Eileen Gu defies gravity. As an Olympian freestyle skier, her runs feature dizzying sets of jumps, flips, and tricks. What feels even more gravity-defying to me is her seeming ability to effortlessly float between her Chinese and American identities.
Although she was born and raised in San Francisco, Gu competes for her mother’s native China. To do so, the International Olympic Committee requires that she hold Chinese citizenship. But in spite of China’s ban on dual citizenship there is no government record of her renouncing her American citizenship. When asked about it, she’s given breezy nonanswers: “I’m American when I’m in the US and Chinese when I’m in China.” To one TikTok hater who questioned why she’d compete for China as a US-born athlete, she replied simply, “Cry ab it.” As a member of China’s Olympic team, Gu is now Chinese enough to be a major celebrity there, and her sponsorship deals with both Chinese and international companies have earned her millions in endorsement money.
She rejects any idea that she has to choose between them. For her, it seems self-evident how someone could be both.
In our current geopolitical context, however, being both Chinese and American isn’t so simple. Seen as perpetual foreigners, Chinese-Americans, like other Asian-Americans, face continual questions about their loyalty to the US. Now, with strained relations between the US and China, rising Chinese authoritarianism and human rights abuses, and anti-Asian hate crimes at an all time high across the US, it is a particularly fraught time to claim both Chinese and American identities.
Like Gu, I was born in California and spent my childhood between the US and China, where my parents grew up. Throughout my life, I’ve tried to find ways to pull together both parts of my identity, gathering a community of friends and relatives here and abroad and turning towards authors and historians to help me make sense of these questions. Untangling my Chinese-American identity has never been so hard as in recent years—an issue that came to a head when I had to renounce my Chinese citizenship in 2019.
Now, as a journalist reporting on workplace trends, I’ve gained a new perspective on the challenges Chinese-Americans, and Asian-Americans in general, face in professional workplaces. One phrase that’s always struck me is the call to bring your “authentic self” to work—a task that feels impossible for many Asian-American professionals who fear that they’ll be punished for their identities or seen just through the lens of stereotypes.
It’s a fear that’s only gotten worse. Throughout the Covid pandemic, or what president Trump referred to as the “Chinese virus,” Asian-Americans have reported high levels of discrimination in the workplace. One survey conducted in spring 2020 found that half of all Asian professionals experienced prejudice based on race related to the pandemic.
Of course, workplace discrimination against Asian-Americans isn’t new: A 2018 report on the tech industry found that while Asians were the largest racial cohort among professionals, they were the least likely among all races to become managers and executives. “We’re all struggling to figure out how we can get a fair shake in CEO roles,” says Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit and co-founder and CEO of Project Include, an organization advocating for greater diversity and inclusion in tech.
Being Chinese-American didn’t always seem so hard to me.
Growing up in a college town in Arkansas, I had no shortage of opportunities to be both Chinese and American. I spent weekend evenings at family friends’ houses, playing hide-and-go-seek and tag with other Chinese-American kids while our parents gossiped in Mandarin and played cards late into the night. I spent Sunday afternoons at Chinese school, practicing my reading and writing with dozens of other students, taught by parent volunteers. Like Gu, I spent summers in China, and though I had those classic doubts about being American enough or Chinese enough, in those years I never felt like I had to choose one or the other.
I didn’t really have to until 2019, after I graduated college. Through a university fellowship, I was set to spend a year in China researching the country’s early childhood education system. But it was three years into Trump’s administration, and tensions between the two countries were high. Before I left, I had older Chinese-American relatives call me to talk me out of it, worried that my time in China would convince future employers of my status as a perpetual foreigner, closing doors for me down the line in my career.
I went anyway, excited for an opportunity to live and work in China as an adult—a place I had only been before as a visitor during summer vacations planned by other people. Even after I got there, though, I felt like I had to continually justify why I belonged as an American. When they found out where I grew up, cab drivers would constantly challenge me about America’s gun policy, racial violence, or president Trump’s aggressive rhetoric towards China. I felt like I didn’t belong even among well-meaning friends and colleagues when they pointed out an error in a written message or corrected my spoken Mandarin.
Then I found out about my dual citizenship.
Unbeknownst to me or my parents, I had retained Chinese citizenship throughout my life in spite of being born in the US because of the timing of my parents’ green cards, and I only found out as officials were processing my application for a yearlong residency permit a month after my arrival for my fellowship. Because of China’s ban on dual citizenship, and the infeasibility of giving up my American citizenship, I renounced my Chinese citizenship—just days after I found out I held it.
In many ways, giving up my Chinese citizenship was an easy decision. I had spent 21 years without it. Still, as I signed the papers, I felt a sense of loss. By giving up my status as a Chinese citizen, I felt that I was partly severing my claim to my Chinese identity. It brought up all the times I couldn’t quite find the word in Mandarin, all the cultural references I missed when talking to Chinese friends and relatives, and all the family members in China I would go years without seeing.
Two-and-a-half years later, I’m still not entirely sure what my decision to renounce my citizenship means for my identity. Like many Chinese-Americans, I’m still untangling for myself my relationships to the two sets of communities, histories, and states that gives me this hyphenated identity. That’s the part of defining an authentic self that is so tricky: It requires learning how to embrace the parts of ourselves that are complex, messy, and contradictory—and trusting that others will accept us for them.
To be sure, building workplaces that allow Asian-American and other BIPOC professionals to feel safe bringing their full selves to work is a separate task from the work we do to define our authentic selves. It requires workplace leaders, many of whom are not Asian-American, to act. Asian-American and other BIPOC professionals need more from their workplaces, from investments in mentorship and sponsorship to more transparent, robust career ladders, and compensation.
But as my generation of Chinese-Americans—for whom embracing the authentic self means rejecting an assimilationist ethic—looks to define our own identities, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from Gu. Perhaps she’s right—we shouldn’t have to choose between being Chinese or being American. Maybe there’s no inherent contradiction there.
But for those of us who aren’t gold-medal-winning Olympians, the question remains: When will the day come when we, too, can pull it off?