Jason Tseng

Yellow Peril: A Chinese American's Olympic Struggle

Filed By Jason Tseng | August 19, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: America, Amy Tan, Beijing Olympics, Chinese gays and lesbians, Olympics, racism

In case you haven't noticed, I'm Chinese. I'm also American. I won't go into a whole Amy Tan-esque lament of intercultural limbo, as I think (or at least hope) the difficulties of Chinese-Americans to find cultural solace in a country that constantly excludes and "others" them, is well enough established within our national consciousness. If not, go read The Joy Luck Club or something and get back to me.

But with the whole media fervor over the Beijing Olympics and this semiotic cold war war being waged between the US and China over medals has got me in a bit of an emotional predicament. Whom do I root for?

I'm very conflicted over which nation my sport spectator support should lie. On one hand, I grew up in America, my family has been here since the railroads (The American West was built by yellow hands, btw. Not Roy Rogers and Davey Crockett). On the other hand, I grew up with a distinct understanding that I was, in fact, Chinese. Set apart from my White American friends. I had a culture.* I had a heritage. And I had yellow skin and almond eyes. And because of that, I would and could never be a real American.

As a Chinese American, growing up non-white, but not black, in a nation with a racial politic so polarized from it's history of the enslavement of millions of Africans, you get used to being excluded. Not only excluded from institutions held and controlled by white-folk, but also from conversations about race relations in this nation, which almost inevitably melt into a rabid, foaming pool of black vs. white.

This is only compounded by the notion that Asians have "made it" and can no longer be considered "disadvantaged" because by some miracle of the Asian community's resilience and self-determination, it has been able to position itself within highly skilled and status fields like science, medicine, math, and law.

This is despite the long history of racist anti-Asian, specifically anti-Chinese, U.S. Immigration policies that sought to effectively wipe out the Chinese American populations by prohibiting the entrance of Chinese women into the country, creating "bachelor communities" of Chinese men, who could not, by law, marry white women and could not bring their Chinese wives to the states. The US government sought to exploit cheap labor from the Chinese, yet withhold the crucial benefits of American citizenship. In fact, the Chinese were the first and only group of people deemed officially undesirable by American immigration policy, and systematically excluded by Congress. All of that suddenly changed with the advent of Pearl Harbor and a need for an Asian ally against Japan.

In many ways, I see parallels with this recent surge in interest in China and Chinese culture in this time of a plummeting dollar, a Chinese middle class larger than the entire US population, the creation of a new Chinese superpower, and - of course - the Olympic Games hosted in Beijing. All the sudden, everyone wants to know about China. What do we eat? How to speak our language? How many of us are there?

Why the sudden fascination folks? It's not like we've been in your country, living next to you, serving you General Tso's Chicken and other bastardized-American-versions of our food, for the past... oh hundred years or so. It's because for the first time, in a long time, the big bad American bully has found someone who'll push back.

So excuse me for questioning the sincerity of America's newfound interest in my "home country." Call me bitter, but I'm still sore over getting denied a "minority scholarship" to college because, evidently, Asians aren't considered a "minority" any more. I'm still not over the fact that my grandfather was denied his rightful diploma from an unnamed Ivy-league University over the color of this skin. And I'm still upset at the fact that the Gay community is hauntingly and disturbingly white-centric.

Maybe when the GWMs figure out that pesky "no femmes, no fats, no Asians" sexual racism stuff, and when school kids can start learning of the Opium War as the West running a drug cartel which devastated a nation, or when the Rape of Nanking finally gets recognized for the genocide that it was... maybe then I'll feel less bad about that little pang of pride when a Chinese athlete wins a gold and the American has to settle for silver.

Please note:

I am by no means trying to gloss over the faults of China in its own history. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, alone, are horrifying enough. That isn't even including the Great Firewall, censorship, suppression of civil rights, disappearances of political opponents, involvement in Darfur, etc. But... I think it's a little hypocritical of Americans to point all the fingers and try to paint China as the new axis of evil... when we've got a whole bunch of atoning to do before we should do any blaming.

* I do not mean to imply that white people don't have culture. They do and it is pervasive, but often made invisible by it's supposed "normalcy."

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I think it's really simple. Root for the athletes, regardless of what country they are from. They are the ones who have dedicated themselves to their sport. They are the ones who are receiving the honors and they deserve our applauds. Let the governments do the posturing. Let's just enjoy the games.

I don't think rooting for the Chinese athletes is any big deal, honestly. I've found myself urging on athletes from other countries just because I found them interesting, cute or talented. And if I were in your shoes? I'd be cheering both countries on and taking the best of both worlds while you can!

Gee... with the caveat that I'm not Chinese, so I don't really know what that feels like, I can only extrapolate through analogy.

I don't think Jewish Americans root for Israel in the Olympics, or individual Jewish athletes regardless of nationality, just because they're Jewish.

I don't think Irish Americans root for Ireland in the Olympics. (Well, maybe if it's in a team sport against the UK ;-)

I think rooting isn't necessarily worthy of a guiding philosophy. Just root for whom you like - whatever the reason. I have been known to root for the women who I thought were dykes. Others root for people they think are hot. There's a whole category of people who root for whomever is the underdog. Some root for the archrival of the favorite of someone else in their family, just to piss them off.

But I think the underlying point is that in spite of your nationality and personal history that on some level you don't feel comfortable in your own country.

I suppose (to continue the analogy) that's comparable to European Jews in previous centuries who lived in those countries, but were not *of* those countries. Of course they were afraid for their lives. I trust that the analogy doesn't go that far; but it is sad.