It is ironic that while Gu and other sports figures of Asian origin such as Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis star, have received vitriolic reactions for their decision to represent countries other than the US, the attacks on Asian Americans, coinciding with frictions with an Asian country, continue unabated. As I have written elsewhere, during these moments, going back to World War II, Americans of Asian origin are seen as not “American” enough. It is almost as if Asian Americans cannot quite belong to this country as they are – both American and Asian.
At the heart of these fraught discussions is the fact that in the globalizing world that we live in, the concept of citizenship as being exclusively bound to the sovereign, territorially defined state and inclusive of one’s definition of identity is increasingly limiting. Porous borders, more frequent movements of people from one place to another, transnational economic exchange and instant communications – fundamental qualities of globalization – have led scholars and artists alike to question the exclusive notions of political sovereignty and corresponding expectations of citizenship.
When the controversy around Eileen Gu broke out, many Chinese Americans felt a sense of pride, not simply because she was one of them, but more because she gave voice to what many of them feel: both Chinese and American, without having to choose one or the other or put themselves in a binary, no matter how difficult that could be. Clearly for her, and millions of others, who call multiple countries home in our ever-shrinking world, the question of belonging is far more complex than the dichotomous notion of citizenship or identity Nikki Haley prefers.
Like my Chinese American brethren, I, too, was thrilled to hear Gu take pride in her multiple belongings. As I have articulated in my recent book, World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings, if we have learned anything from the catastrophe of Covid-19, it is the urgency of creating a culture of “us” rather than “us vs them”. The idea of a “collective culture” is not about annexing other people into one’s own, or demanding that newcomers integrate into an imagined idea of a national culture. It is more about recognizing the layers of belonging, based on a contextual understanding of one’s self. As Eileen Gu has tried to show in her life, it is about being Chinese and American, not choosing one over the other. Living with multiple belongings is confusing and conflict-ridden at times, but it is also exhilarating and necessary as we learn to go beyond exclusive notions of nationalities and think of ourselves as part of a global community of humans.