REUTERS/ Lisi Niesner

In February 2022 Beijing became the first-ever city to host both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games. While there were many successes for individual athletes, the Olympics this year was shrouded with controversies, from the strict handling of the coronavirus to the ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Moreover, the USA and a dozen other countries declared a diplomatic boycott of the games, where ministers from respective governments did not attend but athletes did. One might ask how athletes fit into such a highly politicized, international sporting event, especially those who share cultural ties with diplomatically clashing countries, such as China and the US. The competition shed light on the unique challenges of belonging and the organization of one’s bicultural identity for Chinese-Americans.

This year, the host country had a record number of naturalized athletes on their team, with almost half of the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams made up of “imported talent” from abroad. Recruiting naturalized athletes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it China-specific. There were many US-born athletes representing other countries too at the Beijing Olympics. However, US-born Chinese athletes bore much of the attention due to high geopolitical tensions between the two countries as well as China’s strict citizenship laws: athletes would have to give up their current citizenship to compete for China. Eileen Gu and Zhu Yi are American-born athletes who represented China in the Beijing Winter Olympics. Both athletes decided to intentionally switch their allegiance a few years prior to the 2022 Games, a decision that has recently received much attention and criticism.

Zhu Yi sheds tears after another fall at the free-skating team event. Source: Ni Minzhe

Eileen Gu and Zhu Yi had two very different Olympic experiences, but both gained the attention of Chinese social media. The 18-year-old freestyle skier, Eileen Gu, was met with cheers and a place at the top of the podium after a record-breaking jump, while Zhu Yi, the 19-year-old figure skater also known as Beverly Zhu, had to endure a flood of online abuse after falling several times on ice. The hashtag “ZhuyiFellDown” gained over 200 million views within hours on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. Most of her criticism stemmed from not meeting the high expectations placed on her shoulders and her faltering Mandarin. According to Christina Chin, co-editor of “Asian American Sporting Cultures,” some Chinese viewers see Zhu Yi lacking cultural citizenship and her own cultural roots in China. She continued to say that such athletes find themselves walking a tightrope, often in a catch-22 situation where they are unable to please the expectations from both sides. Zhu Yi’s language abilities would not have mattered if she won gold, but in her fall she was subjected to scrutiny of her national identity. Her failure on ice demonstrates the precarious position of a bicultural woman who is seen as not Chinese enough in some contexts and not American enough in other contexts.

While identifying with more than one culture can cause contradicting expectations and identity confusion, it also involves the feeling of uniqueness and a rich sense of community. “I’m American when I’m in the US and I’m Chinese when I’m in China,” states Eileen Gu in an Olympic press conference after a gold medal win. She repeatedly dodged questions regarding her citizenship; instead, she focused on her message of unity and explicitly expressed her gratitude to both nations for their support and for making her the person she is today. Not only did Eileen Gu win three medals for China, but she also won the hearts of Chinese viewers. She was praised for embracing her cultural heritage, her fluent, Beijing-accented Chinese, and her confidence on and off the slopes. Dubbed a “snow princess,” it would have been impossible to miss the giant billboards, posters, and magazine covers with Eileen Gu on them during the Games in Beijing. Meanwhile, some remain skeptical of Eileen Gu’s decision to represent China. A Fox News host called her “an ungrateful child of America” who turned her back on her home country for China’s money and prestige. 

The gold-medalist has remained indifferent toward the public scrutiny of her identity that finds its duality counterintuitive. In China, dual citizenship is not allowed, so officially a person is either American or Chinese, but not both. The distinction is reinforced by heightened political tensions, thrusting Chinese-American athletes into the spotlight for criticism rather than for being cultural ambassadors. Another Chinese-American athlete who received much criticism was Nathan Chen, who won gold for the United States in men’s figure skating. The Chinese public viewed him as being “too White” not because he refused to speak Mandarin after his win but because of his political affiliations. Chen was accused of being a national traitor after backing fellow US teammate Evan Bates’s criticism of China’s human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims. One comment on Weibo read: “His name is Nathan Chen, and he does not deserve a Chinese name.” Even with the torrent of criticism from Weibo, Nathan Chen still takes pride in his heritage, with Beijing being the city where his parents met.

The duality of Asian American identity is felt among many migrants and second-generation migrants. Those struggles are similar to the ones endured by Japanese-Americans during World War II when they were forced to take sides and even join the US forces, says Ellen Wu, a historian specializing in race and migration in the United States. Like China, Japan also does not allow dual citizenship. Aya Spencer, a Japanese-American venture capitalist, recalls her experience of renouncing her Japanese citizenship as being hurtful. “I literally had to let go of a part of my own nationality in order to defend and represent another part of who I am,” she told VICE. Spencer had learned to detach herself from identifying the US and Japan because she never felt she belonged to either. She has since not let borders or citizenship define who she is and identifies as Black and Asian. Consequently, she applauds Gu for not attaching her self-worth to a country’s borders. 

Many Chinese Americans interviewed in New York have also empathized with Gu’s bicultural identity, including the challenges and benefits that come with it. Just as with Nathan Chen, Eileen Gu, and Zhu Yi, other people will push them to identify with one or the other. Many of the residents agree that the criticism of Gu comes from the idea that identity is binary: either American or Chinese. “For us everyday Chinese Americans, we’re going to have to deal with the same issues of, you know, claiming versus disassociating, and parsing through what to identify with and what not to. I think it’s inevitable,” said a resident of Princeton. Part of possessing a complex identity is navigating through a world that places certain assumptions and expectations on you, but ultimately, your identity is unique and should not depend on the boundaries of nations or citizenship.