Asian American Comparisons: Eileen Gu vs. Author

By Judy Zeng 

Eileen Gu, an Asian American Olympic skier and model, is the perfect, talented model child that every Asian parent wants. She’s also perfectly both Asian and American⁠—born and raised by a single Chinese parent in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is fluent in both Chinese and English and visits Beijing yearly. Now that she has emerged in the world’s spotlight as an Olympic skier in the 2022 Winter Olympics, international audiences either groan or cheer at her choice to represent China.

She had switched her nation alliance from the US to China in 2019, intending to compete for China in the 2022 Olympics. Chinese nationalists were thrilled that she had chosen China and lionized her into a “symbol of national glory” according to the Washington Post. Americans feel that she has betrayed America⁠—most notably, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson called her decision “dumb.” On WeChat groups, Chinese immigrants who’ve experienced similar international crossroads have played out intense debates on Gu’s choice to represent China.

But for the Asian American community, we understand the very situation that Gu is in (although on a smaller scale, not many of us are internationally recognized Olympians). What fascinates me most is how she manages to remain perfectly balanced between China and America, weaving through the political contrasts of both nations. She and I are a year apart in age, yet vastly different in the way we approach the term Asian American.

The Asian part of her is very much like me⁠—she posted a picture of her and her mom enjoying a Chinese meal⁠—stir-fry tomato and eggs, dumplings, and pork⁠—during her time competing at the Olympics. In a 4-minute Youku documentary, ⁠a scene opens up with Gu playing Für Elise on the piano, followed by a scene where she is making dumplings with her grandmother. Her grandmother even corrects her dumpling folding technique. As someone who also grew up in an Asian household, I understand these precious moments. 

Of course having studied in China, Gu has first-hand experience with Chinese language, culture, and people⁠—I do not. (Her Chinese fluency and pronunciation is miles beyond mine, see this CCTV 13 interview.) And so her decision to represent China comes from a different background than mine.

My mom has always told me to avoid the many “danger zones” that might get you involved in China’s totalitarian regime—traveling to China during the pandemic, supporting Falun Gong-owned organizations, using WeChat to communicate sensitive information⁠. She sees “no need” for me to study abroad in China during my college years, nor live there later in life. Many fellow mainland Chinese immigrants agree with the choice to generally avoid crossing with China’s government. Naturally with an ingrained rule to avoid association with the Chinese government, I would choose to represent America in the Olympics without a doubt. 

I see myself as an American born Chinese, (ABC if you will), which means I see myself first as an American, but fundamentally influenced by Chinese culture and heritage. Gu is closer to a Third Culture Kid, who lives on the international edges of China and the US. Since I haven’t personally talked to her, I do wonder how she’s dealing with having two homes in two distinct countries. 

So when we both say that we are Asian Americans, this term is a loose interpretation of our backgrounds. But I still respect her decision; in the end, she’ll do things her way, and I’ll do mine.

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