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The Olympics, China & Me - William Wong For Oakland Focus

The legendary longtime Oakland Tribune Columnist William Wong sent me this column presenting his unique take on the China Olympics. I'll be interviewing Bill, as he's called, today in video form on this subject.

The Olympics, China & Me

By William Wong
Copyright, 2008, William Wong

Now that the Beijing Olympics have begun (weren’t the opening ceremonies stunningly over-the-top?) who will I, a Chinese American, root for – American or Chinese athletes, and by extension, the United States or China?

Simple question, complicated answer.

I’ve loved sports most of my life and even wished at one point to play basketball for my (American) high school team. Alas, I am 26 inches shorter than Yao Ming, China’s superstar professional basketball player, and not nearly as skilled, so I long ago became an avid sports fan instead. I even started my journalism career as a sportswriter for my high school and college newspapers.

The sports and athletes I know best are mostly American. But the Beijing Olympics have challenged me in ways that no other international sporting event have.

I must offer some qualifying background so that my perspective is grounded in a proper time and place. After all, I am but one member of the vast and diverse Chinese diaspora, which numbers anywhere up to 60 million worldwide, to say nothing of the 1.3 billion Chinese living on the sprawling Chinese mainland. Each of us, I am sure, holds a multitude of inner feelings and emotions about the Beijing Olympics and how they relate to our core identities, whether nationalistically, politically, ethnically, or culturally.

My parents were born and grew up in poor rice-growing villages in the Toisan region of Guangdong Province of China more than a century ago. Each came to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Both were “illegal” entries during the Chinese Exclusion Act era, lying to U.S. government officials in order to make a better life for themselves and their China-born children.

I was born in Oakland, California’s Chinatown (and thus am an American citizen) two years before the U.S. government repealed the horrific Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In effect, the arc of my life parallels that of the gradual and continuing ethnic Chinese integration into mainstream American life.

My early years evolved within the Chinese American bubble of Oakland’s Chinatown, when at first I thought the world was, well, Chinese. My first language was the Toisan dialect of my parents, but culturally I was becoming a hybrid of rural Cantonese and post-World War II American, however one defines that label. Over the years, I have lost most of my Toisan Chinese language and have earned a living writing (and thinking) in American English.

My question above about who I will be rooting for in these Olympics really isn’t as simple as I said it was. That’s because it thinly veils a deeper question about competing identities for persons like me: Which of our identities do we adopt as we watch the Olympics? Is it as simple as choosing one over another?

As each Olympics approach, one tiresome question is whether the Games are “political” or merely sports. Of course, they’re political. Otherwise, why the adherence to blatant nationalism, not just American but every other nation that sends athletes to the Olympics, especially in the tally of medal winners?

The American television network that provides us coverage of the Games has usually chosen an American nationalistic tack, frustrating those of us who enjoy Olympic sports for their athletic purity, regardless of nationalistic labels.

Watching the Olympics from a purely athletic perspective, however, isn’t realistic. Most of us, I surmise, will root along nationalistic lines. But what if ethnicity and cultural affinities are tossed into the emotional and psychological mix, as the Beijing Olympics are doing for me and others in the Chinese diaspora?

There is no simple or easy answer, at least not for me. The opening ceremonies blew me away, and I have to confess to a swelling pride in being of Chinese descent, as I watched the spectacular show orchestrated by the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. One doesn’t have to be an ethnic Chinese to appreciate the senses-boggling artistic beauty of a show he and his colleagues put on for the world to see on August 8, 2008, a superstitiously auspicious date to many ethnic Chinese.

The show itself, I am sure, was a source of enormous nationalistic and cultural pride to the Chinese in China and among the Chinese diaspora because it was a symbol that China and Chinese culture now stand with the best in the world. It had a redemptive quality in light of the lingering humiliation and resentment still undoubtedly felt by many ethnic Chinese to the century or so of Western colonialism starting with the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century.

Back to the now: I wish the best for American Olympians like Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin, Michael Phelps, Kevin Tan (a Fremont, California, Chinese American!), Bernard Lagat (a naturalized U.S. citizen of Kenyan descent), Tyson Gay, Allyson Felix, and Jason Kidd (an Oaklander who’s been a professional basketball superstar for more than a decade).

But I also wish only good things for Chinese Olympians like Yao Ming and Liu Xiang, who won a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics in a decidedly non-Chinese specialty, the 110-meter hurdles. The pressure on Liu to win a gold medal again in front of his countrymen must be unbelievable.

This identity confusion isn’t going to be resolved, at least for me, by who wins or who doesn’t at the Beijing Olympics. It’s a part of my life, whether I like it or not.

When I was growing up, the land of my father and mother was going through utter turmoil – first a civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, then tumultuous times under Communist rule. For the past three decades, China has been transforming itself in epic ways into a global economic power while maintaining an authoritarian hold on its people.

Now, the notion is growing that China is approaching world-power status, and that emergence is both awing and frightening other nations and people.

For the most part, I know I am thoroughly American, despite the fact that many Americans may not at first consider me and other ethnic Chinese in America as American. Indeed, I’ve long thought that the label “American” needs to be more broadly defined, not through an ethnic or racial lens, as it often is, but through a less well defined values and belief lens.

Yet, I can’t help harboring an emotional tie to the land of my parents, despite the loss of a Chinese language and only a slender cultural thread to their Chinese village ways.

I have experienced this cultural and nationalistic dilemma in numerous ways. I have visited China twice – in 1994 on a “roots” visit with members of my family, and in 1998 as a member of a Chinese American journalistic delegation invited by the Government of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the capital of Guangdong Province. (I have also visited Hong Kong four times, three times when it was still a British Crown Colony.)

Both China visits confirmed for me my American identity, although on my family roots visit, I felt a semblance of being culturally Chinese because of an ephemeral link to a few villagers who said they were distantly related and who had memories of my parents.

It was on the second China visit that I had a searing cultural shock. That was because the other Chinese American journalists were born in China and had been working in the United States for Chinese language media outlets. I was the only one who had worked for a mainstream American (and English language) news outlet and who didn’t speak or understand Mandarin Chinese. My child-like Toisanese was absolutely meaningless.

I felt isolated and alienated for the first week. It wasn’t until a Chinese American journalist colleague, thoroughly fluent in Mandarin Chinese and English, was asked by tour organizers to attach himself to me, serving as my personal interpreter and cultural facilitator. (The Chinese organizers had assigned an English-speaking escort to me, but that was helpful only in very limited ways. She also had to tend to the other visitors.)

I can’t also forget the incredible rudeness of ordinary Chinese in Hangzhou when our delegation was waiting at a restaurant. Their pushiness and lack of courtesy and grace shocked me.

On more cosmic matters of China’s growing ascendancy on the world stage, I constantly feel the push-pull of identity confusion.

The Tibet question, for instance, isn’t crystal clear to me. On the one hand, my politics tell me to feel great sympathy for Tibetans, but my ethnicity sometimes pulls me in the other direction – to defend China on vague cultural grounds. Indeed, I don’t feel I really know enough about the nuances and complexities of the China-Tibet matter to voice a truly informed opinion.

I also don’t like the Chinese government’s alliance with the government of Sudan, which supports a form of genocide in Darfur. Yet, I have a pragmatic understanding of why the Chinese government chooses to maintain a working relationship with Sudan, so that China can have continuing access to resources it needs to fuel its incredible economic growth. (That is certainly the case of China’s widespread economic involvement in Africa today.)

Then there’s the matter of China’s ascent to near global power status. Like others in the Chinese diaspora, I embrace a mix of feelings and emotions. Part of me is indeed proud of China’s rise from the depths of the subjugation and inferiority imposed by Western colonial imperialism.

In some ways, I have always interpreted the Mao Zedong era of recent Chinese history as essentially a nationalistic unifying movement necessary to restore Chinese pride (although I revile the brutality of the Mao regime against its own people and don’t like the freedom-suppressing ways of the Chinese government today).

But there is a potential for fear and loathing if China’s ascendancy unleashes another round of institutionalized American and Western racism and violence against ethnic Chinese, echoing the anti-Chinese sentiments that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act. I know others in the Chinese American community share this potential fear and loathing.

We Chinese Americans do not want to feel the ugly stings of racism if some Americans, and most especially our government, choose to scapegoat us for something the Chinese government is doing that threatens American and Western hegemony.

If the political apocalypse occurs – China and the United States at war with one another – where will the loyalties of Chinese Americans like me lie?

Rather than give a definitive answer right now, I’d rather enjoy watching the Olympics, and cheering for the blessed athleticism of the many athletes competing for individual and, yes, nationalistic glory.

William Wong is author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America (Temple University Press, 2001), Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown (Arcadia Publishing Co., 2004), and co-author of Images of America: Angel Island (Arcadia Publishing Co., 2007). http://www.yellowjournalist.com.
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