Jeremy Lin and the limitations of the ‘hard-working Asian American’ narrative

Jeremy Lin in college. (gocrimson.com)
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Edmund Lee

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Two years ago, one of my wife’s friends, an ardent basketball fan, was bending my ear about a kid with a frighteningly familiar face and a talent for playing. The kid was, he said, very close to being drafted into the N.B.A.

I shook my head and smiled, not just because of the low likelihood of any able-bodied talent at being drafted into a professional sports league, but because this kid, this tyro talent, felt too much like one of us. Too much, in particular, like my wife's friend, who happened to be an Asian-American Ivy League graduate with spiky hair, an unassuming visage, and a towering devotion to both the court and the church.

“Is he good?” I remember asking.

“He’s one of the top-ranked players at his college,” he said.

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When I found out which college, I snickered. We ended the conversation shortly after.

Two years later, everyone is talking about Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American athlete. They're glaring and gabbing, in New York and everywhere else, for precisely all the reasons I did not want talk about the surprisingly good kid from Harvard two years ago.

You could argue that this talk is so all-consuming because it's happening in New York. We are a talking town, a media town, and Jeremy Lin possesses all the narrative codes that make him accessible to everyone.

In any event, everyone has claimed him. Basketball stars, journalists, coaches and N.B.A. professionals have taken the unusual step of confessing their sins and admitting their neglect and in so doing can now assert themselves by analyzing Lin’s found brilliance.

“This guy is for real,” Magic Johnson said of Lin after the Knicks’ 92-85 win over the Lakers last week. “He is for real… He’s smart enough and clever enough … He makes everyone better.”

The internet has claimed him too. A medium whose conceit is mass liberation—the ability to fracture established holds over everyday narratives by giving equal voice to everyone—has suddenly, somehow contracted around a single man in the last week.

Media-business blogger Peter Kafka, in a post titled “Who Put Sports in my Twitter Again? The Jeremy Lin Explainer,” wrote: “…in the last week Jeremy Lin has become a national sensation, and one who resonates with a certain slice of tech-savvy Twitter and Facebook users. Which means you’re going to see a lot of him, at least in the very near future.”

My internet was flooded a bit sooner. My friend network on Facebook tends toward Asian Americans, many of them graduates of the Evil Eight and regular attendees of Sunday services. Over the last few months and weeks, the occasional Jeremy Lin note would burble up in my Facebook feed.

“He didn’t get enough time, but nice outing,” one of my friends posted, with a link to the box scores. “Maybe someone’ll get injured and he’ll get more minutes.”

That was posted two weeks ago, shortly before an acute point-guard crisis forced Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni to give Lin a try.

Spike Lee, a New York native and lifelong Knicks devotee, held court on Twitter, approving worthy Lin nicknames—Jeremy "STOP ASIAN PROFI-"LIN”—and dismissing hateful ones.

Yes, Spike Lee, standing up for the skinny Asian-American Harvard grad because, yes, Lin is a Knick, and because of his talent and newfound New York citizenry (couch and all), but also because of Lin’s Asian-American-ness.

Lin, from what I can tell from the saturation coverage of him, hasn’t evoked race once. That’s for everyone else to do. Or to not do. Spike has claimed race for Lin in a way the athlete could not have done for himself (and remain the “humble Harvard hero”), projecting it onto the his 189,000 Twitter followers. Take a look. The scroll is endless. My wife was actually worried Spike had somehow lost his mind; the level of Lin obsession on his twitter feed is many orders of magnitude higher than what has been playing out on my Facebook feed.

And the Asian-American thing—that's harder to understand, even for me, an Asian American. It’s hard for us to see Lin accepted, not because it isn’t wonderful (it is), but because of that moment when he will stop being the uncanny underdog star. That moment will come soon, even if there's no hint of it in the reporting of the New York Times.

The Times article is both welcome and wearisome in the way that the Times can sometimes be when addressing the intersection of race and culture. The reporter talks to a bar full of Young Asian-American Christians of Certain Education declaiming their Jeremy Lin pride. One talks about how Lin’s “success” has reaffirmed for him our distinct Asian ethos of hard work:

Daniel Chao, a Los Angeles native, wore a Kobe Bryant jersey, but he bought a Lin jersey for his wife, Kendra. He said that Lin’s record of success, despite his humble beginnings and his many setbacks, had inspired him at his own job at a health insurance firm. “In Asian culture, you’re supposed to do hard work and you’ll get noticed,” he said. “All the hard work I’ve put into where I am -- maybe I could be that executive.”

Really? Lin worked hard, so I should work hard? Yes, Lin has worked hard, but there’s much more that can’t be explained by hours clocked. Even Kobe Bryant, who knows that all too well, had this to say after losing to Lin: “It’s a testament to perseverance and hard work, and I think a good example for kids everywhere.”

These are spoken clichés that identify who the star of the game is. We’re supposed to say these things even if no one believes these things.

Sports, like Hollywood, has always been about star-making, seeking and minting that ineffable stride, finding that “something” that can’t be nurtured through sole industrial effort. It is a uniquely American rite, and Lin has achieved that “something.” To say it was the result of hard work sells short this thing everyone is calling Linsanity.

Basketball is a dance, a contest of athleticism and muscle memory that doesn't require complex diagrams or Sabermetrics to explain it. It’s a show, improvised within loose guidelines, and artistic in a way that almost no other sport can claim to be. That a Young Asian American Christian of Certain Education can dance with the best of them is the thing that’s throwing off everyone’s worldview. So the pundits talk about Lin's high "basketball I.Q." when dissecting his play. He dances, but he dances smart.