I have seen the reactions of Eileen Gu, the Sino-American athlete who decided to ski for China at the Olympics, with dismay and disgust.
It seems we can not let an Olympics pass without wondering if an Asian-American athlete is really American. Every four years, the Olympic team becomes more diverse, and every four years, the American media gropes for the words to describe them.
A New York Times profile of Gu breathlessly wondered, “Is she American or is she Chinese?” She is obviously both.
Although Gu is one of many American athletes who choose to compete for other countries, her decision is highlighted as unpatriotic.
Remember that that criticism has never been applied to the number of American athletes competing for their home countries at the Olympics. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo plays for Greece. Former Lakers champion Pau Gasol played for Spain. This Olympics competed for at least 15 other American athletes for other countries.
Commentators complain that Chinese authorities will use Gu to score political points on America. But what points they can be and what they can be worth is never fully articulated. Apparently, the United States and China are in a kind of popularity contest for athletic talent, and it’s bad for democracy and America if we lose somehow.
And I had to laugh hand in hand at the possibility that Gu might have considered making more money in China as a result of his decision. Have you seen a Hollywood movie in the last 20 years? Can you name a company that would not make more money in China if it could? What about the many American athletes who have sought work in China because they are worth more there? What about the $ 123.9 billion that Americans invested in China in 2020, according to Statista?
But when it comes to Eileen Gu, is capitalism and making money in China suddenly unpatriotic?
What a bizarre event. I thought this was America.
It’s incredible how much nationalist attitudes have been driven by fantastic interpretations of Gus’ sparse, rehearsed media appearances. It’s as if commentators just relied on their own anti-Chinese sentiments to fill in the blanks.
I was a little warmed up by typing this and started typing harder than my keyboard would appreciate, so I decided to visit Vinh Hair Salon, an Asian-American barbershop in the Alhambra, to check in with some cooler heads.
I arrived to find Ben Tang and Jimmy Yim and all the barbers wearing American flag masks. It was not about patriotism, Tang insists – these masks were just the cheapest. But they were all aware of having to take steps to show their patriotism in order to get better treatment.
“If you do those things and you can be treated better, then you do them.”
Tang, Yim and the other guys I asked at the store did not seem to have any issues with Gus’ decision. The patriotic thing to do, Tang said, would have been to ski for the United States. But in the end, everyone agreed that it was probably unspoken family dynamics that drove the decision rather than an 18-year-old’s national loyalty. Gus’ decision belongs to her and her family, everyone agreed.
Everyone I spoke to said that if they suddenly became very athletically talented, they would definitely represent the United States. Tang says most of his Asian American customers love America, are extremely patriotic and not big fans of the Chinese government. But they recognized that their family would probably play a role in their decision.
What was more worrying is that Gus’ decision to ski for China has undoubtedly caused more controversy than harmony. Instead of uniting fan bases in both countries, it has unleashed a stream of vitriol from offended Americans. And that, everyone agreed, affected any Asian American who might be confused with Chinese.
“It’s amazing that she wants to help bring the countries closer together,” said Harmon, a longtime customer in Tang’s chair. “But one athlete is not going to do very much.”
“There will just be more anxiety over the case between the US and China, and there will be more and more hatred,” said a customer from the next chair.
“If anything,” Tang added, “this whole thing has made it clear that things are pretty bad between the United States and China.”
But the problem with that situation is not Gus’ decision. It is the toxic nationalism and anti-Chinese sentiment she has been met with.
Having a positive attachment to your or your parents’ home country does not make you a traitor. I love America, but all my relatives live in Taiwan, so I also want Taiwan to do well so my family can have a good life. It makes me no less a patriot than any of you.
It is a duality that any immigrant or children of immigrants are familiar with. And while the muscular stance of American foreign policy may not be able to handle it, it’s actually not that difficult a concept.
For someone like Eileen Gu, it’s probably as simple as loving both her mother and her father.
On her social media accounts, you can hear her code-switching effortlessly from Beijing-accented Mandarin to California-accented English. There is a harmony between her Chinese and American cultural influences that our governments may never achieve. And in that, I think there is hope.
Our governments can rattle with sabers to satisfy our national egos, but our people do not have to disagree. We can fall in love, get married and have children like Eileen Gu.
Wasn’t that what the Olympics were about?