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Asians Break Boundaries at Olympics, But Still Face Age-Old Tropes of ‘Loyalty’

Four years after winning gold in PyeongChang, South Korea, snowboarder Chloe Kim defended her Olympic crown in the women’s halfpipe in Beijing last week. Hours later, Nathan Chen became the first Asian American to win gold in men’s figure skating, cementing his status as the most dominant skater of the past four years.

The landmark victories of the two young phenoms – who have become the literal faces of the US Olympic contingent – ​​have given many Asian Americans a sense of pride to see someone like them on the podium. But even with the historic victories, experts say, many of the narratives surrounding Asian American athletes at the Olympics have played into the tropes of good immigrants and bad immigrants.

“The good values ​​of immigrants”

Rachael Miyung Joo, associate professor of American studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and author of “Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea,” said Asian American athletes have long been under pressure to swear allegiance. in the United States, which may date back to the early 20th century, before the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“In this historical context, Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim were hailed as unmistakably American,” Joo said.

Kim and Chen’s stories align with what Joo described as “good immigrant values.” At the past two Winter Olympics, they have spoken openly about the sacrifices their hardworking, self-sufficient parents made in pursuit of their Olympic dreams — Kim’s father, Jong Jin, quit his job to help him achieve its potential; Chen credited his mother, Hetty Wang, with driving him thousands of miles in their “trusty little Prius” to support his career.

“They are definitely right to mention their support networks that brought them here,” Joo said. “These expressions of gratitude are an expectation for immigrants and for the American public – a demonstration that the United States continues to be the country with the most opportunity and the most freedom.”

Questioning loyalty

As political tensions between the United States and China rise, Joo said, the issue of loyalty also goes the other way. Freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who won gold in big air freestyle skiing and silver in slopestyle at the Olympics, and figure skater Zhu Yi are Chinese-American athletes who have chosen to represent host country China , even though they were born in California. their decisions have been used to question the loyalty of Asian Americans.

Although Gu has always refused to choose one country over another, her triumph, in particular, has put her decision to represent China – her mother’s homeland – under the microscope, with some calling her a “cretin” and a “traitor” and others arguing that she is not the first US-born athlete to compete under another flag.

The dichotomy is also pervasive in China. Gu has been hailed for her fluency in Mandarin and hailed as a national hero, but Zhu, who fell in her first two Olympic performances, received a torrent of abuse on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where some users l accuse him of bringing “shame” to his adopted country. (After his victory on Friday, Chen was branded a “traitor” for “insulting China” and representing the United States in international competition.)

The differential treatment of the three athletes shows how Chinese Americans are under constant scrutiny, forcing them to straddle the growing geopolitical divide on both sides.

Christina Chin, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton, and co-editor of “Asian American Sporting Cultures,” noted that, like many other Olympic athletes of color, Asian American athletes don’t will never be solely defined by sport. they play nor by the countries they represent. Instead, they will “always be viewed through a racial lens, which may add additional pressures for these athletes to represent their racial or ethnic community internationally.”

Gu and Yi “had to navigate a difficult balancing act to represent both their Chinese and American identities in order to appease their fan base in both countries,” Chin said. “Meanwhile, white American players who compete for Chinese hockey teams have not received the same level of criticism or backlash from the public. Gu and Yi’s challenges show how the lines of nationality, race and ethnicity are inextricably linked to the Olympics.

Break down barriers anyway

Still, Chen and Kim’s international success has the potential to challenge age-old stereotypes and foster a legacy of inclusion, given the historical control and exclusion of athletes of Asian descent, experts said.

“Because Asian Americans are often underrepresented in other major sports leagues, the Olympics provide a brief opportunity where Asian American athletes can challenge racialized assumptions and stereotypes that Asian bodies are too frail, weak or unathletic,” Chin said. “Their impressive performances on the ice and in the halfpipe are causing people to reconsider these racist assumptions, which is helping to reshape the way Asian Americans are viewed not just in sports, but in society at large. “

Winter sports have long suffered from a lack of diversity, Chin said, but Asian Americans have been able to carve out spaces for active participation and even success, especially in figure skating, a sport predominantly white until the 1990s.

In 1985, Tiffany Chin became the first Asian American to win the national title – the first such victory by a non-white skater at the senior level. Seven years later, two-time world champion Kristi Yamaguchi became the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Michelle Kwan won two Olympic medals to go along with her five world titles and nine national titles. Their success paved the way for future generations, who feel galvanized to embrace their Asian heritage on and off the ice.

It’s also the relativity of these athletes, many of whom identify as second-generation Americans, that makes them so compelling, Joo said. “They are open about their struggles and struggles, and they openly appreciate their families and support networks. They are also open about their expressions of love for the country, and there is total authenticity about it. … This visibility means a lot to Asian Americans.

But while these exceptional athletes could find themselves at the top of their sport, they are not immune to “racism and vitriol from the wider community,” said Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at the San Francisco State University.

Asian American athletes face even greater challenges representing Asian America when their communities are viewed as perpetual outsiders, Jeung said. In half of the incidents reported to his nonprofit, Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans have faced xenophobic comments, so Asian American athletes “face the double bind of not belong and then have to prove they belong to America”.

Victoria Chun, director of athletics at Yale University, where Nathan Chen is completing his undergraduate degree in statistics and data science, said, “I think Asian Americans will always feel pressure to represent their culture. . That pressure starts early in life and it’s something you carry with you…but there’s also inspiration and pride in yourself and in your culture, nationality and sport.

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