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

The thing is, the N.B.A. isn’t a club people get into because of mere hard work, or elite grooming, or cleverness. That's part of the sport's magic, at the professional level. None of the rest of you can do this. And that's a good thing.

Basketball has its elite. They tend to come from a certain place, though, and go through a certain hard-knocks training, as the stereotype goes, and they don’t typically go through the Ivy League or hail from Taiwan. That is the rub here. Lin is not supposed to exist. He is not supposed to be able to make plays on an N.B.A. court, to direct his teammates, to decide when to shoot and when to pass. He’s Asian. He went to Harvard. His parents are immigrants. He studied economics.

Here’s the other thing. Lin is not Yao Ming. Lin is one of the 5 percent of the American population that identifies itself as having Asian ancestry; he is from from here and so he is disposed to the American way of things while remaining a part of an overlooked minority. And that, perhaps, is the signature sentiment of the Jeremy Lin phenomenon that's drawn people in, particularly Asian Americans. We’re all too used to the feeling we've somehow been passed over.

So of everyone who claims him, it is perhaps the Asian Americans, and more particularly Young Asian American Christians of Certain Education, who claim him hardest. As the New York Times’ Michael Luo wrote, “It boils down to a welter of emotions from finally having someone I can relate to enter the public consciousness.”

The connection Luo describes 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.

And by the way, for the record, Jeremy Lin never was drafted.