Yellow Mamba. Fortune Rookie. The Linja.
Oh boy. Obviously, it’s completely impossible to talk about Jeremy Lin without talking about race. Mindful of the other Asian players who’ve played in the NBA, I think it’s still safe to say that Lin is the Asian player who, through a combination of circumstance, luck, timing, and some monster performances, has captured America’s admittedly infantile and famously fickle imagination.
But the true testament to how rare a phenomenon Jeremy Lin is in the NBA is this: NBA fans have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about him. As with any Asian person in popular culture, people’s first resort is a torrent of pan-Asian racist gibberish: If it has anything to do with any country, food, product, concept, or stereotype involving Asia, the rule is basically, “Make any association or equivalence you want, whatever….”
The case of Lin, however, brings out another issue unique to basketball, summed up fairly succinctly in this Tweet, from @itsGQ: “Where tha fuck this Jeremy Lin nigga came from??”
And with that, we have a bit of unpacking to do.
I have to admit that I’ve been pulled in by Linsanity, or at least reading every news article and thinkpiece I come across. In part it’s because I’m looking to groan at a writer who gets it wrong when talking about him and/or his race (the same impulse that keeps me reading the comments sections of online news stories). Despite being neither Taiwanese nor American, I definitely have felt the “one of our own” pride that many have described, which is maybe what keeps me reading.
What I’m really hoping for, I think, is that this is the beginning of a dialogue about how we talk about Asian people, and especially North American-born Asian people. This piece demonstrates that the current vocabulary is fairly limited, and that for Asian-Americans, in the public mind, what comes before the hyphen is the only thing that matters, so much so that it’s a surprise when what comes after the hyphen is demonstrated to any extent. As Edmund Lee writes at Capital New York:
The connection Luo describes [in the New York Times] is real and it’s one I feel too, but I also can’t help but feel it’s a reaction to the reaction as much as anything else. We Asian Americans are pointing to the TV screens and the Twitter streams and saying, “See, see, as long as you see what I know, then we’ve won.” Meanwhile, really, I know that Jeremy Lin is as distinct from me as anyone else on the court.
We are not Jeremy Lin. Rather, the triumphal narrative here is that the rest of the world now has some small clue about our own miscellany, our own idiosyncrasies and beliefs. We are not all Tiger Mom cubs. We are not so uniform and so blind to feeling and emotion and that we can’t swagger and sway. We’re not merely silent strivers. Some of us can dunk and drive and smile like everyone else.