Jeremy Lin and the Asian American Moment   Leave a comment


Note: This is post 4 in a series of memos about Jeremy Lin. There is no way to limit all there is to say about him to one go.


Yep, we’re on number 4 — probably not Harvard material, but we’ll do our best.

“In the Asian American community even third and fourth generations must contend with being treated as perpetual foreigners. So it comes as no surprise that they have embraced the big pop culture bang that created ‘Linsanity’.” –The Los Angeles Times

“There is no doubt that Linsanity offers brands a timely call-to-action to take a fresh look at their untapped business potential in the Asian American community.” –The Huffington Post

“We again apologize, especially to Mr. Lin. His accomplishments are a source of great pride to the Asian-American community, including the Asian-American employees at ESPN.” –ESPN

The Asian American Community loves Jeremy Lin. The Asian American Community is offended by any stereotypes at all associated with Jeremy Lin. The Asian American Community is viewed as foreign and effeminate by the media and public at large. —

As much as we hear and read about its found inspiration and boundless pride in Jeremy Lin, there isn’t any such thing as the Asian American community. Not in a national sense or transcending localities. Asian communities in America are endlessly compartmentalized and disentangleable. Each different ethnicity among Asians is distinct, held important, and probably a traditional enemy of some other type of Asian. We speak different languages, eat different food, practice different religions, and are good at different kinds of math. The collective Asian American experience is pretty much limited to being called the same names, fuming at Affirmative Action policies, and forbidding the wearing of shoes indoors.

There’s not a lot that ties Asian Americans of different national origins and regions of the United States together. A lot of what does is that we’ve experienced the same type of discrimination and stereotyping, but that’s not voluntary and doesn’t fuse different communities from within. It’s not a shared language or culture or narrative. What makes different types of Asian Americans Asian Americans is different. Some of our ancestors were forced to build railroads, some were interned behind barbed wire and guard towers, and some fled communist regimes. Subsequent generations seeking better opportunities mostly had to put up with the names and admissions obstacles. It’s offensive to misappropriate or conflate any of these histories.

I’m baffled that ESPN and other media outlets keep referring to the Asian American Community as if the term had any graspable meaning. Assuming some sort of homogeneity or even just cohesiveness by lazily linking race and neighborhood doesn’t speak of an Asian American Community. What the media seems to think this is can be captured by a shot of a bunch of Asian-looking people stuffed into a karaoke bar watching a Knicks game. If you’ve been following Jeremy Lin, you’ve seen that shot as often as you’ve seen Lin’s buzzer-beating 3-point shot to beat Toronto. They don’t get it. Even when ESPN apologizes for supposedly offensive comments, it doesn’t know who it’s apologizing to specifically — and doesn’t seem particularly interested in finding out.

But if there is such a thing as a unitary Asian American Community, Jeremy Lin represents it. It’s like his story and rise have forged it into existence. It exists now because he’s transcended some divisions. Media types assume it existed all along. It didn’t. And they think what it is now is what they always thought it was. It’s not. Because it’s not the totality of America dwellers who are homogenous slant-eyed, math blasting, karate chopping, sushi rolling, ching-chong speaking, romantically inept foreigners. If a critical mass of Americans who have been called variably “fob,” “chink,” “gook,” and “jap” can be meaningfully grouped by means other than being called any of those things, Jeremy Lin represents it.

It’s not because Lin magically makes vastly different Asian American groups more similar. However hard the media tries, Lin hasn’t been lifted out of his distinct Taiwanese-American brand and transplanted into the genericized “Asian American” mold. It’s not because he has enough Asian things about him so that all Asians can identify with him or merely because he looks like us. It’s not because he’s lived a collective experience for us, but because he represents such an individual story. What he represents is a uniqueness — something the Asian American Community has been denied. The source of his universality is not that he fits enough Asian stereotypes, but that he breaks enough of them, and then he doesn’t stop there.

I don’t know any 6’3 Taiwanese American Harvard grads that rode the bench for 3 NBA teams after going undrafted, who want to become pastors after buzzer beaters and 38 point performances against Kobe Bryant. Do you? None of those things is a stereotypical Asian thing, especially none of the basketball things. And they don’t jointly add up to some sort of Asian Americanness. It’s a unique journey, not just as an Asian American, but as an individual. Of course a large part of what we admire about Jeremy Lin is that he’s doing things an Asian American hasn’t done before, but the more we find out about his his background — and the more it’s dissimilar to mine — the more it resonates.

It goes beyond the smashing stereotypes angle we’ve heard enough about. Smashing stereotypes tells us what Lin and, by association, Asians are not. But it doesn’t suffice to say Jeremy Lin is what he isn’t — he’s showing us who he is. If we scaffold that with a preconceived “Asian” framework, it’s going to be very difficult to get an accurate picture of the guy. If we get bogged down talking about stereotypes, we’ll be constantly comparing him to what some people think a person that looks like him is — and we’ll miss out on him. On his individuality and personal substance which incorporates, but is not devoured by his race. Jeremy Lin represents an Asian American Community only if he helps show that each sub-divisional Asian American community is unique in its forward movement — not only so far as we break backwards stereotypes.

Jeremy Lin has activated an Asian American moment, heralded by athletes like Michael Chang, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Michelle Kwan before him. Preceded by true heroes like the 442nd Infantry Regiment who had bigger things to worry about than sports while having no Internet or social media to spread their legend. Lin isn’t the first Asian American to excel at professional sports or defy stereotypes and his popularity has been helped along by technology and the emphasis American culture places on his sport. And only someone with Lin’s humility could understand and appreciate that his mainstream breakthrough was launched off the shoulders of giants. It is certainly a Taiwanese American moment, but an Asian American moment as well.

Asian American’s haven’t really had this uniting experience before. Not with Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or Yao or Ichiro. Those guys were foreigners and largely ethnicity-specific. Lin’s Americanness fuels his appeal to different Asian American ethnicities. To break through in an American style of an American institution in America, as an American, in an area where people that looked like him were never really looked at seriously. He had to face being heckled with “chink” playing at Harvard, and had to beat Affirmative Action to get in in the first place. These are things Asian Americans have experienced. The rest of Lin’s story is unique.

We took different paths to get where we are. Just as Jeremy did. His story is an American story before it’s an Asian American one. He hasn’t been groomed by some foreign collective for this specific purpose. It’s his purpose that he chose and that he chose to continue as the setbacks mounted. His original story and individual path give a flavor to the Asian American Community that wasn’t brought out before. It was about time the media tasted it. That it recognized the will and talent of an individual and understand his race as a source of pride for the player, and most certainly a factor contributing to his obstacle-laden journey to the NBA.

There still isn’t a monolithic Asian American Community insofar as no Japanese American or Korean American or Filipino American will ever call herself an “Asian American” if not filling out a form, but there is the idea — the proof — that we are individuals are unique. Lin is a Taiwanese American, born and raised in California, graduated from Harvard, found success on his third NBA team after going undrafted, citing his faith in Christ as his strength and inspiration. Radiating two-fold uniqueness: not looking like anyone else on the court and not having the same story as anyone cheering him on in a karaoke bar with people that do.

Recognizing this, Asian Americans have their distinct ethnic identities, and maybe an Asian American Community too.

Next time: Let’s get to basketball. What Lin means to a 23 year old fourth generation Japanese American who grew up wanting nothing more than to be a baller.

Posted March 1, 2012 by Wada in Jeremy Lin

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