Eileen Gu is living the California dream. A millionaire supermodel at the age of 18, a Vogue cover girl with an all-American smile and an Arctic fox on snow for whom this year’s Winter Olympics was her coming out party. But whose side is she really on? It would seem post-Trump America really wants to know.
The unseen gate on the slalom was that she’s not all-American but only half — and her other half is Chinese. And it’s China, the country of her mother’s birth, that she represented in Beijing. She struck gold twice (in big air and half pipe) plus a silver (in slopestyle), but it was her so-called “treachery” that would break the internet.
Gu went from “Everyday Eileen”, of Red Bull-sponsored ski tutorials and 30,000 Instagram followers, to becoming China’s face of the Games. They called her “the ice-snow female goddess”, and she now has 1.4 million Instagram followers (and counting) at press time, with five million on Weibo. But she was also an unwitting pawn in the geopolitical squabble between superpowers. For all her adroitness in freestyle skiing, her timing couldn’t have been worse: anti-Asian hate crimes in the US are at record levels while China pursues an increasingly hardline nationalistic future. Inevitably, she was caught in the crossfire.
Gu committed to China in 2019, a fact only now did those outside the sport become aware of. “It was an incredibly tough decision to make,” she admits, but there was no sympathy from the hillbillies. Nor did it wash with them that she is “proud of her heritage and equally proud of her upbringing”. Even the liberal Washington Post wondered if there would be “room for her in a more authoritarian China”.
Brought up in San Francisco by her single mom — her white American dad is no longer on the scene — she wants “to be a role model for women athletes in China and raise the profile of skiing”. But her oft-quoted diplomatic claim: “When I’m in the US, I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” cuts no ice with hardliners.
A Fox News analyst called her “ungrateful” and her “reverse migration shameful”, but the unmistakable whiff of “You’re either with us or against us” applied to Chinese coverage too. Its embrace of their American-born contingent hinged on performance: Gu’s fellow Californian, Beverley Zhu, who stumbled with both her skates and her Mandarin, was dubbed “a disgrace”. Meanwhile, Nathan Chen, son of Chinese immigrants to Salt Lake City, stuck with the US and won gold: he was blatantly ignored.
Gu had no problem with her “Chinese-ness”, after spending summers in Beijing and being fluent in Mandarin. But that led cynics to wonder if her motive was financial as she has some 30 international sponsors, many of them Chinese. As for citizenship, she is still coy. China doesn’t permit dual nationals, but there’s no record of her giving up her US passport. It being self-evident to her, as a Gen Z citizen of the world, that she should be able to have both.
Gu’s nationality debate — as toxic as the air in a Beijing traffic jam — was the Games’ hottest topic. Russian skater Kamila Valieva’s drugs test debacle may have been its biggest scandal, but Gu was the beautiful girl in a tug o’ nationalities between the world’s two heavyweight powers. Even the famously inflammable American-born Chinese (ABC) community in the US wondered whether it should maintain a low profile or try to be a bridge between the two countries. Nope, it’s no longer simple for ABCs and a long way from when another Californian superstar emerged on the world stage several ages of innocence and infamy ago.
Tiger Woods had just won his first Masters (1997), and his African-American father Earl was already teeing him up as someone who would transcend his sport. “He could do more for humanity than Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. More than any of them,” he bragged. His reasoning makes for interesting reading now. “Why? Because he has a larger forum. Because he’s playing a sport that’s international. Because he is qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He’s the bridge between the East and the West,” Earl insisted.
Tiger’s Chinese-Thai mother, Kutilda, was a willing accomplice, describing her son as “the Universal Child”. And after blitzing the Augusta field like some golfing superman, Tiger told Oprah Winfrey of his unique ethnic make-up. “I came up with a name [for it]: I’m a Cablinasian. One quarter black, one quarter Thai, one quarter Chinese, one eighth white, one eighth American Indian.” The worst anyone thought of all this was that his dad might have been drinking when he made his claims.
In theory, it should be far easier for the extremely likeable Gu to become a bridge between two nations than what Earl envisaged. She has a ski-boot in each and the touch of an evangelist when she says: “To help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help promote common understanding, create communication and forge friendships between nations. If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.”
While there are suspicions that China may have bent its own nationality rules to bolster its medal tally — as it has to no avail in football — the difference between Gu and the hardliners is as stark as ever. Noting how comfortable she was talking about herself as a “bi-racial woman”, one ABC commentator recalled being told by his teacher: “I don’t believe in hyphenated identities.”
Next up for Gu is enrolling at Stanford University and writing a book. She will have gained a lot more material from the past three weeks, and will now know how shrill the nationalists sound in a global world where people have parents of different races and live in different places. Humanity is lucky to have her, wherever she is. But maybe we need a bit more of Earl’s optimism. As Joseph Fort Newton said: “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
This story first appeared on Feb 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.