Chinese-American athletes: How Chinese are they?

From left, Chinese-American Olympians Gu, Zhu, Chen

Interesting reactions in both the US and in China to Olympic athletes who grew up in the US but whose families have roots in China. These individuals are often referred to as ABC’s: American-Born Chinese. As is true with immigrant groups in the US generally, Chinese-American families are diverse, from first generation families speaking mostly Chinese at home to long established families in the US, assimilated in many ways, to many stages in between. Yet, when ABC’s go to China, those distinctions are often not recognized or acknowledged. If you look Chinese, the expectation is frequently that you should not only be familiar with Chinese culture and customs (food for example), but also that you are able to speak Mandarin.

The expectations from the Chinese is the same for those athletes as for any ABC’s. So there has been severe criticism for those who don’t speak fluent Chinese, including Nathaniel Chen, who won gold in figure skating. The harshest criticism however, has been leveled at figure skater Zhu Yi, who gave up her American citizenship to represent China (and changed her name from Beverly Zhu). The attacks were in part a result of her poor performance at the Games, but also reflected her less than perfect Mandarin language skills. On the opposite end of the spectrum is San Francisco native and freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who also chose to compete for China (she is known as Gu Ailing in China). When she won gold last week, the congratulations pouring in temporarily crashed China’s leading social media platform, Weibo. Gu speaks Chinese fluently (reportedly with a Beijing accent) and also is well known as a fashion model and Internet influencer.

My experience in China is that if are foreign and don’t look Chinese, but speak some Chinese, even if poorly, you will be received very favorably. That’s been the case for me as a white American. If you speak Chinese fluently, as does my oldest son, Chinese people will be amazed and effusive in their praise. There is zero expectation that foreign tourists learn the language that popular opinion among Chinese themselves consider to be very difficult. However, if you look Chinese, the expectations are totally different.