Growing Up In J-Lin Nation

By Guest Contributor Vivian Lu

My spark of excitement over Jeremy Lin’s baller performances this week for the New York Knicks has taken me off guard.

My Asian American friends and I are living through this with an excitement I never thought possible. It’s a story many of us in Asian America have been following with a spare ear since Lin’s beginnings from Palo Alto High School through his four years at Harvard and now in the NBA. I only ever made it to one Columbia basketball game during college; it was versus Harvard, to watch Lin play, after he had already been blowing up the Asian American blogosphere.

After stints with the Golden Gate Warriors and the Houston Rockets, Lin’s move to the Knicks this season was met with not-so-subtle commentary suggesting it was a “marketing move” by the Knicks – a move made to draw in New York City’s large Asian American population.

For Asian Americans, there is often a double-bind to media representation. Increased media attention is often met with a personal, stomach-jerking reaction of giddy eagerness (like seeing two Asian American characters in Glee‘s first season) or sheepish embarrassment (American Idol’s William Hung). But that additional representation is often dismissed as being tokening, stereotypical (Han from 2 Broke Girls), superficial, unquestioning, and ultimately buttressing systemic injustice.

These Asian Americans in the media usually have relatively little agency: mainstream editors took excerpts of Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua’s work out of context, and actors generally have very little say in how they are cast in movies and TV shows (like in this Super Bowl ad). On the basketball court, however, it should just come down to how you play. And the Knicks haven’t had an Asian-American player since Wat Misaka, in 1947. The attention years ago surrounding Yao Ming, a Chinese citizen who also played for the Rockets, celebrated Asian-ness.

But the birth of “Linsanity,” exploding across both mainstream and social media, is excited about his Asian American-ness. And this I find infinitely more energizing. As another Asian American blogger, Popchef, recently wrote: “He doesn’t have a duty to embrace Asian America, speak for Asian America, or represent Asian America because right now he IS Asian America. Go to Church, drink that blue shit, but don’t you ever, ever, ever, stop being the normal-ass Taiwanese-American you are.”

 I initially resented the Lin-as-marketing-ploy argument for two reasons. The first, the most obvious, was that it was assumed there are few Asian American sports fans, and that the community at large would latch onto a basketball player simply because he was Asian American. The second is, I actually did feel this excited affinity and am still in denial that the sports media pundits – the majority of whom are either white or black – were able to predict this. The effort to not play into a stereotype, had, in this case, felt just as oppressive as the social pressure to do so.

For me, the hype around Lin has revealed that people know racial representation matters – including Asian Americans, who are usually not visible in these critical public discussions on race.

Lin’s new visibility has impacts far beyond inspiring Asian American kids to play basketball. During a conversation with a shy, inquisitive 9 year old Chinese American girl at my job with a family shelter in Queens, the idea of “normal” came up in a way that was intimately familiar to me as a child. Like most uneventful days at work, we entertained ourselves with crafts; she wanted to use some yarn but refused to learn to knit, so instead we made pompoms. She opened up about making friends, and being nervous about attending a new school. She described her old school – half Asian kids, not many black kids, some Latino kids, she said. And half “normal kids.”

I asked her, “What do you mean normal?”
She replied, “You know, American kids.”
“You were born in America, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said exasperatedly. “But you KNOW what I mean. Normal kids.”

I knew exactly what she meant – white “All American” kids. The conversation went on, and I ended up listing Asian Americans who have done all sorts of exciting things, the last of whom was Lin, who had just signed with the Knicks. She then asked all sorts of questions about him, ending with a quiet, wide-eyed “Wow!”

We’ve a long way to go, and I’m excited to see him play this season. And suddenly, I’m not the only one.

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  • anonymous reader

    I think is a great article, but I feel that using Amy Chua as an example of the media misrepresenting an Asian American weakens your argument. Chua made a conscious decision to make money by exploiting stereotypes of Asian-Americans (and immigrants in general). Read this article for a much better analysis of the classism and latent bigotry in Chua’s book: http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2011/09/tiger-mothers-and-music-moms

  • Anonymous

    I’m just glad to read an article about Jeremy Lin without the word “Linsanity.”

  • A H

    Happy to see that the Knicks got him. Good luck to Jeremy Lin!

    In New York
    Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
    There’s nothing you can’t do
    Now you’re in New York
    These streets will make you feel brand new
    The lights will inspire you
    Let’s hear it for New York -’Empire State of Mind’

  • Gabriel Tennen

    Loved this article, Vivian! I think it would also be interesting to discuss the fact that, clearly, Lin is a baller. The kid has a great feel for the game, terrific court vision, and athletic ability- a great combination for a play making point guard. However, he has been overlooked time and time again- first when he was looking for basketball scholarships to colleges (he wound up at Harvard, which does not offer athletic scholarships), then when he went undrafted, then when he rode the pine for Golden State last year. We was cut by two teams earlier this season, and finally got an opportunity on the Knicks only after their point guard situation had become embarrassing, to say the least. I think that the fact that Lin is an Asian-American contributed to his being slighted on every level in his athletic career thus far. He is not the “prototypical” NBA player because of his Taiwanese heritage, so scouts may have been overlooking his talent because of that fact. However, we’ve only seen three games from him- maybe those insane stat lines were an aberration (as a Knicks fan, I sure hope not). If he continues to pan out, though, I think it will become obvious that his being an Asian-American stacked the odds against him to make it at the pro level. That only makes his story that much more inspirational for people of ALL backgrounds.

  • Heaven

    I haven’t heard of this Jeremy Lin before being that I am not a basketball fan nor a part of the Asian-American blogging community but now I’ve read two articles about him in a row and it’s very interesting.