Too White to Be Chinese, Too Chinese to Be White

How can Chinese Americans learn about their identities from the recent experiences of Chinese Americans who have faced scrutiny from the world for their choices to represent their respective countries?

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As a Chinese American living in America, I have never felt particularly welcomed in the country I was born and raised in. History has taught me time and time again that I do not belong to this country. From the Chinese Exclusion Acts to recent Asian hate crimes, America has made it known that I, and many other Asian Americans living in this country, am not truly American. However, I have never felt welcomed in China either. The way I dress, talk, and act is considered far too different from native-born Chinese people for me to be Chinese. This struggle to feel welcomed and comfortable in our identities is the hallmark of immigrant life. Three Olympians, Zhu Yi, Eileen Gu, and Nathan Chen, have all had their struggles with identity placed at the forefront of the 2022 Olympic conversation. The reaction of both Chinese and American citizens to these Olympians’ decisions to represent their respective countries reflects our trial in finding a place to be accepted.

Zhu, an American-born Chinese figure skater, was chosen to represent China over a native-born Chinese skater. This decision angered many Chinese natives who felt that a native skater would better represent their country. Her lack of Chinese speaking skills seemed to exemplify why many Chinese natives did not want her to affect the reputation of their country.

When Zhu fell during her short program in the team event, Chinese netizens erupted on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, sending the figure skater thousands of hate messages.

In contrast to Zhu, Gu, another American-born Chinese athlete, has faced polar opposite reactions from the Chinese public. In China, Gu is known for her conventional beauty, and her biracial features are praised. In addition, she is academically and professionally successful, having been admitted to Stanford University and having made a name for herself in the Chinese modeling industry. Winning the gold medal for the big air skiing event only solidified her position as China’s pride, though not without criticism. The American public exploded when Gu was announced to represent China. She was slandered by Fox News, with news anchor Will Cain branding her actions as “ungrateful” and “shameful.”

As another Chinese American athlete, Chen has also been heavily criticized—this time by the Chinese public for his “betrayal,” as he chose to represent America despite his Chinese heritage. His success at the Olympics has garnered attention on Weibo, with users telling him to “get out of China.” In America, however, Chen has been praised as a national pride, being the seventh male American on the podium for figure skating.

Athletes like Chen and Gu have been relentlessly criticized despite their incredible victories in the Olympics. The past few weeks have made it clear that immigrants can never escape the scrutiny of those who watch us grapple with our identities. We are constantly pushed and pulled as we desperately try to give our identities labels. Despite what others say, the problem is not that we are “not Chinese enough” or “not white enough.” We are just not successful enough. We are only valued if we are successful, and that is the position the media has held with these Olympians. Standing in the middle ground between Chinese and American, it’s easy to throw us around when we aren’t advantageous to either side. And when we are successful, we are put under fire anyway as countries fight to claim our success as their own. Therefore, we can’t assume one identity, like Chinese or American. We are uniquely Chinese American. Because we don’t fit into these neat categories, we must not rely on the world to accept us. We have to accept our identities within ourselves.