BEIJING (AP) — When Madison Chock looks out here in the Chinese capital, the U.S. Olympic ice dancer sees glimpses of herself.
“Every time I’m on the bus, I look out and study the city and imagine my roots are here, my ancestors are here,” says Chock, whose father is Chinese-Hawaiian, with family ties to rural China. . “And it’s a very cool sense of belonging in a way, just to be on the same ground that your ancestors grew up on and spent their lives on.”
She adds, “It’s really special, and China holds a really special place in my heart.”
At the Beijing Winter Games, which open on Friday, it’s a kind of homecoming for one of the world’s most sprawling diasporas – often gentle and sometimes complicated, but always a reflection of who they are, where they come from and the Olympic spirit itself.
The modern Chinese diaspora dates back to the 16th century, says Richard T. Chu, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Its members range from drivers of the colonial economy and labor on land and sea, to highly educated people who moved away for a chance at greater prosperity, to unwanted baby girls adopted across the internationally during the government’s one-child policy.
“The Chinese diaspora is really quite diverse, as long as they maintain their sincerity,” Chu says. “There is not just one type of Chinese identity because each country has a unique history.”
The issue of Chinese ethnic identity is particularly sensitive for athletes with roots in Hong Kong and Taiwan. American female figure skater Karen Chen, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, says she identifies as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and uses those labels loosely and interchangeably.
Taiwan, which broke away from the mainland after a 1949 civil war that propelled the current Chinese government to power, is an island of 24 million people off China’s east coast. It functions in many ways like a country with its own government and military. But China claims Taiwan as its territory and only 14 countries recognize Taiwan as a nation. Most nations of the world, including the United States, have formal ties with China instead.
Chen’s self-identification is not uncommon among Taiwanese, as many trace their heritage to mainland China. Some 32% of islanders identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese, according to an annual survey by National Taipei Chengchi University.
While in Beijing, she’s committed to speaking Mandarin as much as possible and is proud to nod to her on-ice heritage.
“My free program is ‘Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto’, which is such a famous and classic piece that comes from China…it’s kind of a Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet,” says Karen Chen. “It’s definitely connected to my background.”
The many athletes of Chinese origin present here at the Beijing Games represent the many variations of the diaspora: some are one, two or more generations away; others are biracial and multicultural.
And even similar paths can diverge on the Olympic stage. For example, Nathan Chen and Eileen Gu are two star athletes in the Winter Games. While both were born and raised in the United States by Chinese immigrants and have fond memories of spending time in their ancestral homeland, Chen is competing for Team USA as a medal contender in men’s singles figure skating, and Gu is the top freestyle skier competing for China.
Gu raised her eyebrows to have moved on to the Chinese team after training with the American team, but the San Francisco native – who is fluent in Mandarin and takes annual trips to China with her mother – is lucid about how she defines herself.
“When I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” Gu told the Olympic Channel in 2020. “When I’m in the United States, I’m American.”
For some, the Beijing Olympics are their first time in China, an unforgettable professional achievement as well as a very personal milestone.
This is the case of the American figure skater Alysa Liu, whose father Arthur Liu also aspires to visit China. The elder Liu left his home country in his twenties as a political refugee because he protested against the communist government after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
“I so want to go to the Games and go back to China to visit my hometown,” Arthur Liu said in a phone interview from his home base in California. “I so want to go back to the village where I grew up, to go to high school where I went, to college where I went. I so want to go and eat spicy noodles by the Street.
Arthur Liu eventually settled in the Bay Area, enrolled in law school, and nurtured one of America’s most promising athletes. Now her Chinese-American daughter is set to make her Olympic debut in women’s singles. He has no qualms about her competing in the Olympics in China, and no resentment towards a home country he still loves.
Like many biracial children, Alyssa Liu wondered why she didn’t look like her parents when she always identified as ethnically Chinese. Arthur Liu and his then wife, who is also Chinese, decided to have children through surrogacy and sought white egg donors because Arthur Liu considered himself a citizen of the world and wanted biracial children.
In a culture that can be xenophobic, Arthur Liu says his daughter is warmly welcomed by her home country, while Chinese fans and media see Alyssa Liu as one of their own.
“I am very happy that the Chinese welcome her and think highly of her,” says Arthur Liu.
The Olympics will also be the first time that Josh Ho-Sang, the multiracial and multicultural Canadian ice hockey player, will visit China.
His paternal great-grandfather moved from mainland China to what is now Hong Kong for business opportunities, then fell in love while vacationing in Jamaica, making the Canadian hockey team an eighth Chinese. On his mother’s side, Ho-Sang’s heritage is rooted in European, South American and Jewish cultures. For him, representing Canada as a “melting pot poster maker” is a testament to the inclusion of the Olympic spirit.
“It really shows how far we’ve come as a society, to have these different faces representing home for everyone,” Ho-Sang says. “A hundred years ago, you would never see such diversity in every country that you see now. It is a sign of hope and progress.
Seattle-based AP reporter Sally Ho is on assignment at the Beijing Olympics, covering figure skating. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho.