CORRECTION: A previous version of this column misstated that Nathan Chen’s short program performance was Rocket Man-themed. His free skate performance included the song, not his short program. This column has been updated.
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Last week, I watched American figure skater Karen Chen flit across the ice during her Olympic free skate to the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto, one of the only well-known masterpieces of Chinese orchestral music. Chen is American-born and raised, but she skated to Chinese music. She also paid tribute to one of the greatest Chinese figure skaters of all time, Chen Lu, whose final Olympics in 1998 also ended with the same music in a similar purple dress.
This beautiful program reminded me of the complicated nature of dual identities. As much as Karen Chen is an American representing the U.S., she is still Chinese American (I’ll be using Chinese in this context to refer to ethnicity and culture, rather than nationality). Whether implicitly or explicitly, her individual actions are both American and Chinese.
Karen Chen isn’t the only Chinese American representing the U.S. at the Olympics this year. In singles figure skating alone, there’s also Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou and Alysa Liu. But there are Chinese Americans who are also competing for China.
The country these athletes are officially representing doesn’t really mean much when their training and expression reflect both China and the U.S. Though nationality is inherently a political subject, it’s not a simple binary. These young Chinese American Olympic athletes are viewed through the lens of their loyalty to their nationality and culture, but it’s not fair to judge them on their real or perceived relationships to those aspects of their identities. No one, especially not teenagers who are still in their prime, ambition-chasing years, should be exploited by politics or geopolitical fighting.
Figure skater Zhu Yi and freestyle skier Eileen Gu are both American-born and raised but are representing China in the 2022 Olympics. Zhu, a 19-year-old from California who became a Chinese citizen to compete for China at the Olympics, fell twice during her short program skate. Immediately, Chinese social media flooded with messages criticizing her apparent lack of connection to Chinese culture and language, implying that she, as an American-born Chinese person, is a foreigner who stole spots from native-born skaters.
On the opposite extreme, Chinese social media platform Weibo crashed from all the praises 18-year-old Gu received after winning gold in big air freestyle skiing. Gu is widely loved by the Chinese public, likely because unlike Zhu, Gu is fluent in Mandarin and appears to be more connected to Chinese culture. However, some Americans question why she chose to compete for China after representing the U.S. in major competitions throughout 2019. Here, some believe she’s “betrayed” the U.S. and should not be allowed back in the country — which is frankly ridiculous.
For people who aren’t Chinese American or some other dual identity, I can understand where all this misunderstanding comes from. Some individuals are surely more Americanized than others.
Gu, Zhu, Chen and every other Chinese American is as much American as I am. And we are equally Chinese. It doesn’t matter how little Chinese we speak or the color of our passports — it doesn’t change who our parents are or our experiences growing up in the U.S.
Obviously, Gu and Yi trained in the U.S. Even if they officially represent China, their presence reflects American training and coaching styles. Karen Chen and Zhou skated to Chinese music. And I know Nathan Chen’s free skate performance outfit is supposed to be Rocket Man themed, but it really looks like a modernist take on the Chinese flag.
It’s completely unfair to use these young athletes as geopolitical tools when they didn’t volunteer to be part of it. The Olympics should be as apolitical of an event as possible. It’s a beautiful international celebration of creativity and hard work, not a U.N. summit.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t encourage young people to get involved with politics, but we really need to take a step back and remember why politics is important in the first place. We stress the importance of getting involved in politics because it’s a tool for people to control their lives and pursue happiness, but teenagers’ pursuit of happiness should not be leveraged as geopolitical tools.
Young people should be able to choose to become politically involved, not thrown into it by the media or governments.
Jessica Ye is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. She can be reached at email@example.com.