About the author and the Alliance of Chinese Americans San Diego (ACA) Scholarship: Ms. Amy Wang is a recipient of the ACA Scholarship. She is currently a junior at Westview High School (San Diego, CA). This article is a part of her work within the ACA Scholarship programs. The views and opinions expressed belong solely to the author, and do not represent those of ACA and its members. ACA Scholarships are established to encourage API youth’s involvement and awareness in community events
Because of the rising tension between the US and China, these days, existing as a Chinese American is often fraught with the clashing influences of the two countries. As geopolitical conflict rises, so does the crisis within the lives of ordinary citizens. In the current ideological rift between countries, politicians often try to polarize the public and point to China and the Chinese people as the enemy. The public is constantly reminded of our “otherness”, in the form of dehumanizing language in news media.
In that same vein, identity politics have taken on a new meaning. To exist as a Chinese American is to be confronted with the choice between two opposing forces, and to embrace anything other than complete Americanness is to be spurned by the very country you have grown up in. At the same time, even that choice is not completely safe, as was seen when Chinese social media users said that Olympic figure skater Nathan Chen was a traitor for choosing to compete for the US.
Another high-profile example of this has been that of Olympic athlete Eileen Gu, who caught global attention for her exceptional performance as a skier. While this would normally be a cause for celebration and national pride on the part of Americans, given Gu’s upbringing in San Francisco by a mixed-race family, Gu’s choice to compete under the Chinese banner sparked controversy. While her plans to do so as a homage to her mother had long been in place, after she made the decision to do so in 2019, many Americans took this as an insult to the country she had grown up in. Given the fraught relationship between China and America, public disparagement of Gu came in the form of criticism of her choice as an endorsement of controversial policies of the Chinese administration. It also included commentary from retired Olympic skier Jen Hudak who said that Gu's skiing prowess came only “because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to premier training grounds and coaching that, as a female, she might not have had in China.” Similarly, right-wing talk show host Tucker Carlson claimed that Gu had, in effect, “renounced” her US citizenship and betrayed her own country by choosing to ski for China (Haiphong 2022). On social media, users have called her “ungrateful” for what they seem to view as a rejection of her American identity.
Still, like many other Asian Americans before her, who had also faced down accusations of betrayal and ungratefulness for their embrace of their cultural roots, Gu persevered. Despite the controversy surrounding her, she went on to win two gold medals, and one silver. In interviews with the media, she embraced the duality of her identity. Still, this personal triumph over adversity and public opinion should not detract from the troubling precedent that the public vitriol against Gu has set. After all, America allows foreigners to represent the US in the Olympics, provided they have the skill to do so, so why should Gu be treated differently for simply doing the same for another country?
While she herself is only 18, Gu’s story is one that reflects a historical precedent, of outrage against the coexistence of conflicting foreign and American identities, that has long existed in the US. Policies, like that of the infamous “China Initiative” implemented by previous administrations. Under the guidance of such policy, researchers were often surveilled and prosecuted for the simple crime of being Chinese, some on drummed-up charges. The initial suspicions were often rooted in racial prejudice, and American-born citizens were viewed as threats to national security, a fact that is most troubling because freedom of existence is central to the very concept of our form of government. Most concerning of all, much of the prosecution related to the initiative meant “bringing charges against academics for failing to disclose all ties to China on grant-related forms rather than any intent to spy” (Walsh).
Regardless of whether Chinese-American discrimination comes in the form of scathing online vitriol or governmental policy, the basis of said behavior has roots in the same issue of xenophobia and fervent nationalism. Ultimately, in our day-to-day lives, it is important to embrace the plurality of our identities. We often forget, because of the heated discussion surrounding Sino-American relations, that we can acknowledge one aspect of our background without letting go of the other. Instead of allowing ourselves to become polarized down lines of national pride, Gu, and the many other Asian Americans who have been faced with the reckoning of their Chinese and American backgrounds should be praised for their efforts to allow for inter-cultural appreciation and shared accomplishment.