. When visiting China, I would mess up by failing to use the proper euphemisms to refer to someone’s divorce, or openly supporting same-sex marriage, or rudely serving myself before slipping choice morsels into my grandmother’s bowl at the dinner table. Shopkeepers in Beijing always bragged about how quickly they identified that I had returned from overseas — something about the directness of my gaze and my unfeminine body language. So many people who had never been to the States were amazingly confident about what my fluency in Mandarin or my mannerisms meant about how Chinese or American I was. My Americanness seems to seep visibly from my pores; anyone and everyone feels entitled to interrogate me about it.

I’ve long grown used to having my Chineseness and Americanness quotients measured with an air of scientific precision: Which has the greater weight? Just as Americans would casually chalk up my respect for my parents to “Chinese collectivism,” Chinese people would attribute my argumentative personality to “American individualism.” This “analysis” made no room for the complexity of cultural influences, and reduced me to a collection of separable Chinese and American parts, somehow symbolic of the United States and China as rival political entities. Since growing a thick skin against the regular barrage of racism I experienced in the United States, I was surprised by how much this treatment hurt; I felt like a dog walking on two legs. I beat myself up for feeling this way; perhaps I’d been too presumptuous of the bond of shared ethnocultural heritage.

I could never escape getting grilled about which country I like more. I used to field questions about my preference for China or the United States candidly, earnestly explaining how I loved to be closer to family while in China but enjoyed my education in the United States. At a certain point, I realized that people were rarely interested in personal, nuanced answers. If I said I preferred China, I would be rewarded with approval: I hadn’t forgotten where I came from. If I said I preferred the United States, I’d get some kind of proclamation that I had become “Westernized.”

Gu is steadfast in maintaining an apolitical stance. She insists she is focused on “pushing the human limit” and is equally proud of her Chinese and American heritage. But the Chinese media frequently takes the liberty to proclaim her decision to represent China as political. The word “patriot” gets thrown around not infrequently, along with praise for Gu’s loyalty to where she comes from. Gu is rarely discussed solely as an amazing athlete; she is much more frequently mentioned as an amazing athlete winning glory for her motherland.

It's true that this sort of nationalistic projection, obscuring individual humanity and seeing everything in terms of geopolitics, may be part and parcel of an international sporting event such as the Olympics. But it’s worth contrasting Gu’s reception with the way other Chinese Americans on Team China are treated: Take skater Zhu Yi, who renounced her American citizenship. (Gu has not commented on whether she has done the same.) Zhu has been mercilessly disparaged in Chinese social media for her lackluster performance on the ice; commenters criticized her fluency in Mandarin and even told her to “go back to America.” For a Chinese American to gain the love and acceptance from the Chinese public, they must choose China and win.

As one looks even closer at the many facets of Gu’s celebrity, and the qualities for which she’s celebrated, it becomes clearer that she functions, within China, as a different sort of model minority. With her academic prowess, her beauty, her yearly visits to China, her fluency in Mandarin with a Beijing accent and, of course, gaining Chinese nationality to ski for Team China, Gu stands in for the ideal Chinese American — one worth rooting for. It’s a cartoonishly impossible ideal that no one else could ever meet, leaving me to wonder: What about those of us who are happily ordinary?

Like many Chinese Americans, I long to be embraced by the homeland to which I feel a strong tie. For years, I was made to feel that my Chinese identity was diluted by my American identity, and that it’s something for which I ought to apologize — a defect or personal failing that requires an arbitrary display of excellence and deference to overcome.

But how can the validity of my Chinese identity be scored based on performance? Who has the authority to judge something as intimate and complicated as what Chinese identity means to me? The Chinese diaspora experience runs so much deeper than uncritically loving China or pledging political allegiance to it. Being Chinese American need not be considered a fractured experience: There’s no division between where the Chinese part of me ends and the American part begins.

It seems as though it would be a great comfort to find belonging in China — especially when it seems as if a great many Americans wish us dead. But Eileen Gu’s impossible celebrity makes clear to me: Seeking acceptance by achieving excellence is like chasing fool’s gold.

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