Some Thoughts on the Linsanity Surrounding Jeremy Lin

Like other Asian Americans, I have been following Linsanity over the last 2 weeks or so with great interest and pride. It’s not too often you see a twice-cut bench warmer become a starter and take a professional team in New York by storm like Jeremy Lin (林書豪) has. While the future of Lin as a mega star is not necessarily secure, with some saying that Lin is a phenom only because of his race and others observing that the Knicks has played mostly sissy teams the last couple of weeks, there are plenty of which to be proud even if Linsanity were to end tomorrow.

As a columnist in the Washingtonpost pointed out:

Undeniably, race is often a factor when discussing the NBA, whose players are predominantly African American. Lin is the league’s first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent. Those facts alone make him newsworthy.

[But] Lin’s actions on the court, and how the Knicks have benefited from what he does, are what’s most important. That’s the real story.

Considering Lin’s brief NBA background, his achievement is downright stunning. Lin sat on the Golden State Warriors’ bench all last season as a rookie, was released by the Houston Rockets in training camp before this season, played in the NBA’s Development League and bounced around the tryout circuit.

The injury-weakened Knicks signed Lin only to fill out their roster. At the end of the bench, Lin finally got an opportunity because the Knicks had no other options. He seized it.

Lin is setting a new standard for first-time starters. Regardless of race, he’s balling.

Combined with Lin’s showmanship in leading the Knicks’ turnaround, there’s just too much to ignore….

Now, the Knicks are a national story for the right reasons. They’re the buzz of the Big Apple.

Despite the pride and joy that is Linsanity, it has also highlighted ever-present racial tensions in America. While in college, Lin faced regular constant taunts on the Court (see this article on the Crimson (Harvard’s newspaper) or this article in Time). Over the last two weeks, racial slurs continue to creep (see also this or this) into the reporting of Jeremy Lin’s improbable run, proving perhaps, that slurs will follow Lin for his entire career.

What makes Lin’s recent rise such a story is that it came so much out of left field. As Lin himself had admitted,“I don’t think anyone, including myself, saw this coming.”

The writing of greatness has not really been on the wall for Lin. While Lin applied for college, no Division 1 NCAA team gave him a scholarship, and the school he was “dead set” to go – Stanford – actually “rejected” him. Lin’s stats in college were good but not great. As a co-captain of the Harvard team basketball team, his team underachieved and failed to win even the Ivy League.

Lin’s journey into the NBA was not much easier. Cut from Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in first year, Lin had to resort to his faith and to working hardto earn his second chance in the NBA. He got a chance to sign with and to play with the Knicks when the Knicks needed to fill some spots because of injuries. His contract with the Knicks ($800,000 for a year) were not even guaranteed until a couple of weeks ago.

Linsanity is not just a phenomenon in America, it has also spread like wildfire to Asia – especially Mainland China and Taiwan. Both Mainland and Taiwan have naturally basked in the Lin’s success (Mainland on account that Lin is of Chinese descent; Taiwan also on account that Lin is of Taiwanese descent but also on account that both Lin’s parents currently hold ROC citizenship).

I find it curious however that while in America, Linsanity is celebrated as an American thing that brings Americans together – as a vindication that Asian Americans can participate fully in the American dream – in Taiwan, Lin is seen as a symbol of division – a badge of ethnic purity of sorts.

In the media, you hear for example some family members of Lin proclaiming (almost desperately) that even though Lin’s maternal Grandmother is Mainland Chinese (and runs a scholarship in her hometown there), Lin is Taiwanese because “Taiwanese culture is male-dominated” and “her father’s side is Taiwanese. They bragged how her father is 8th generation Taiwanese, having immigrated from Fujian province to Taiwan in 1707. The will to narcissistically claim Lin exclusively is so strong that an urban legend of sorts have sprung that that not only the Mainland Chinese, but also the Koreans, are claiming Lin (according to my Korean friends here, however, while many Koreans in S. Korea do follow Lin with interest, there is no mass movement to claim Lin to be a Korean).

Recently, in an interview with an American journalist, when Ma Ying-jeou continually referred to Lin as Taiwanese, he had to be awkwardly reminded that Lin is “American” not “Taiwanese.” The journalist is right: because Lin was born in America, he can only be American and nothing else. Even if Lin were offered ROC citizenship (or a PRC citizenship, with a spot in China’s basketball team at the 2012 Olympics to boot!), U.S. laws require Lin to forfeit his U.S. citizen if he ever obtains another citizenship.

The more we think about what it means to be Taiwanese as these days, the more I am disgusted. We are not talking about whether someone has ROC citizenship or someone has lived in Taiwan or was born in Taiwan; we are talking about how long someone’s family has been in Taiwan – often in a politicized sort of way.  This type of childish bragging “my family has been here longer than thou” appears to define the essence of being “Taiwanese” today.

Bevin Chu made a good observation recently with respect to Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP candidate that got defeated by Ma earlier this year.

Tsai Ing-wen, DPP candidate for Republic of China President in 2012, has played the “Taiwanese Identity” card

Watch this slickly made campaign commercial, commissioned by Tsai Ing-wen’s campaign committee. But don’t be fooled. The  impeccably professional production values, replete with a cover of Iz Kamakawiwoʻole’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” mask deeply repugnant psychological attitudes.

Tsai’s concluding remarks in the commercial are: “I am Taiwanese, I am Tsai Ing-wen.”

Tsai’s opponent is incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT), who was born in Hong Kong.

Many native English speakers unfamiliar with politics on Taiwan, especially those living in the US, may not fully appreciate what Tsai is getting at. They may have difficulty discerning her subtext. They may find it hard to read between the lines.

To better understand what Tsai Ing-wen is really saying, imagine the same commercial in the US, run by white supremacist David Duke, running against a Barack Obama type “outsider,” someone cast as “not one of us.” Imagine Duke concluding with: “I am American, I am David Duke.”

No one would have the slightest difficulty understanding what Duke was getting at. Everyone would know Duke was implying that his opponent was “not an American, not a white American.”

And so it is with Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP, and the Taiwan independence movement. They remain motivated, today in 2011, as they have been for the past four decades, by atavistic identity politics and petty ethnic hatred.

The more rabidly fundamentalist supporters of Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP, and the Taiwan independence movement are unguarded in their speech. They scream about how “Taiwanese bulls” will exterminate “Chinese pigs,” at the top of their lungs.

Tsai however, gives their barnyard bigotry a kinder, gentler face, the way genteel white supremacists such as Peter Brimelow give white racism a kinder, gentler face.

The sad fact is, DPP leaders and the Taiwan independence movement are motivated at their psychological and emotional core, not by any longing for “democracy, freedom, and human rights,” but by their compulsion to craft a “Taiwanese ethnic and national identity.”

The central defect at the heart of the Taiwan independence movement is not practical. The central defect at the heart of the Taiwan independence movement is moral. The central defect at the heart of the Taiwan independence movement is its self-hating “We’re Taiwanese, not Chinese” identity politics.

As Sisy Chen, former DPP Public Relations Director noted, “The DPP is the KKK of Taiwan.” As Cheng Li-wen, former DPP National Assembly Member noted, “I never wanted to believe that the DPP was racist, but it is.”

I am 10th generation, with family arriving in Taiwan sometime around 1691 and I hold dual ROC and US citizenship: I hope I am “white enough” for these folks. But I beg that they spare one of my friends who was born in Taiwan, holds ROC citizenship and has contributed to Taiwan – but whose father immigrated to Taiwan from Hong Kong shortly after WWII.

Anyways, back to America and the Asian American community, I hope the success of Lin and the phenomenon of Linsanity will bring all Americans further together.  Asians have been among the most discriminated group in America despite their being also known as the model minority. Together with African Americans, Asians were the only other ethnic group explicitly singled out whose basic rights were taken away.

While blacks were deemed to be non-citizens by the Supreme Court in 1857 and did not become citizens until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868, Chinese were singled out and forbidden to enter the country by the Chinese Exclusionary Act, an act that was not repealed until 1943. Not only did the Act prevent Chinese from coming to America, it ostracized for generations the Chinese who were here. Japanese Americans – while for the most part treated well – were interned en mass in 1942 by President Roosevelt under executive order 9066 and were not freed until 1945 when the order was rescinded.

A commenter recently noted:

Pop culture traditionally has painted Asians as awkward, unathletic and never the leading man, like Long Duk Dong from a 1980s film. In just a week, Lin has shattered the stereotype.

To truly appreciate and understand the joy of what Jeremy Lin is doing right now, to know why so many of us Asian American males are wearing his jersey and chanting his name, you had to have cringed as that gong sounded whenever Long Duk Dong came into a scene. You had to be called his name at school and pretend it didn’t hurt and then laugh along with your “friends.” You had to let that shame burn inside you until it bordered on self-loathing.

You had to bear the cross of the “Donger.”

And what is that cross? Historically throughout American pop culture, it alternates between never being depicted and thus never existing OR being depicted in the most humiliating and emasculating light possible.

It means you can never be the lead but always the sidekick (Kato, Sulu, Mike Chang).

To create an import culture car and film franchise only to be relegated into a prop or a villain (The Fast and the Furious).

To never front a band but maybe strum along at stage left (Smashing Pumpkins and Airborne Toxic Event).

It means to never be depicted as handsome or suave or a lady’s man. (Or a gentleman’s man for that matter).

It means to never get to kiss the girl. (In “Romeo Must Die” Jet Li does not kiss Aaliyah and in “The Replacement Killers,” Chow Yun Fat does not kiss Mira Sorvino. I despised Hollywood for a very long time after those transgressions).

But now, within Linsanity, things may finally be changing:

Everyone seems to want a piece of Lin, be it conservative pundits who see affirmation in his devout Christianity and meritocratic rise or sports fans who love a good underdog, especially an undrafted benchwarmer now outplaying all-stars. But perhaps no one else but Asian Americans would claim Lin as “the new Obama” — as Dr. Ravi Chandra, a Psychology Today blogger, did recently, suggesting both men are “a representation of our best self on the world stage.”

[But s]ome in the Asian American community are following “Linsanity” with caution, especially as commentators praise Lin for being “hard working,” “intelligent” and “humble,” words associated with long-standing stereotypes of Asian Americans. Chuck Leung, writing for Slate.com, expressed the fear that “beneath this Linsanity is an invitation for others to preserve these safe archetypes.”

Though Lin’s achievements may conform to the so-called “Model Minority Myth” of Asian American overachievement, his particular style of play works in a different direction….

That was the case with one of Lin’s most signature moments thus far: a game-winning 3-point basket versus the Toronto Raptors where Lin deliberately counted down the game clock for 10 seconds until arching in his shot. Lin then turned and bounded toward his bench with a swagger reminiscent of former Lakers’ clutch shooter Robert Horry.

… “the way that [Lin] celebrates even, it just seems like he’s … a guy who grew up in American basketball culture and picked up its affectations, its pomp.”

In that sense, Lin is helping reshape the popular imagination around Asian Americans in sports, partially by normalizing their presence.

While pockets of America – even among professionals – remains deeply racist, successes like Lin will undoubtedly put the bigots on the defensive and maybe one day completely out of business.

Lin is everyone’s hero. Yes as an Asian American, Chinese American, Taiwanese American, Californian, San Franciscan, Harvard alum – I feel a special bond to Jeremy’s success. But Lin’s success is everyone’s success.

The true spirit of Linsanity is about diverse people coming together and crossing race and ethnicity divides to see we are all fellow human beings – to cheer for each other when one of us triumphs against all odds to succeed as Lin has.

(Photos obtained from Time)

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