American-born freeskier and two-time Olympic champion Eileen Gu has been drawing heavy fire for her decision to leave the U.S. Ski Team in 2019 to compete for China at the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Gu, whose mother is Chinese, made the decision to compete for China instead of the U.S. because of her deep connection with her Chinese heritage, cultivated during the summers she spent in Beijing, and because of her mission to inspire millions of young people in China as a multinational role model.
Only 18 years old, Gu has made 35 million dollars in endorsements and sponsorships and is the face of 30 Chinese and Western companies like Cadillac, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Oakley and Visa.
Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and comedian Bill Maher slammed Gu for representing a country with a history of human rights abuses. A former U.S. teammate called Gu “opportunistic” for accepting multimillion-dollar endorsements her own country didn’t offer.
As an American raised in LA by Filipino immigrant parents, Gu’s decision resonates with me. At 52 years old, due to my need to enrich my biculturalism, the dearth of opportunities to nurture and express my authentic Filipino American voice, and the realization that I had been drinking the Kool-aid of the American Dream, I broke up with America and moved to Paris in November 2021.
“I was unwaveringly loyal to the United States of America and its ideals of meritocracy. Ultimately, this loyalty was not fully reciprocated.”
Striving to attain my American Dream all my life, I once religiously immersed myself into being an All-American. I was born in Flushing, New York, and my parents prioritized my assimilation into U.S. culture over my Filipino heritage. I became a stereotypical American kid of the ’80s, engrossed in American everything, whether it was sports, video games, movies or American pop music.
Appropriately, America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, was my favorite football team. I played Little League-brand baseball, then became a gymnast after watching Team USA win the men’s gold in the 1984 Olympics, which led me to attend West Point for college gymnastics and an economics degree. Most of my friends were white, and I dated mostly white girls.
While I didn’t douse myself in talcum powder like my sister to see what I looked like as a white person, I was a classic “surrogate white” (as defined by Chinese American journalist Helen Zia).
Except I was indelibly yellow-brown. In elementary school, sometimes I’d get called a “nip,” “chink” or “gook.” Sometimes even the N-word because I looked more “Blasian” than Asian. But I never considered it bullying. I thought everyone was being called names.
I was unwaveringly loyal to the United States of America and its ideals of meritocracy. Ultimately, this loyalty was not fully reciprocated.
Whether in my short stint as an Army officer or in my 20-year Hollywood film career, I constantly fell short in my chase for greatness. I was conditioned to believe my shortcomings were the reason so many of my white American peers passed me by, though many of them didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps with the same intensity I did. I was a workaholic, often putting in 70 to 80 hours a week, but that didn’t protect me from being expendable. Caught in the model minority stereotype, when I pushed for a promotion, I was often dismissed.
Visiting the Philippines for the first time at 51, I discovered in Manila what Gu likely experienced during her Beijing summers: a genuine connection with my heritage. In a Manila shopping mall, I noticed that hundreds of people looked and behaved similarly to me. In the middle of the mall, I was overcome with a surge of tears, experiencing a tranquility I had never felt before.
In the 50-some years of my life in America, typically as the only Filipino person in the room, I often felt ... separate, maybe unassured. Perhaps less whole. What heights had I missed because of my blind loyalty to America, where I wasn’t fully seen? I wondered.
Moments like these brought to light the adverse impact that the color of my skin and my heritage played in my American Dream. I retraced the times I fell short of my ambitions. I realized that going All-American was not the way to my dreams.
“Visiting the Philippines for the first time at 51, I discovered in Manila what Gu likely experienced during her Beijing summers: a genuine connection with my heritage.”
Except for a lingering sense of feeling somewhat alien among my peers, the discrimination was at an undetectable dog-whistle frequency. Knowledge wasn’t passed on to me, nor was I given backdoor access to opportunity. I was artificially held to much higher standards than my peers. I certainly didn’t have the same supportive community that they had.
The Hollywood gatekeepers didn’t want my authentic voice as an American and Filipino man. They wanted the whitewashed versions of a one-size-fits-all Asian American voice that was digestible to mainstream American audiences. Though I gave it the All-American try, whitewashing my voice never felt right for me.
I wasn’t fully embraced in the Filipino community, either. Take, for instance, when I didn’t understand a Filipino museum guard speaking Tagalog to me. Disgusted, he sniped: “Those Filipinos who don’t know their roots, sleep with the rats.”
I suffered from cultural schizophrenia.
But there were five months of time in Paris between 2016 and 2018, at the end of my 40s, when I felt wholly connected with myself; when I learned to fully embrace both my American personality and my Filipino DNA. Due to France’s proximity to many other countries, the Parisians have a more acute appreciation for cultural diversity. From these Paris trips, I finally came to appreciate that I’m Filipino and American.
Gu said that competing for China gave her an “unimaginable amount of viewership to be able to spread this message” to millions of girls in China and around the world.
For reasons similar reasons to Gu’s, I redefined my allegiance to America and sought a new home beyond its borders. For me, it’s Paris, a more multinational platform from which to express my authentic voice while being immersed in the richness of a cultural diversity that does not exist in the U.S.
Part of the immigrant tax we pay even as first-generation Americans is that we are expected to unequivocally assimilate to the American way of life, which, as a Filipino American, came at the cost of feeling invisible and downplaying my authentic self for much of my life. Instead of being lauded for earning my keep, I was often told that “I was lucky” and to accept whatever crumbs from the table I was given. No longer.
Like Gu, I am the New American. Not just American or Chinese, but a multinational, a world citizen. I will always have a deep pride for my American upbringing and Filipino heritage, but I no longer define myself by either.
Just as Eileen Gu declared at the Olympics, “I am out here living my best life,” sans borders.