Lin Takes the Weight

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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]

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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.

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