Eileen Gu: Navigating two cultures, judged by both of them

Feb 14, 2022, 12:29 PM | Updated: Feb 15, 2022, 2:32 am
Silver medal winner China's Eileen Gu celebrates during the venue award ceremony for the women's sl...

Silver medal winner China's Eileen Gu celebrates during the venue award ceremony for the women's slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

(AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BEIJING (AP) — She is an exceptional athlete who has already won medals in the Beijing Olympics. But the deep fascination with Eileen Gu’s origin story has threatened to overshadow anything she does on the slopes.

As the freestyle skier chases gold in the mountains northwest of Beijing, some competing narratives about her have taken hold, from California to China.

Some have the San Francisco native skiing for the Chinese team to secure more lucrative endorsements. In others, she has betrayed the United States, where she was born and grew up, to ski for China, her mother’s native country.

And a third: She was way too young to have made the decision to “abandon” the United States for China, where a single misstep could lead a repressive government to restrict her movement or her speech.

For her part, the 18-year-old athlete has said she wants to inspire girls in China, where there are few female role models in sports.

The frenzy to “explain” Gu’s choice reflects biases and misunderstandings in the United States about Asian American identity.

She has genuinely strong connections to China, like many others in the Chinese diaspora who are taking advantage of opportunities and resources both in the Western countries where they grew up and in an increasingly wealthy mainland China.

“What she represents is a new trend,” says Yinan He, an associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, “simply because China has become so wealthy and powerful and attractive and generating opportunities not available to immigrants here.”

Gu is particularly well placed to take advantage of these opportunities.

As engineers retired from Chinese government ministries, her grandparents were part of the professional elite. Her mother, Yan Gu, 58, left China in the 1980s to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. and now works as a private investor with a focus on China, according to LinkedIn. Her father has never been publicly identified.

Gu had an upper middle-class upbringing and private school education in the United States, and she says she’s equally comfortable in both countries. “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” she told the Olympic Channel in 2020. “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American.”

Many immigrants and their children feel this duality. Few are allowed to live it.

“It’s sort of ironic because in half our cases, people use anti-Chinese rhetoric and are telling us to go back home. They’re telling us, ‘You don’t belong here. We don’t accept you.’ And then this is sort of the opposite: ‘Why aren’t you representing your home?'” says Russell Jeung, an Asian American Studies professor at San Francisco State University. “And so we lose either way.”

It turns out that, in a world where elite athletes increasingly cross borders to compete, Gu is not that unusual. No one thinks twice about a Senegalese winger in the English Premier League or a Japanese pitcher in Major League Baseball.

And Gu is just one of many Asian Americans whose family immigration tales are on display at the Beijing Olympics. Nathan Chen, who won a gold for the U.S. in figure skating, was born in Utah to immigrants from China. Snowboarder Chloe Kim, who won her second gold for the U.S. in the women’s halfpipe, was born in California to Korean immigrants.

So what makes Gu the subject of such intense fascination? She is perhaps a perfect storm of elements.

Unlike many athletes who change countries to compete, Gu could have easily skied for the U.S. team — and that perhaps heightens the feeling of betrayal. Her modeling work with global brands from Louis Vuitton to Victoria’s Secret makes her more visible than other athletes.

“She gets a lot of attention because of that, because there is always that focus on femininity and appearance for female athletes,” says Robert Hayashi, a professor at Amherst College who specializes in Asian American history and sports studies.

That fascination is evident from the gross tonnage of social media commentary she attracts in both countries.

A recent Instagram post showing her on the medal stand following her gold medal-winning performance in the Big Air competition garnered 402,000 likes and 51,000 comments. And China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo said its servers were briefly overloaded with adoration for the champion following her win.

But there can be a dark side. Critics in China have chided Gu for failing to use her platform to advocate for internet freedom in a country that tightly restricts access for its citizens. On Tuesday, she largely dodged a reporter’s question about whether she compromised by choosing China, saying she uses her voice as much as she can.

“We’ll see if her stance … will be fully accepted there over the long run,” says Rui Ma, founder of the San Francisco-based investment consulting firm Tech Buzz, who immigrated from China to the U.S. as a child in 1989. “It certainly doesn’t seem to be accepted by many Americans at the moment.”

Gu also represents how dramatically migration from China to America has changed. While many continue to move to the U.S. for low-wage jobs, they’re increasingly being outpaced by migrants with flexibility and the money to spend summers in China and maintain regular contact with family at home. They are more likely to be bicultural, openly embracing their heritage unlike earlier generations who were told — and believed — that integration was their ticket to acceptance.

“There are benefits to being Chinese and engaging with China, the country and the culture,” Ma says.

Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and expert on China at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC, says Gu’s story shows that the complexities of the globalized world don’t always line up neatly with geopolitical lenses.

“Her story speaks to the benefits, the value, the opportunities that come from an interconnected world,” he says. “Her gold medal may be placed in China’s column. But her success is a global success.”

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Har reported from San Francisco. AP News Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York, AP writer Joe McDonald in Beijing, and AP National Writer Eddie Pells in Zhangjiakou, China, contributed to this report.

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Eileen Gu: Navigating two cultures, judged by both of them