February 21, 2022

Eileen Gu, Citizenship, and Self-identity

An editorial by Leonard Chan

When I was at my relative’s home recently, the subject of Eileen Gu came up. We were watching the 2022 Winter Olympics and one of my relatives said she thought Gu was a traitor. I had never heard of Eileen Gu before these Olympic games, but now I have, including all the controversy that surrounds her.

I am not sure if I have that much to contribute to Gu’s story, but her situation brings up thought about citizenship, self-identity, and even a connection to Asian American history.

I won’t go too deep into the Gu specific controversy, but will share some of my thoughts of how it connects with me and AACP.

For those that have not heard of Eileen Gu yet, here’s a very short summary. I’ll leave you to do your own research and reading.

Eileen Gu is now an 18-year-old Olympics gold (twice over) and silver medalist that competes for China. She was born and raised in San Francisco, her mother is from China (I’m not sure if she’s still a citizen of China), and her father is an American with unknown ethnicity (not much is known about him, but I think he’s not Chinese and is out of her life).

In June of 2019, she started to compete for China (she was only 15 at that time). China rules states that their athletes must not have dual citizenship. Recently Gu had been questioned by the press about her citizenship, but she did not answer the questions as to whether she had renounced her United States citizenship or not.

Pundits, critics and supporters, sports writers, and average people including many in the Chinese American community have weighed in on this topic. Many like my relatives feel that she had betrayed America. Added to this sense of betrayal are the assumptions that money may have played a big part in her decision.

Gu is reported to have big sponsorship deals and modeling work with international corporations. From my research, I have not yet found if any money came directly from the Chinese government, but it can be assumed that she has China’s full support in her athletic endeavors.

Eileen Gu has stated that she wishes to be a role model to children in China and is working to promote her sport to them.

So is she a traitor or not? Perhaps this would be a non-issue if America was on good political terms with China. American athletes have competed for other countries numerous amounts of time. However, many of those athletes were doing so because they just wanted to go to the Olympics and may have felt their chances of winning a place on the United States team were slim. Others may truly have an affinity to those countries, like having lived there (and not America) a good percentage of their lives. Gu says that she goes to China often and feels at home when she is there and at home when she is in America.

What may make Gu’s decision to compete for China sting more is that she is an excellent athlete in her chosen sport and is currently better than most on the American Olympic team.

After just watching a replay of the winning run of the Olympics monobob (one woman bobsledding) competition, I wonder if Kaillie Humphries, the former Canadian bobsledder that now competes for the US, is getting any criticism from Canadians? But being a Caucasian, Humphries probably doesn’t get much criticism that minorities would have to face with such decisions.

Gu’s decision is seen by many in the Asian American community as not beneficial in the fight against AAPI hate. With rampant cases of Asian Americans being attack and taunted with words like “go back to where you came from,” the last thing we really need is to show these haters that we really are “perpetual foreigners,” willing to drop our American allegiance at the drop of a dollar.

Eileen Gu’s citizenship question also reminded me of American history as it related to Asians living here. I frequently use the labels Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and others to describe any Asians living in America, not just citizens, mainly because citizenship has been so hard fought throughout our history. So many Asian Americans were and are not allowed to truly have American citizenship even though they call America their home.

It was Wong Kim Ark’s Supreme Court case that solidified the concept of birthright citizenship. Without this ruling, Eileen Gu wouldn’t even have American citizenship.

Then there are the cases of Japanese Americans in World War II internment camps. The Japanese American community was literally torn apart over issues of loyalties to which country – America or Japan. Fights and even riots among the different factions within the camps occurred. Many renounced their citizenship in protest over the unjust confinement. Others chose to renounce because their parents were not allowed to become citizens and were trying to keep their families together in the chance that their parents may be deported to Japan. And others chose to volunteer to serve and die in war to show that they were “good Americans.” This is just a very simplified snapshot of the complex dynamics that were happening within the camps.

Although the motives behind Eileen Gu’s decision to compete for China is ripe for speculation, I truly hope she did not renounce her US citizenship at the age of 15. What I learned about the Japanese American World War II renunciant experience is that many fought for years after the war ended to reverse what they had done while under stress in internment camps. Civil rights lawyers like Wayne Collins devoted their lives trying hard to help Japanese American renunciants regain their citizenship. Decisions as heavy as ones citizenship should not be taken casually or be coerced by parents, circumstances, or money. Fifteen is a very young age to be making such decisions.

As for identity, I can understand that Gu may see herself as being free to live in two worlds. Wouldn’t it be great if there were no borders and everyone truly saw themselves as citizens of the world? But that’s not the world we are currently living in. Countries are still taking up arms and massing up at neighboring borders to try and get their way. And other countries still run internment camps and prisons for dissidents, minorities, and people that just speak their minds.

Many like our parents, grandparents, and further back came to America to escape those poor condition only to find that America was not perfect either. But at least here we still currently have the ability to try to make things better.

I am far removed from my immigrant past, but I still hold on to my Chineseness. That’s why I still identify as Chinese American. I think I am pretty assimilated into American culture and society. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but that’s what I am. With my work with AACP it helps me to better connect with my identity.

I know that my great-grandfather had his remains sent back to China even though he lived most of his life here. When American cemeteries began to accept Chinese people, that was a sign, at least to me, that we were finally being accepted as Americans.

I hope the decision of one teen doesn’t set us back on our course of true acceptance.