Eileen Gu and America’s Nationalism Problem

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics was marked by a myriad of controversies that defined the new year. From the political boycott by various nations against China’s hosting of the Olympics to a Russian skier caught up in a doping scandal, the recent Olympic Games have been quite eventful.

However, in particular, one athlete has caught the nasty gaze of American scorn: Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old half-white and half-Chinese skier. Gu was born in America but was raised by her Chinese mother and grandmother; she recently chose to play in the Olympics for China, bringing them the honor of two Olympic gold medals. 

Her decision to represent China was met with hard backlash by figureheads of American conservatism such as former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and controversial talk show host Tucker Carlson; they decried Gu as a “traitor” in some cases, and according to the sage words of Nikki Haley, “you’re either American or you’re Chinese” when referring to Gu’s bicultural identity.

Their contempt towards the young athlete is mainly rooted in Eileen Gu’s citizenship status ambiguity. To play for China in the Olympics, one must have full citizenship in the nation; since China officially does not recognize dual citizenship within its constitution, Gu would’ve had to discard her American citizenship to play for the country. 

Gu has dodged questions regarding her citizenship, though some outlets such as New York Times theorize that Gu may have been given special privilege due to her high-profile status.

Regardless of Gu’s citizenship status, it is unwarranted to make such caustic remarks towards her for simply embracing her dual nationalities; Gu’s Chinese and American heritage are not mutually exclusive from each other, and both have helped shape her into her current star position in the Olympics.

A feature article from the New York Times with Gu goes deeper into her diverse background, noting how she had studied at a private school in San Francisco yet lived with her Chinese mother and grandmother. She traveled for many summers to Beijing, where she immersed herself in the culture and became naturally fluent in Mandarin. Her background is seemingly a blend of both a traditional American and Chinese upbringing.

In the article, Gu argues that she wants to practice “neutral duality” throughout her sports career, stating that “when I’m in the [United States], I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”

Some Chinese-Americans have heralded her ability to navigate through the tense climate of these two geopolitical superpowers. In another New York Times article highlighting Eileen Gu, one Chinese-American has noted how uplifting it is to see Gu embrace her culture in an international spotlight: “I think it’s so brave, actually, for her to speak about that on a public platform.”

However, this claim isn’t enough for some of Gu’s critics, like Nikki Haley, who states that her hesitancy to condemn the Chinese government for their human rights abuses branded her as someone against democracy. 

The Chinese Communist Party is indeed responsible for a myriad of human rights abuses, leading to a diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics. However, prescribing the an authoritarian regime’s characteristics to an entire ethnic group does not solve the problem. 

Racial profiling, particularly against Asian Americans, has become especially prevalent since 2020. Asian hate crimes have tragically become commonplace across the United States, spurring the blame on China for the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The anti-Asian sentiment is nothing new within American society. It traces back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, where Chinese immigration was deemed “unsuitable” for American society and banned entirely. 

It has also been less than 100 years since President Roosevelt’s Order 9066. This executive order forced Japanese Americans to relocate from their homes into internment camps. The decree labeled Japanese Americans a “national security threat,” and today serves as a startling comparison to today’s political climate. It is reminiscent of an environment where xenophobic demagogues in the United States portray an ethnic group as the enemy, despite them being entitled to the same rights as every other U.S. citizen.

The debate of national allegiance is a particular paradox in U.S. politics. On the one hand, a country built around the notion of immigrants molding the nation’s identity and being a beacon for others internationally to found their own “American dream.” While on the other, a nation that can also be hostile towards those coming from different and foreign backgrounds, seeking to assimilate them into a monolith of American culture rooted in a traditionalist, Eurocentric ideology. This raging conflict of how the U.S. defines its openness towards the growing multicultural society is one that must be answered in an uncertain geopolitical context.

This monolithic American identity is best echoed through the words of President Theodore Roosevelt on his thoughts regarding “hyphenated Americans”: Americans who identify with a hyphenated term (ex. Asian-American) to reflect their dual identities. 

In President Roosevelt’s words, he stated that “it will spell ruin to this nation if these nationalities remain separated from one another instead of being assimilated to the new and larger American life,” regarding the topic of “hyphenated Americans”; that those with dual identities must choose a side, and if they want to be considered a real American that means solely choosing the “American” side.

Despite the United States’ stance as a beacon of liberty for all, from the history and the xenophobic remnants prevalent in modern society, it is clear that American equality is still intangible for many, such as Eileen Gu. Eileen Gu’s decision to represent China despite the tense geopolitical atmosphere should not be antagonized; rather, it should be recognized for showing that Americans can feel an affinity to their other “hyphenated” half and embrace both sides of their culture, representing a multicultural and open U.S. that continues to come into fruition through time.

Nationalist critics such as Tucker Carlson and the like, who brand Gu as anti-American, can continue to spout their talking points as much as they like, for their real fear isn’t China and their authoritarianism. Rather, they feel threatened by what Gu represents for Americans: stepping away from a monolithic idea of Americanism that has gripped this country for so long and embracing their “hyphenated” national identities.

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Hunter Black

Hunter Black is a current freshman majoring in Journalism at Annenberg. Hunter is originally from San Mateo, California, near San Fransisco. He hopes to work with Glimpse from the Globe in order to gain experience writing articles focusing on international relations and foreign policy. Hunter seeks to hopefully pursue a career in public relations/image management after college!