By Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen. US citizen, Yale student, and my namesake. The reigning national champion, world champion, Olympic gold medalist, and men’s ice skating world-record holder. Competing for the US team in all international competitions, Americans praise him for representing the US. After his Olympic gold, Chinese citizens slammed him on social media, calling him a “traitor.”
Eileen Gu. Supermodel, Stanford student, and born in San Francisco. The reigning world champion, 3-time Olympic gold medalist, and women’s freestyle skiing world-record holder. Competing for the US until 2019 and currently representing China, users flocked to Weibo to show their support for Gu after her first Olympic medal, temporarily crashing the second-largest social media site in China. Americans across the internet blasted her as a “traitor” who used US resources to win for another country.
“Go back to where you came from.” Eileen Gu did.
Gu is not representative of a typical American-born Chinese teen, and the rest of us should not be held to her standard. We didn’t drive an 8 hour-long round trip to Lake Tahoe every week to ski. We did not go to a private school with tuition over 50,000 dollars. We do not all have 1580 SAT scores. We did not, or rather, could not, fly back to China every summer to visit family. We did not earn 3 Olympic medals when we were 18. We didn’t appear on the covers of Elle China and Vogue China. We are not ambassadors for Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. We do not earn over 30 million US dollars from our sponsors.
Most of us do not have the opportunity to take only the best aspects from both worlds.
Yet, Gu doesn’t leisurely immerse herself in privilege. Becoming the first woman to land a forward double cork 1440 takes determination and years of training. Doing that while attending school and excelling in academics takes an amount of self-discipline I couldn’t imagine having. Encouraging Chinese children (and parents) to start competing in unpopular winter sports is a daunting task, and trying to bridge the growing divide between the US and China with sports is downright impossible.
Unfortunately, for a great number of Americans and US leaders, their nationalism is defined by being anti-Chinese. Both the Senate and House passed the America COMPETES act of 2022, inappropriately nicknamed the “anti-China bill.” It was created to improve the resiliency of the US supply chain, bolster US education, and secure US infrastructure from cyberattacks, yet conservatives use anti-Chinese sentiment to garner support for the bill and strengthen nationalism. The Pew Research Center concluded that Republican lawmakers consistently make comments about Asian countries without mentioning Asian Americans. Trump’s rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic consisted of attacks against China and Chinese culture without ever defending Chinese Americans, yet Asian Americans contribute more than our proportional share to the economy and to government revenue. Trump blasted CBS correspondent Weijia Jiang during a press conference, asking her twice, “who are you with?” when she asked about his travel bans from China. Shelley Luther, a candidate for Texas House District 62, said in a now-deleted tweet, “Chinese students should be BANNED from attending all Texas universities. No more Communists!”
It is unreasonable to think that criticism and loyalty are mutually exclusive. It is dense to think that loyalty means a complete acceptance of everything good and bad. It is absurd to think that a person, whether ethnically related or a citizen of a nation, carries the exact same ideology and prospective goals as their nation’s government.
Defining my American identity by how little I justify my Chinese identity is ridiculous. By splitting all my life experiences into Chinese and American and unwillingly choosing which one I value more, I lose an indispensable part of myself. Choosing my American identity forces me to ignore my family and my roots and to admit that being Chinese has no influence over who I am today. Choosing my Chinese identity forces me to acknowledge that I will never feel at home in the US and my status here will forever be an outsider.
Watching Eileen Gu walk with the Chinese athletes in the opening ceremony, I felt tense. Watching Nathan Chen hold the American flag behind him, I felt uneasy. I want Gu and Chen to succeed because I see a part of myself in both of them.
Both athletes chose a side. Neither escaped a bombardment of criticism.
Is this the plight of all Chinese-Americans? Whichever side we call home, are we destined to be judged for the choice we are forced to make?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.9 percent of the US population is Asian American. An even smaller percentage is Chinese-American. As a young, second-generation Chinese immigrant, it is difficult to compare my experience to that of my parents and grandparents. It is also difficult to compare my experience to other minorities in the US. Overall, my relationship with China is positive; I think of relatives, trying new foods, and visiting tourist sites. My relationship with the US is also positive overall; I have the freedom to write this article and criticize my leaders. I acknowledge that life in the San Francisco Bay Area is better than in many other countries.
Therefore, to offer a greater number of people a deeper understanding of my relationship and to propose potential solutions for my fellow Chinese-Americans, I recommend looking at the two cultures as divorced parents.
I love both of them. Though they attack each other constantly and sometimes attack me for interacting with the other, my relationship with both of them is more valuable than choosing a side and ignoring the problem. Constant reminders, from the news to my family, would fill my head with doubt and guilt over the decision to relinquish a connection with one of my cultural parents.
I don’t want to see them fight. I also really don’t want to see them go to war.
Of course, the metaphor only extends so far. The love from the US and China is evidently conditional on success. Zhu Yi, a Los Angeles-born ice skater who represented China, fell twice during one of her programs, bringing the team out of medal contention. Even though she demonstrated a bigger devotion to China than Eileen Gu by changing her name from Beverly to Yi and relocating to Beijing with her family, she was attacked on Weibo, with users calling her shameful and an embarrassment. Some Americans on Twitter cheered for the weakness she brought to China’s ice skating team.
Like divorce, I’ve come to realize that it is not my sole responsibility to somehow restore a good relationship between them. I need to accept the fact that a friendly relationship most likely won’t exist. Still, it doesn’t feel good to be helpless.
To cope with this dilemma, I’ve talked to friends and family members, and I know that I’m not alone in this situation. Citizens of both countries really don’t hate each other as much as their governments do, and it solidifies my belief that extreme circumstances like war are still very unpopular.
Though it is difficult to remain positive, we have to. Eileen’s success is unprecedented, and her message of a harmonious identity reaches an audience far beyond any of ours. Yet, she won’t change the world herself. All of us must clear the path toward a greater understanding of the Chinese-American identity. We must stand against injustice, doing so without generalization or alienation.
Progress is slow. But with new generations on the rise, getting older and gaining power, I hope for a more nuanced understanding of a globalized world in our governments and people.