An Olympic model minority? | Inquirer
Emil Amok!

An Olympic model minority?

/ 11:05 AM February 21, 2022

Did Winter Olympics gold medalist Eileen Gu add to the model minority myth? Well, she is a model. REUTERS

Did Winter Olympics gold medalist Eileen Gu add to the model minority myth? Well, she is a model. REUTERS

And now we find ourselves out of Olympic games and into the real geopolitical games that may or may not include a  global war.

We’ll see whether Ukraine becomes the new Uyghurs. You’ll recall the Uyghur Muslim minority silenced, reeducated and repressed by China. That’s why the U.S. and Australia staged a diplomatic boycott of these games. Human rights matters.


What did Russia and China do in response? Putin and President Xi staged a photo op at the opening ceremonies, then Putin left before the doping scandal of the Russian 15-year-old skating phenom Kamila Valieva blew up in his face. It was nothing less than Russian Olympic child abuse. Still, it was nothing compared to what China’s done to the Uyghurs.

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And now the games are over and Russia has its sights set on Ukraine. How will NATO, including the U.S., respond once the mounting tension breaks and the world goes down the slopes of war?

We’ll see. But first, let us consider the close of the games.

Asa Miller, an Asian American Filipino from Portland, Oregon, was the lone Olympian for the Philippines at the Winter Games in Beijing.

He is typical of the dual nationality athlete. Miller, a downhill skier didn’t even finish his two runs. It wasn’t an embarrassment. Look at Mikaela Shiffrin, the best U.S. skiier who couldn’t get it together in these games. Miller represented and had fun.

But he’s no Ailing (Eileen) Gu, who was the same kind of dual athlete for China. Except she won three medals, two golds and a silver, and left the games as one of the most storied of these winter games.

Gu is what my old pal Corky Lee would call an ABC, “American Born Chinese.” I call her an ABC-T, “American-born, Chinese Team.”


What we need now is clarity. From China and from Gu. Until we hear, all Gu’s gold is more like an Olympic blur.

And that spells trouble for us regular Asian Americans, even us Asian American Filipinos,  at a time when clear distinctions are needed between an Asian in America and Americans in Asia.

Otherwise you have people like Sherry Chen, the Chinese immigrant and former U.S. hydrologist whose life in America was destroyed when she was suspected of spying for China.

And then there are rank-and-file Asian Americans, like me. Citizens at birth. Born here. Natives. Voting Americans. Add all our permanent residents, the “green card” holders, some studying hard to be citizens, ready to take the oath to become proud Americans.

And then add to that, our undocumented, many of them young people,  some who may or may not be covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. They’re here, they pay taxes, they yearn for a pathway to citizenship.

All of us are Asian Americans. And yet when people can’t get past our skin color, our accents (or non-accents), or get hung up by our appearance, they still don’t see us as fully American in our own country.

That’s a problem. We can’t flash an Olympic medal and everything’s OK. What we have is the “perpetual foreigner” problem perpetuated by Gu. Not nice.

What Gu did

But first let’s revel in the glory of Gu. By virtue of the Winter Olympics, Gu now becomes a household name–and not just in Asian and Asian American households where the rice cooker is going 24-7.

She is one of the most watchable people of Chinese descent on the planet. And we will be watching her for a long, long time.

You don’t get birthed into the world’s consciousness winning three Olympic medals at 18 years of age and call it a life. As they say, “Wait…there’s more.”

After smashing the field in just the qualifying round for the women’s freestyle half-pipe last Wednesday, Gu was quite candid. “I’m not going all out either,” she told NBC. “I have a few more tricks.”

And then she came back Thursday night and smashed the competition again. She was so dominant after the first run with a 93.25 that she didn’t have to bother doing another. But she did. And beat herself good with a 95.25.

When the last competitor failed to beat that, Gu was on the top of the hill and went to her knees and cried.

It has been an incredible Olympics for her, winning the first event, the freestyle Big Air, after being in third place and deciding to go all out to win with a left-side double-cork 1620.

Which, incidentally, was better than her 1580 SAT score. Oh, and did you hear she’s going to Stanford?

Earlier this week was her second event, the freestyle Slope-style, a run peppered with rails and pipes and ramps all downhill. In a sport where you win by not falling down, on the third rail, Gu fell. How do you say “oops” in Mandarin?

Gu slid into her own cloud of snow and then slowly got up. Humbling? Or re-energizing?

On her final attempt in the slope style, aficionados of freestyle would say she “stomped one out,” a clean and daring run that earned her an 86.23. If only this were horseshoes. It was 34/one-hundredths of a point from taking the lead. But good enough for silver.

Tiger Moms everywhere were saying, “Hmm…not gold?” And then came the half-pipe on Thursday night. One of just two free-style skiers to enter all three events, she had medaled in all. Two golds. One silver.

The half-pipe was like the dominant performances in these Olympics of Nathan Chen in ice skating, and Chloe Kim in the snowboard half-pipe. They were all vastly so much the best.

And so typically Asian to overachieve. Did Gu add to the model minority myth? Well, she is a model.

After her short cry, Gu got back up and turned the monstrous half-pipe into her fashion runway. A beauty run. At the bottom of the hill, she talked like a San Franciscan circa 1967.

“It is mind-blowing, I’m honestly very exhausted,” she told NBC. Then she revealed how she overcame any sense of fatigue. “I’m huge on mind games, so I kind of almost say to myself as a self-affirming way of being in denial, so like I’m not tired. I’m feeling fresh. I’m energized. Of course, I’m tired. I’m exhausted. All I want to do now is lay in a little dark room, put my phone in airplane mode. Just for days and days and days. But I’m so, so happy.”

Ah, yes, but the question we need answered is about representing her mother’s homeland, and not her own. That pesky citizenship question.

We all need to know with clarity. Because China doesn’t allow for dual citizenship and the Olympics requires one to be a national or citizen of a competing country. Gu’s name doesn’t appear on the Federal Register as renouncing her citizenship.

It makes a difference. Because if she did, then the Olympic hero is a defector.

Hero or defector?

Defector is a tough word by definition. The standard dictionary definition calls a defector “a person who has abandoned their country or cause in favor of an opposing one.”

Gu has said her cause has been the hope of inspiring and unifying the world through sport.

“I’m not trying to solve political problems right now,” she said before her half-pipe win on Thursday. “My biggest goal is for some girl to be sitting at home watching free-skiing for the first time thinking, ‘Maybe that could be me some day.’ Maybe she sees someone who looks like her doing it and thinks, ‘Hey I can do that, too.’”

But did she have to give up her U.S. citizenship to do that?

Chinese state media, a propaganda tool, has said Gu became a Chinese national at age 15, which means she had to renounce and defect then. But who notices when a 15-year-old defects?

The problem now is Gu won’t confirm it when asked. She’ll say she is American when she’s in America. Chinese when she’s in China.

But normal people can’t have it both ways. Ask anyone in China if they are truly free. Ask the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Ask the tennis star Peng Shuai. Ask the Chinese woman on social media who pleaded for Gu to tell the world about internet censorship in China. Gu responded anyone can get a VPN. (Not true.) China censored the exchange.

So far, Gu’s best answer to the citizenship question came last week at an Olympic press conference.

“I’m using my voice to create as much positive change as I can for the voices who will listen to me in an area that is personal and relevant to myself. So I know that I have a good heart, and I know that my reasons for making the decisions I do are based on a greater common interest and something that I feel like is for the greater good.”

Did she sound like a good humanitarian? I just want people to take up “aux sports d’hiver?” Let’s all slide downhill together?

But then she got defensive and, as they say, stomped one out.

“And if people don’t really believe that that’s where I’m coming from, then that just reflects that they do not have the empathy to empathize with a good heart perhaps because they don’t share the same kind of morals I do.”

And now that she mentions morals, do we ask her about the Uyghurs? She went on.

“I’m not going to waste my time to placate people who are one, uneducated, and two, probably are never going to experience the kind of joy and gratitude and just love, that I have the great fortune to experience on a daily basis. So, yeah, if people don’t believe me, and if people don’t like me, then that’s their loss. They’re never gonna win the Olympics.”

Mic-drop or revealing?

Yes, I’m not going to win the Olympics. But I’m not a Gu hater. I’m a San Francisco native like Gu. And I’m an Asian American, like I hope she might still be.

Usually, we hear of defectors going from other countries to America. Defectors going from the U.S. to a foreign country isn’t that common, though it happens.

Usually, it’s for financial reasons. People don’t want to pay U.S. taxes. Corporations do it all the time. Maybe she’s skiing as Ailing (Eileen) Gu, the person. But she’s really Eileen Gu, Inc.

Is that why Gu is so evasive? Report says she made $31.4 million last year primarily from modeling and endorsements, and all without three Olympic medals. Her mom Yan is a Stanford Business School-educated venture capitalist who knows a thing or two about bridging East and West.

Maybe she’s set up her daughter to get special treatment from the Chinese as she ascends. Elites in the party usually get perks. Maybe it’s Gu’s job to be the Uber Capitalist, above it all–including politics.

Hong Kong was “One Country, Two Systems,” until Beijing cracked down. Gu may be a paraphrase. “One Person, Two Countries.” But probably more China?

That’s why it would be nice to hear from Gu directly. Did she renounce America at 15? Did she understand what that meant? And if not, would that make her in a way like the other big story of these Winter Games, the Russian 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, who stumbled off the podium in the midst of a doping scandal. Who was protecting Valieva’s real interests?

All I know is “three Olympic medals” sounds a whole lot more likable than “defector.”  But as the Olympics end, to where does Gu go home?

In the meantime, we thank Gu for the fallout. Anytime people see you as an Asian American, they will naturally have to wonder. Immigrant, native born, it’s the same as it ever was in America.

Are you a real American? Do you feel in democracy and freedom and all the things they have in America but in nowhere else? It makes a difference. Especially when the games are done, and a war seems about to begin.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist, critic and commentator. He writes his column for the Inquirer North American bureau. He does a talk show on Watch it live at 2p Pacfic M-F, on his Emil Guillermo YouTube Channel; On Facebook; On Twitter @emilamok.

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