Lin Takes the Weight

More
linersCROP.jpg

I've done quite a bit of writing on Jeremy Lin. But one question I haven't tackled, for want of qualification, is Jeremy Lin's meaning to Asian-Americans. The boon of diversity is the ability to call on a wide array of people who are smarter and more experienced than you. And I so remand you to the intellect of Oliver Wang, a scholar and long-time friend of the room. I'm sure Oliver will be in the comments to tackle any questions.

"It's a weird time to be an Asian American." 

I wrote that 13 months ago for this very site, in regards to the whole furor around Amy Chua and her "Tiger Mother" style of parenting. A year later, and I find myself thinking the very same thought but for very different reasons.

Keep in mind: I've spent a good deal of my adult life studying and writing about Asian Americans in popular culture. I always felt relatively self-assured that even if a new public figure or phenomenon popped up, I knew where to fit them within a historical continuum: John Cho to James Shigeta, Far East Movement to the Mountain Brothers, Clara Chung to Pat Suzuki, et. al. None of this prepared me for Jeremy Lin.

In fact, at various times during the past month, I found Linsanity utterly unbelievable, which is to say, I lacked the cognitive ability and/or imagination to process the pace and enormity of what was happening. Mostly, I just sat around and thought to myself...WTF?  

Basically, there's no precedent for what's happened with Lin over the last four weeks. True, there've been other "overnight" Asian American sports sensations before - French Open winner Michael Chang in 1989, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992 - but their careers peaked in an era before the advent of the modern internet (lead alone social media) and the flourishing of multiple 24-hour sports networks. Chang and Yamaguchi were ultimately legends in Asian American circles but neither of them enjoyed the kind of transcendent, national/global popularity that Lin's seen...and it's only been a month (again: WTF?)[1]

Most importantly - and this has been one of the true, stunning game-changers - I've never, ever seen this many people excited by and cheering on an Asian American in my life. It's a little depressing to even write that last sentence but it speaks to the ways in which this is unlike anything we could have predicted. I remember that in the "early days" (i.e. a few weeks ago), of Linsanity, I was scrolling through Spike Lee's Twitter feed and Lee was basically schooling fools on how Lin was Chinese, not Korean and insisting on his American-ness. We're just not used to that.

Now, obviously, there's been a dark side to all this and we could talk about ESPN's headline fiasco or Ben and Jerry's fortune cookie recall or just the ridiculously ham-fisted way some commentators have hijacked this story to advance asinine arguments. However, for readers of TNC's blog, you already know what's up: Americans - least of all in the press - have a difficult time talking about race in a critical, intelligent way. They fall back on tired tropes/cliches because frankly, they're rarely expected or pushed to do more.

So, by this point, you've probably already read the umpteenth article that crams Lin's story into a classic "model minority" narrative of Asian American overachievement, as if all NBA players don't work their asses off to make the pros. Or maybe you've read that Lin faces discrimination in ways that Black players don't, as if the NBA's entire ownership structure isn't a racially stacked hierarchy.

While I think this is all very important, I'm just a little exhausted from tackling all these meta-narratives on race and America.[2] And frankly, the one thing I really haven't gotten to write about yet is what Lin's meant among Asian Americans, or at least, one segment/generation of our community.

For example, in the first days that Linsanity began breaking, there were debates over "how Asian American is he?" His public piety as a Christian lead some to think he valued religion over race - a problematically simplistic identity equation to be sure - but behind the question was a basic desire to know if Lin was "down with us." Figures like Yao Ming and Ichiro were hugely important in diversifying American sports but neither of them grew up here. They're the scions of majority cultures, they probably wouldn't understand why it was a big deal that Dustin Nguyen was on 21 Jump Street. Equally important, unlike an Asian American luminary such as Yo-Yo Ma, we want Lin to represent our sensibilities, not our immigrant parents'.

So when it turned out that Lin had appeared at the 2011 Kollaboration, an Asian American entertainment event, there was a sense of relief. Just trust me on this one: no one goes to Kollaboration if they're not at least a little "down with us." Then a few days later, I discovered the video he cut last year - "How To Get Into Harvard" - with Ryan Higa, aka one of the Asian American comic kings of YouTube, yet another confirmation of Asian American-hood. The final clincher might have been these resurrected screen caps from Lin's 2004 Xanga page.

The very fact that he even had a Xanga page is like its own AZN inside joke.[3] And sure, his screen name - "ChinkBalla88" - should raise eyebrows, as should how Lin was clowning NBA player headband styles, using terms like "gangster" and "ghetto." But my larger point was that all this contrasted with the hard-working, choir boy image that the press was working overtime to construct. Yet, if you scraped the surface, you realized Lin was a relatively normal Asian American dude from the Bay Area, someone who wasn't above doing some dumb shit when he was 16, someone who grew up with a poster of Spree in his room, someone who can do a decent Dougie

Jay Caspian Kang, at Grantland.com, has been writing about all these things longer and better and he probably describes my mind-state better than I even could:

We have a 23-year-old kid who dunks, keeps the ball for himself in pressure situations, preens, chest bumps, and gets caught up in Kim Kardashian rumors. The public record of Jeremy Lin might show a modest kid who praises Jesus, but that's not how he conducts himself on the court. I'm not particularly proud of it, but over the past two weeks, I've exchanged countless e-mails with my Asian American friends about how the only way the Jeremy Lin story could possibly be better is if he talked like Nas and released a dis track on Tru Warier Records.[4]

This also speaks to another dynamic - and surely a sticky one - regarding Asian American men and Blackness. For many of us, growing up Asian American meant having few of "our own" male role models in the public sphere. As a result, hip-hop - besides its sonic and textual pleasures - held a strong appeal because it was also a space in which we could witness brazen displays of masculinity, especially in defiance of whiteness. That's why an Asian American rapper like the rapper Jin was exciting for the 15 seconds he was in the spotlight; he seemed to have mastered a familiar code of racial and gender display, giving voice to our own alterity along the way.[5]

Lin's more subtle with his affectations but they're still there, in his blue, lolling tongue swag or in his Horry-like glide. In Gary Payton's words - and he should know - "he's cocky." Amongst AZNs, even us progressive types, we love that cockiness, but not because we necessarily need Lin to "redeem" our manhood[6]. It's more the case that - like many men of color - our spectrum of representations in mass media is pathetically narrow. For Asian Americans, you might describe it more as bipolar, with Long Duck Dong and Uncle Benny on one end and the Asian cast of Big Trouble In Little China on the other (Dennis Dun excepted).[7] Lin offers up something we rarely get to see: an Asian American man, excelling in the most athletically masculine of all American sports (yeah NFL, I just took it there), and doing it with passion, emotion and a cocksure swagger. He doesn't balance the scales, but his is a heavy thumb.

Beyond all this headiness though, there's also small, charming inside jokes to Linsanity, such as enjoying how mediocre Lin's Mandarin is (but only because it's still better than mine). Likewise, as someone who grew up around both Chinese and Taiwanese American friends, I've been amused at how Lin's become the center of a tug-of-war between the two camps.[8] I was listening to a recent NPR Talk of the Nation show when "Michelle" and "Susan" got into the conflict. Choice quote from Michelle: "I'm appalled that China is trying to take credit for Lin." Even to other Asians, let alone non-Asians, this exchange probably made little sense but it cracked me up, especially since host Neil Conan didn't seem certain what to make of it.

Then there's this story - "Despite chatter on Twitter, Jeremy Lin's mother is not part-Filipino" - which arose from the same kind of embarrassing misreading that lead some of my friends to think Nas was half-Asian.[9] It's like a real-life version of the internet meme joking about how "Koreans wish he was Jeremy Kim" and "Vietnamese wish he was Jeremy Nguyen."[10]

Seriously, I can't remember a time where there was this much giddy fun amongst Asian Americans over "one of our own." Besides generating a small cottage industry in gif-making, Linsanity has lead to viewing parties being organized at any local Asian restaurant that shelled out for the NBA League Pass. While we hate to be walking stereotypes, you can spot our tables by all the people live-tweeting Knicks games on laptops and smartphones.[11]

But here's the thing (and it's probably obvious to note): dig past all the racial pride and masculine role model issues and you're still left with the fact that Lin's a pretty fun player to watch. He drives the lane fearlessly, has improved both his number of assists and mid-range jumper, and has been devastatingly clutch with 3 point daggers to help secure leads. True, he also needs to tamper down his turnovers and the Heat demonstrated that you can murk his effectiveness (so long as you have one of the best defenses in the league). Lin's been playing all of a month and there's still half a season to play. He's probably glad the halogens have eased up a bit of late but New York expects/demands that the Knicks go deep in the post-season. If Lin can help them get there, his immortality in the city is all but secured.

Me? I'd rather see the kid head uptown and chase that Rucker 66 moment. Like all things Linsanity-related, it'd be one of those "games beyond the game."

Notes:

[1] The closest thing to Lin we've seen before might be Bruce Lee but the latter's Asian American-ness was more legal than cultural; Lee was born in San Francisco, but raised in Hong Kong. Moreover, Lee's true fame came posthumously, after the release of Enter the Dragon, which was nearly 40 years ago.

[2] I have a nearly 6000 word essay coming out in the Los Angeles Review of Books that covers all this.

[3] AZN is a very circa-2000, internet-meme shorthand for "Asian American." 

[4] I basically made the exact same joke with a friend, only I used "listened to Kendrick Lamar" instead of "talked like Nas." Alas, though JLin does enjoy the occasional rap song, it's only when it's Xian

[5] It must also be acknowledged that these kinds of "adoptions" of style often happen through uncritical borrowings of racial performance and say little about the material inequalities and long-standing tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans. In other words, "love and theft" is hardly the monopoly of white folk. 

[6] I'd like to think I'm pretty comfortable with my masculinity, thank you very much, but maybe you'd need to confer with my wife.

[7] Dun had one of the most interesting careers of any Asian American actor in the 1980s (including an anti-quaaludes PSA that I wish I could find). He disappeared during the 2000s but has recently been back on the HBO show Luck as...a heavily accented, poker-playing gambler who runs a Chinatown restaurant. He actually gets in some pretty good "dissing the white guy" lines but the other half of me wants to sigh every time he talks.

[8] In a nutshell, while many Chinese Americans have families who grew up in Taiwan, they're only considered Taiwanese if their families predate the 1949 Chinese Revolution that forced over 2 million Chinese nationalists to flee to Taiwan. From the Taiwanese perspective, this was a forced occupation, and factually speaking, an abhorrently violent one, especially as nationalist forces suppressed local Taiwanese opposition through massacres, assassinations and "disappearances," collectively known as "the White Terror." Among other reasons, this is why many Taiwanese insist that they're not Chinese. In any case, Lin's dad is old school Taiwanese but his mom is post-'49 and the Chinese government, never ones to pass up a blatant PR move, went and found Lin's maternal grandmother in China and featured her in state-run news stories.

[9] On "It Ain't Hard To Tell," Nas rhymes, "Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian/half man/half amazing" which lead people to think - completely erroneously - that Nas was hapa. No "chinky-eyed" jokes, please.

[10] For those who remember Dallas Cowboy's linebacker, Dat Nguyen, comedian Michael Hornbuckle recorded a hilarious video about why there was no "Nguyen-sanity."

[11] As a Lakers fan, going on 30 years, I'm somewhere between amused and appalled at how closely I'm now following a NY team.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In