The Independent’s journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Eileen Gu renounced her US citizenship to compete for China in the Olympics. As an Asian-American, I have some thoughts

For people like me — and, clearly, for people like Eileen Gu — identity is complicated

Amber Raiken
New York
Wednesday 02 February 2022 16:58

When I was eight years old, sitting in the living room and watching the Olympic Games with my mom,  I asked her: “Who do I root for? China or the USA?” In response, she simply said, “Anyone you want.”

That memory came back to me when I saw the furore surrounding Olympian Eileen Gu this week. Gu, 18, is a Chinese-American freestyle skier, who won her first World Cup in 2019, representing the US. According to her official profile, the athlete, who was born and raised in California by an American father and Chinese mother, renounced her United States citizenship for Chinese citizenship so she could represent China at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games.

Like Gu, I am also an Asian-American, as I was born in China. However, neither of my parents are Chinese. I was adopted at eight months and raised by a Guatemalan mother and an American father in New York City. That’s what caused me to ask them who I was supposed to support when I first saw those Olympic athletes on my family’s television screen. For people like me — and, clearly, for people like Eileen Gu — identity is complicated.

“This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make,” Gu wrote in a post on Instagram after renouncing her American citizenship.  “I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings. The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love.”

Since then, Gu has represented China in multiple World Cups, where she’s taken home medals for major events, including the big air, slopestyle, and half pipe.

The blowback Gu received for her decision was fierce. She has been called a “traitor” on social media, and told that the United States’ pledge of allegiance clearly “meant nothing” to her. Former Winter X Games gold medalist from Team USA, Jen Hudak, also chimed in with her thoughts on Gu’s identity. “It is not my place to judge, but Eileen is from California, not from China, and her decision [to ski for China] seems opportunistic,” Hudak told The New York Post.

“She became the athlete she is because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to premier training grounds and coaching that, as a female, she might not have had in China,” Hudak added. “I think she would be a different skier if she grew up in China.”

This past December, the Biden administration announced a boycott of the Beijing Games due to China’s documented human rights abuses, some of which include detaining over a million Uighur Muslims.

Sarah Cook, research director for China at Freedom House (a nonprofit that advocates for human rights), told ESPN that as a Chinese citizen, Gu is not protected by the US consulate when in Beijing. “Competing as a Chinese national removes any potential diplomatic protections others might have as a foreigner in China,” she said. “If she gets into any kind of trouble, she doesn’t have that protection.”

Few are able to separate Gu’s personal identity from global geopolitics, and even fewer are willing to concede that it’s a nuanced discussion.

Growing up, I was often referred to as a “white girl” by my peers because I wasn’t brought up by Asian parents. While there is some truth to the implication, it is of course far from true that I am read as white by the outside world.

I feel both a connection and disconnection to my Chinese heritage, and I probably always will. I certainly feel more American than Chinese. But I wouldn’t hesitate to identify myself as Chinese-American, rather than simply American. I don’t believe that calling myself a Chinese-American is something that I have “the right” to do; it is something that I want to do. Identity is partly about the cards you are dealt in life, and partly about choice.

Gu has made a choice that has angered a lot of people, but it was her choice to make, informed by her own background. As an athlete, it is not her responsibility to solve global diplomatic disputes. If she chooses to weigh in on issues like China’s record on human rights abuses, then good for her. Equally, we must all force ourselves to accept that she may never — and that it was never her job to do so.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in