Would I play for China? Hockey and ties to the Nation-State

Recently the Chinese women’s national hockey team did a mini-tour of Vancouver playing against some of the local women’s teams.  With one of the few bids still in for the 2022 Winter Games, China wants to be able to hold it’s own in front of a home crowd if the opportunity should arise. When the team played the University of British Columbia, it was featured on the local news with UBC forward (and Vancouver local), Tiffany Chiu commenting that Team China had scouted her along with many other Chinese-Canadian women.

We have known for some time that nations often poach coaching talent in order to enhance their skills. Team China’s curling team employed Canadian Marcel Rocque for   the Sochi Olympics and the upcoming 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Canadian hockey coaches have been helping to grow the sport in China for some time now. A drain on coaching does seem a bit like treason if you are going to teach the opponent all of the nation’s secrets. However, this “treason” is significantly amplified when we start talking about players wearing another nation’s jersey, especially when a player has benefitted from local/national resources and training and then another country gets to benefit from that investment. I floated the question, “Would you play for China if given the opportunity?” by some (Chinese) friends and teammates to get their thoughts and here were their responses (some answers have been edited for clarity and length):

B: Hmm…I don’t know….I think I would go just so I could experience everything and meet everyone. 😜 I think my dad would want me to go though. 😁

Me: My dad always told me when I was playing tennis that I should play for china it would be easier to be recognized.

B: Yeah, and it would just be cool to go. My dad will cheer for china sometimes…he is Chinese after all!

I think what you are asking is which country am I loyal to?  I think I would play [to help grow] the female game. But Definitely I feel completely loyal to Canada as a fan and could never see myself cheering for China if they were playing against Canada. I actually have dual nationality (Canadian and British) and find myself clearly cheering for Canada and not GB during both Olympics.   Why not China?  My father was born here but he is continually talking about how great China is.  More Chinese than the Chinese. I’m more measured about the country’s good and bad points.

Overall, as a female hockey player, I am happy to support women’s teams from countries where the sport is trying to get a foothold. I saw a piece on the internet that there was an event in Taiwan recently to allow girls to try hockey.  As a Canadian, I’ll always be red and white forever when it comes to cheering for our national teams.

L: I don’t want to play for China!

Me: Why?

L: Cuz I’m Canadian.

Me: Do you think there should be the option to play for a country except the one in which you are born or have citizenship?

L: No. Cuz what would be the point. Just throw your stick in the middle to decide teams if we’re not playing for country. Or play in a league where country doesn’t matter.

If China asked me to play, I would not hesitate to say yes. Like their head coach, Rick Seely says, the selling point is that I would get to play in the Olympics. To be honest, competition here in Canada is so great, that I would need many more years of experience to play at the Olympics level in Canada. And this would be a much faster ticket to the international level of hockey.

If China asked me to play for them in the 2022 Olympics, would I play?  And the answer that came to mind immediately after reading that question is – absolutely NOT. I thought that perhaps it was too hasty of an answer, but it was my gut reaction. After taking a bit more time to think and justify why I was so quick to say “no”, my answer still stands. Yes, I may have dark hair and the skin colour of a Chinese person, but I’m just half Chinese. My mom was born in Indonesia and I was fortunate to visit my family there a few years ago – it was quite the eye opener, as I saw third-world type poverty in amongst the trappings of 1st world potential. My dad was born in China and although they met in Hong Kong, my parents came to Canada in 1976 so I consider myself fully Canadian. I was born in Alberta and had (and continue to have) a very free and western upbringing.

In terms of what I identify with, I celebrate the Chinese festivities because it’s something I grew up with, but since moving out, I haven’t hosted anything “Chinese” myself. Decorating the house in Team Canada paraphernalia during the Olympics, however, is a whole other story! LOL… As much as it would be an amazing experience to be in the Olympics, I wouldn’t feel like I belonged there. I would look down and not necessarily feel shame, but I wouldn’t feel proud if I had the colours of China on my jersey. I would want to earn my spot, and not be on a team just because my physical appearance fit some criteria set by one of the largest nations in the world.

I would feel a fraud if I was for Team China. Now, for those who do have dual citizenship and/or identify with 2 countries, where there is a strong connection or love for both, I think it is great to have the ability for the athlete to choose which country to represent. I think it would be a difficult decision for that athlete to have to make the choice, but I appreciate them having the freedom to choose what he/she identifies with the most. Obviously some athletes would wish they could play for both, and if they could have both national flags on their jerseys, that would be even better! I just love the sport of hockey too much to just slap any old jersey on me. It’s Team Canada or bust, baby! I would happily watch from my living room as I cheered my fellow Canadians in 2022, and not feel like I was missing a thing.

Personally, I would love the ice time and coaching but I could never play under any flag except the one with the maple leaf. It is important to note, though, that I have never been particularly close to fulfilling my dream to be a professional athlete. For those who have spent their lives dedicated to honing their skills and have made significant emotional/financial/physical sacrifices it is easier to see why some would jump at the chance to continue their sporting career.

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Photo from The Hockey News.

With personal loyalty in mind, there is something else that we need to consider to help contextualize the discussion. I recently returned from the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport conference in Tampa, Florida where I saw a presentation about the growth of South Korean hockey (Shin, Park, & Welty Peachy, 2016). Similar to China, South Korea doesn’t want to be embarrassed on home ice in 2018, as such it has scoured the planet for Korean-heritage players. Their search came up short and because of this the team now fields six Canadian men – that is, white Canadian men.

Michael Swift, Bryan Young, Brock Radunske, Eric Regan, Alex Plante, and Matt Dalton have all gone through variations of pro-hockey, whether NHL, AHL, KHL or European pro-leagues. These six men are not only playing for South Korea, they have become naturalized Korean citizens – mandatory military service and all. The Hockey News explains:

Citizenship is generally reserved for those of Korean nationality, and dual-citizenship is prohibited, mostly to stop men from escaping mandatory military service. But South Korea has been on a tear recently, granting special dual-citizenship rights to “talented” individuals who might make a mark for the country. And the six Canadians were talented enough.

So while the question “Would you play for another country?” clearly brings up an interesting debate, the question “Would you change citizenship to play hockey?” opens a whole other can of worms. Either way, the ability for human movement across nation-state borders puts the idea of “nationality” in the hot-seat. Did you see the German women’s table tennis team in Rio?

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Han Ying, Petrissa Solja, and Shan Xiaona. Photo from ITTF.

It’s not exactly the Germany that comes to the mind’s eye.

For Canadians of colour, in particular, doing anything to suggest disloyalty, arguably, puts us in a more precarious position than white Canadians. As a Canadian of colour, the taunts of “go back to where you came from” put our citizenship in question, even if where we come from is Canada. New York Times editor Michael Luo recently wrote about the Asian-American experience explaining “It is this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American.” Additionally, Eva Mackey explains in her book The House of Difference: cultural  politics and national identity in Canada, “Canada has a proliferation of hyphenated peoples…While all these hyphenated forms all have their own histories of constitution, some groups are widely considered more ‘ethnic’ than others. Others have the privilege of being simply ‘Canadian'” (p.33).  Case in point, the six men playing for South Korea are considering whether or not to “come home” after the Pyeongchang games. The ability to shed their Korean citizenship with relative ease is a privilege. Also, they are referred to as “six Canadians” rather than “Italian-Canadian”, “British-Canadian”, “Slovakian-Canadian” or whatever heritage with which each may identify. If you watch the CTV link about Tiffany Chiu they very clearly identify Tiffany Chiu as “Chinese-Canadian.” In this way, not even excelling at hockey is enough to make Chiu just Canadian.

In a world where American football player Colin Kaepernick can be told by, now President-Elect, Donald Trump to “find a country that works better for him” for simply exercising his constitutional right, it exemplifies how people of colour exist in a liminal state of belonging: never “white” enough for here, and too “white” for over there (wherever people imagine our true “home” to be). It is a privilege to have the opportunity to choose, and yet, it is a choice that does not necessarily come with equal consequences or rewards. For some it is a test of how bad they want to play hockey, for others it may serve as a trick question because the “wrong” answer merely reinforces what “old-stock Canadians” think they have always known – we’ve never really been Canadian.

Works Cited:

Shin, N., Park, D.J. & Welty Peachey, J.  (2016).  Critical Media Discourse Analysis of the South Korean Men’s National Ice Hockey Team. Presented at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Tampa, FL.

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