Being Eileen Gu must be exhausting.
The 18-year-old freestyle skier won gold at the Beijing Winter Olympics yesterday, stomping a 1620 double cork off the ramp to cement her as one of the premier stars in the snow-sports world. It was a long time coming for the Chinese-American, whose blooming talent and fearless style has made her the talk of the skiing world in recent years.
But winning gold has done little to lift the weight of expectation off her shoulders. Instead, the biggest moment of her professional life triggered a flood of hate, judgment and questioning about her identity. It’s all because she chose to ski for China instead of the U.S., despite being a mixed Asian-white woman who grew up in upper-middle class San Francisco.
Now, she’s in the center of a cultural hurricane, being insulted and targeted by the white right, anti-communist Asians and men who see her as a tool for their own racial aims. The rhetoric has been building since she announced her decision to compete for China in 2019, but her gold medal has opened the floodgates in full.
It’s not just exhausting, but a multifaceted metaphor for the way Asian Americans are treated in America: We’re model minorities expected to cherish the U.S. for “rescuing” our immigrant parents, but we also live in fear of being told to “go home” by white America. Amid this entropy, it’s not a surprise that some Asians in the diaspora are falling for the trap of blaming a young woman for systemic geopolitical ills as well, all in the name of Western supremacy.
Of course the American right has latched onto Gu’s story. Ben Shapiro has posted about Gu, sarcastically suggesting that she move to China and “report back” on the regime. Conservative commentator Will Cain has used Tucker Carlson’s show to blast Gu’s decision, calling her an “ungrateful child” and claiming that she’s symbolic of how American corporations are also cozying up to China and betraying America in the Culture War®. There’s also right-wing shill Steven Crowder, who used a mocking Asian accent on his podcast while blaming Gu as a “traitor.”
But it’s not just the far-right that’s spread problematic ideas about Gu. The Economist leaped into her life story, attempting to decipher every decision made in her path to competing for China (naturally, they used a cringeworthy, racist image of Gu being picked up by a pair of chopsticks to illustrate her). And Slate ran a piece that relied on ham-fisted rhetoric about China and its various national sins in order to gauge whether Gu was an “Olympic Jerk” — a seemingly tongue-in-cheek article that unfortunately levies a lot of the same talking points spread on Fox News.
What’s more confounding is the disappointed, finger-wagging criticism she’s received from Asian voices in the diaspora, who seem to fixate on the notion of her choosing and building a career off of China as a slap in the face to their own narrative. It’s not merely that she chose to ski for a different nation, but a superpower that’s in conflict with America — and it’s a thorn in the side for those who are opposed to China’s communist regime.
There is plenty to critique about China’s domestic and international policies, including its treatment of the Hong Kong resistance movement and Uyghur muslims. But the fixation on Gu as any kind of symbol or geopolitical tool is wildly overblown — indeed, there are several Americans and Canadians, including hockey player Jake Chelios, who are competing on behalf of China in the Olympics. The fact that they’re not as popular as Gu hardly matters when it comes to questions of their character, loyalty and morality. But those questions simply aren’t being asked, at least not with the same anger and verve as the reaction to Gu, who has leaned into her Chinese identity by speaking Mandarin at interviews and talking at length about her grandmother’s love of China.
Naturally, there are also Asian men who, in between praising her success, are using Gu’s story to attack Asian-American feminism and portray it as an enemy of Asian men. In similar ways, they’ve used Gu to denigrate the activism of “boba liberals,” as well as to portray Gu as an important tool in a fight for Asian identity that she never signed up for. (A typical take: “We are celebrating her because she is Hapa. Her being Hapa is a much bigger slap to the face of US [sic] than if she was another AF [Asian female].”)
The logic covers the gamut of everything you can imagine men, including Asian MRAs, would say about a woman like Gu — including worrying that her popularity might trigger “white worship” among Asian women (her estranged father is white). Elsewhere, some are optimistic that she may “stir up conflicts” in mixed-race relationships, pointing to the hateful flood of comments from white men in Gu’s social media platforms.
The problem with all of this is that Gu shouldn’t be a pawn in the cultural fights around gender, race and national identity. Her meteoric rise isn’t indicative of anything other than the fact that privilege, talent and practice can create potential global stars out of teenagers. Instead, the media and the public have weaponized her ethnicity against her, creating a binary that she’s forced to just play off and ignore.
The politics of the Olympics have always been a disaster. Black American Jesse Owens may have become an icon for crushing Adolf Hitler’s thesis of Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Berlin games, but his four gold medals did nothing to stop the rise of Nazism in Europe, nor did it fix the segregationist policies that persisted in his own homeland. The notion that someone like Gu can even affect decades of existential geopolitics by flipping through the air on skis is, by any measure, an overestimation. (Nevermind that the U.S. is responsible for all kinds of atrocities, both at home and around the world, yet we don’t discuss the illegal occupation of Hawai’i or the persistence of torture at Guantanamo Bay or the government’s purposeful destabilization of the Middle East every time we discuss an American Olympian.)
Really, the problem is how an endemic paranoia of China, spurred on in recent years by constant Sinophobia from both political parties and the blaming of China for COVID, has birthed a full-on culture war — one that honed casual misogyny and racism to be levied against, say, a single popular 18-year-old. Having a dual ethnic identity is often challenging, but 2D impressions of a nation thousands of miles away are forcing Asians like Gu into a lose-lose fork in the road. We’re celebrated when we serve white American hegemony, and questioned if and when we refuse to play to expected outcomes.
I don’t pretend to understand why Gu ultimately chose to ski for China. Was it the endorsement deals? The warm embrace of the Chinese public? Bribes from the government? Does it really even matter? For now, I’m glad that Gu has the verve and youthful fuck-you attitude to deal with this. Perhaps one day she’ll renounce her decision. Perhaps one day she’ll move to China for good.
Either way, the discourse will remain toxic. Luckily for her, it’s only a matter of time before the hatred dissipates, ready to engulf another minority and relegate them to a metaphor.