Danny Chau wrote a personal reflection on Jeremy Lin in an article referenced by ESPN
today. Many props to ESPN for linking to a piece of writing not overtly about sports. In it he characterized Lin as the reconciliation of old-school Asian values and American individualism:
Jeremy Lin has done this, and it’s why he’s so important. He proves there’s another way. Watching Lin knife into the lane and score over soaring giants, it’s impossible to imagine him doing anything else with his life. But it could have been so different. His entire basketball career prior to this remarkable week has been a cyclical routine of underappreciation and invisibility. He could have left it all. We know about his Harvard degree in economics. But he had the courage and resolve to stick to his dream. And that’s where the ethnocentrism melts away and the purity of his story emerges.
I found it interesting and a bit disheartening to see how all the complexities of identity and culture can be so easily distilled into this convenient Ivy-League-application-essay worthy narrative about honoring tradition and finding your own route. Chau, in praising Lin for becoming the symbol for generations of Asian Americans, is covertly illuminating the hidden frustrations of an American subculture. So many of us have our hopes pinned on the success of a single underdog because we see in his struggles some semblance of our own trials in life as ethnic minorities. But to declare Lin’s triumphs as the model path to self-actualization is to caricature the diversity of culture amongst Asian Americans.
It is hard to dispute that much of the rhetoric around a Harvard underdog rising to the level of a NBA point guard adheres to, or at the very least, gives nod to the model minority stereotype (the way Chau’s piece does). Here is a Taiwanese-American Christian kid from Palo Alto who overcomes all this adversity and overt racism through hard work and determination to become an awesome baller. It may be that basketball is not a stereotypical “Asian” activity the way SAT-studying is but from the way media announcers have been talking about Lin, they seem to be one and the same. Not a day goes by without a sportscaster opining about the “court intelligence” that Lin has and the way he is a humble team player. The bit about him coming from Harvard gets talked about once every five minutes.
Call it a reflection of my inner insecurities but it sure feels like people are fitting Lin into the convenient guide to how minorities can succeed in America. If you want to succeed in something people of your color aren’t expected to succeed in: work hard, endure racist jeering (which would never be overly tolerated if used against an athlete of another color), deal with setbacks and underestimations of your ability at every level of competition, and wait for your big break when somebody finally notices you.
I am not railing against Jeremy. Part of me is immensely proud that an Asian American has finally broken through this artificial color-culture barrier in the NBA. Jeremy is his own man and he has every right to be proud of what he has done.
Yet, part of me wishes America’s renewed attention towards the Asian Amercians who live in its midst wouldn’t take on the tone of perpetuating age-old model-minority stereotypes. The dialogue has to move beyond “reconciling tradition and individualism” to become something more nuanced. Just as there are Asian Americans who live every day forced to confirm or abandon their traditions, there must be many more who delineate themselves along other spectrums of culture, be they political, religious, or economic. Jeremy Lin should be the start and not the end of a longer process of discovering the artists, writers, activists, and politicians who all have a hand in shaping our society in different ways.