IF AMERICA AND China went to war, whose side would you be on?
As a kid, I was often asked this question on my visits to Beijing. I was the only person in my family born in the U.S. (or anywhere outside China), and even at a young age I could sense that the question, presented as a joke, was a trap. Picking America would put me at war with my family, an especially awkward predicament when they all stared at me, chopsticks suspended in midair, waiting for an answer. Picking China, well, wasn’t I actually American? Couldn’t I just be both? Who asks a little kid that, anyway?
The question has never officially been put to the test. But to me it felt like it kind of was in July 1999, when the two countries faced each other in the Women’s World Cup final.
Unlike other families I grew up with in Southern California, our connections with China went deep: My parents, who came to the U.S. as students in the late 1980s, ran a business importing crafts from China. I was born in California but didn’t learn English until I went to school. My dad pulled me out of Chinese school after one class because it was too Americanized, preferring to drill me daily himself.
I was 9 when the Chinese women’s national team landed in America to try to win its first major international tournament. It was the first major sporting event I was sentient for, and I was so excited. I watched the games on TV with my best friend, Kathleen, another Chinese American girl I had met on the first day of preschool because neither of us spoke English. Much to our mothers’ chagrin, we were proud tomboys who would rather die (in that 9-year-old way) than wear dresses, and after games we would shoot hoops at the court near her house.
The final was played at the Rose Bowl, about 45 minutes from our town, and Kathleen got a ticket. I was devastated I wasn’t going, and I remember my mom trying to comfort me by telling me how dark Kathleen would get sitting in the sun all afternoon. (Asian moms are all about skin care. Thanks, imperialism!) My dad took a similar tack: Why go melt in the heat in uncomfortable seats when we could watch on our air-conditioned couch? (That was not helpful, Mom and Dad.)
My aunts and uncles gathered at our house with roasted watermelon seeds and hot tea despite the record summer temperatures. We never really got together to watch sports, which made the day all the more exciting. My relatives took turns railing against the U.S., which just weeks before had led a NATO bombing on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade that killed three Chinese journalists. The U.S. government said the attack was an accident; a likely story, my family muttered. I didn’t pay much attention. I’d heard it all before. The grown-ups were always going on about the U.S. and China, grateful to be here but proud and protective of where they’d come from, forever comparing the two and worrying that China would come out the worse.
Family dinner parties consisted of arguments about how long it would take China to catch up to the U.S., ending with the depressing conclusion of never. This was three years before Yao Ming, nine before China’s global coming-out party, the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China, insular, poor, ruled by an oppressive ideology we hoped was on the brink of extinction, didn’t give us much to be proud of.
Except for the 11 women in red with sleek ponytails standing up to the big, bad Americans. They were the best team in the world, far and away more technically gifted than the U.S., so tough that they came to be known in China as the “Steel Roses.” They were led by striker Sun Wen, the greatest player in the world, in my book. They’d been denied once by the U.S., at the ’96 Olympics. This was their time.
That’s what everyone in my family kept saying. I knew I should be on their side; I felt a swell of pride as these women who looked like me and spoke my language came onto the field. But I gazed in awe at the Americans. It was the perfect final, like my entire world coming together.
Suddenly I declared: I’m rooting for the Americans.
My dad shook his head. My favorite uncle branded me a “foreign devil” and started calling me xiao mi, or “little American.” The taunts only egged me on, and I tried to make as much noise for the Americans from my corner of the couch as everyone else did for China. When the game went to extra time, the tension got so intense I was exiled to the connecting room, far from the snacks and the chatter, where I had to tiptoe in my bare feet to see through an opening in the wall.
My uncle complained about the biased commentary and camerawork, which focused on the U.S. and didn’t spend enough time on China’s chances. My dad worried that the longer the game went on, the harder it was for the Chinese, who, reared on rice and tofu, couldn’t possibly outlast big, strong Americans whose veins coursed with dairy and red meat. I yelled in protest from next door, inching ever closer to the TV until I was perched on a ledge between the two rooms. When penalty kicks came, I felt a panic. This was so much fun. If it ended, everyone would go home. I didn’t actually want a winner and a loser. I wanted to stay in this moment with my family.
And then Briana Scurry saved Liu Ying’s penalty, and no matter how great Sun Wen was, she couldn’t make Brandi Chastain miss. Our house went quiet, defeated, and even I didn’t feel like celebrating. Suddenly I wished China had won instead.
THE NEXT DAY, I went over to Kathleen’s house. She’d sat in the Chinese fan section, half-heartedly waving a Chinese flag that had been printed upside down while secretly rooting for the U.S. She was indeed sunburned, but I’d never seen her so excited. We stretched out on the cool wood of the staircase, our bodies still small enough to fit across, and as she told me about how wonderful it had been, I saw the game again, dancing across her ceiling. The best thing was, Kathleen said, the crowd wasn’t cheering for Kobe and Shaq, our idols of the time. They were cheering for girls like us. We’d show the boys on the court, she told me. We’d practice every day and be better than them, and someday we’d play in the WNBA.
I imagine little girls had conversations like that all over the country. Twenty years later, we know that the ’99 final inspired a generation of girls, many of whom are representing the U.S. this summer. Time has not been as kind to China, which hasn’t been to a final since and has fallen to 16th in the world rankings. Despite being one of the dominant forces in 1990s women’s soccer, it will always be remembered for losing.
The Chinese economy exploded in the 2000s, and women’s soccer was left behind. With so many options available, Chinese families, especially in cities, no longer saw soccer as an alluring pursuit. “Parents want kids, especially girls, to study and play piano and learn to paint,” said Sun Wen, now a technical director with the Chinese Football Association. “In my day, playing soccer was still a thing to be proud of. To go to a sports academy-that was a glorious thing. Today no one wants to go.”
Still, she’s optimistic. The CFA recently started requiring top-tier men’s clubs to establish women’s teams by 2020; national team star Wang Shuang signed with Paris Saint-Germain last year; and Zhao Yujie won ACC Freshman of the Year with Florida State last November. Sun hopes these examples will help Chinese girls rediscover soccer. “We have to show girls that they can become successful, educated, well-rounded people through soccer,” she says.
Listening to her, I wondered how the culture would have changed if China had won. Maybe it would have inspired a generation of Chinese girls, watching in their living rooms, to put on cleats. Maybe China would be the dominant team today.
From now on I’m rooting for another U.S.-China final, in the hope that China can have the ’99 moment it lost out on 20 years ago. And so my dad can quit complaining about the team being robbed, which he did when I told him I was writing this. If the two countries do meet again, I’ll probably be tortured about whom to root for and change my allegiances multiple times during the game. Maybe I’ll even be banished from the room again. But I’ve come to accept that I don’t really have to pick a side, that the beauty of being raised Chinese in America is that I will always be both.