Needless to say, the 2022 Winter Olympics has been…intriguing. From the ROC’s doping scandal to U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou’s removal, we KNOW that there is a Netflix special already in the making. However, what I found most intriguing was China’s reaction to the athletes, specifically three athletes.
They are all Chinese-American Olympians, yet each received drastically different reception from the Chinese public. One is known as “Miss Perfect,” the other is referred to as a disappointment and the last one is referred to as a traitor.
With patriotism and nationalism as fundamental pillars of the Olympics, this year’s games proposed the haunted questions for hyphenated identities: What is your home country? What does it take to belong to your home country?
I consider these three athletes, all who are phenomenally talented, as case studies to answer this question.
Eileen Gu, 17, was born in San Francisco, California. As a vibrant and innovative young lady, Gu is what I consider the “model” Chinese-American, with her flawless Chinese and exceptional talent. The freestyle skier made the headlines with her decision to represent the People’s Republic of China for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Prior to the start of the Olympics, China had a favorable, near-indifferent reaction towards her announcement, whereas the U.S. had a split reaction to her decision. On one hand, people were upset that she wasn’t representing the U.S. and framed her decision as a conniving scheme. On the other, people were fervently supporting her, encouraging her decision to promote Asian representation. Yet, when she won Gold for Freestyle Skiing, I noticed a very drastic change in the language.
Suddenly, China was praising her mastery of her sport, idolizing her beauty and wit, worshipping her high academic achievements and even giving her the nickname as “Miss Perfect” on social media. It seemed as if the entire country was enthusiastically nodding their heads, “Yes, yes, she is Chinese.”
Is a gold medal all it takes to belong to a country? It would seem so, especially considering China’s reaction to Zhu Yi.
Zhu Yi, 19, was born in Encino, California. The ice skater, like Gu, comes from an extremely well-educated family and is exceptionally talented with her craft. She also turned heads with the renouncement of her U.S. citizenship in 2018 and decision to represent the People’s Republic of China for the Olympics, justifying her decision with her desire to represent her family’s culture and home country. Unfortunately, Yi performed her skating program with some mishaps, falling multiple times throughout her performance and ended up placing last in the woman single’s category.
“You don’t get to cry; I am the one who wants to cry.”
Unlike her peer Gu, the Chinese public was unmercifully bashing the 19 year-old skater for bringing shame to China. The hashtag #ZhuYiFellDown trended on Weibo, a social media site equivalent to Twitter, and was later permanently banned due to the excessive hate directed towards the athlete.
So, of the first two Chinese-American athletes, one placed first, and the other placed last. One is praised as the country’s pride and the other as the country’s failure.
Then, there’s Nathan Chen who chose to not represent China and is still coined as a traitor. Nathan Chen, 22, born in Salt Lake City, Utah, recently won Gold for Men’s single ice skating this past Winter Olympics, being the first U.S. Asian American to win an Olympic medal in Men’s single skating. Not long after his award ceremony, the Chinese public condemned his “Americanness,” critiquing everything from his refusal to speak Mandarin and recent condemnation of China’s violation of human rights. Some have commented that he should be ashamed of selling out to America.
So, when comparing these three athletes, what does it take to belong to your home country?
Now, before we all breakout into the Mulan soundtrack, I mean this answer sincerely. It is, essentially, an implied agreement between the hyphenated individual and the country. If you can bring honor to the country, then we will recognize you as one of us.
Yet, it seems like this recognition has a short shelf life. What happens when these athletes no longer bring honor to their country? As seen with Zhu Yi, besides a few kind words, she has essentially made an enemy of a country. In the U.S., countless of news articles have come forward to scold China for their harsh criticisms. How could they do that to a teenager? She truly tried her best, and her efforts should be acknowledged. How can a country be so cruel?
I completely agree.
In fact, I wondered the same thing four years ago when the U.S. public responded similarly to Nathan Chen when he underperformed, struggling to perform a clean program, in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Therefore, to some extent, all countries have a certain level of expectations for their athletes’ performance. Particularly in the U.S., I would argue that the stakes are even higher for people with hyphenated identities. Not only do they have to win to prove themselves worthy of representing the country, but also, if they fail, then they will only be confirming the preconception that people of the same hyphenated identities were never worthy to begin with.
Hence, when people questioned athletes like Gu deciding to represent China, comparing her to athletes like Chen who continue to represent the U.S., whether I agree with their decision or not, I do acknowledge the risk and courage it took to make either decision. Especially with China and the U.S.’s tense political relationship, these hyphenated athletes are bound to upset one or the other monolithic nation with their decision. Ironically, the athlete’s best case scenario is that they win and only upset one of the two countries.
With China being a predominantly monoethnic country, the concept of hyphenated identities is a relatively new conundrum that even the United States hasn’t resolved after hundreds of years. So, what country should these hyphenated athletes represent? The correct answer shouldn’t be determined by an ethical debate of philosophers or veteran Olympians but should reside with the athlete’s personal choice. Essentially, people have no authority to designate someone else’s identity, even if you are part of the ethnicity called into question. Although the standard of belonging to a country may be determined by a country, identity should, and always, remain as the individual’s prerogative.
Linda Cao is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternate Thursdays.
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