Wesley Yang wrote a provocative article about Asian-Americans and the looming cloud of ancestral culture for New York Magazine last May. It was an interesting piece, outlining with specific examples and case studies on how Asian culture has mass-produced successful teens, but mediocre Americans. I’ve read it a handful of times, each time reacting slightly different: an emphatic nod, a wince, a vehement disagreement.
There are great points in the article; a few I was afraid to admit to myself. If it isn’t already clear from my last name, I’m an Asian-American. I’m small, and at times, I can be unassuming and meek. Like Yang, I’m not always so comfortable in my own skin. But there was some gravity in Jeremy Lin’s performance against the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night. Every single one of his possessions had me on the floor, overwhelmed with pride and unfiltered elation. I’d never screamed so loud, and it’d been a long time since a single game moved me to tears. Whether it’s been officially bestowed upon him or not, Jeremy Lin carries the hopes and dreams of entire Asian generations on his shoulders. I struggle to think of another moment where we as a community had been so proud of who we are.
No one really knows what to expect from Lin anymore. What was supposed to be a comedown game against the Lakers became something miraculous. We don’t know how long he can keep this up, and for the many (myself included) who have been somewhat skeptical of this run, his play continues to suspend our doubt, almost force-feeding us reasons to believe. Perhaps the most tantalizing reason is Lin’s probing of the lanes, providing us an almost unfair tease given the personnel around him and the image that conjures. Of course, he’d be taking cues from another unheralded point guard whose unlikely background made opportunities scarce.
This phenomenon is more than just a celebration of points on the board, right? What is Linsanity? How does he affect the Asian-American community, and the community of Asian immigrants worldwide? What do we see in Jeremy Lin?
He’s dominated Twitter for the past week, but the tweets that strike me the most are the ones attempting to lump Lin and Yao Ming together. No, Jeremy Lin is not an addendum to Yao Ming’s legacy. No, Linsanity doesn’t render Yao’s time in the league obsolete. No one can replicate what Yao did as an ambassador for the game, nor will anyone be able to duplicate the refined artistry of his post game standing 7’6″. Yao was always a singular case. While he was very much his own person (who else could even dream of being Yao Ming?), it’s impossible to separate Yao from China. His will was China’s will. His effort was China’s effort. He was built to serve his homeland; to propagate his two loves with the world: his country, and basketball. For me, that isn’t what Jeremy Lin is about.
“You are American!” my parents always tell me. They say so with smiles and sardonic inflection. I am. I’m American. I was born in California, I don’t speak my native tongue all too well, and I’ve never been to any part of Asia (though I would love to). At a young age, I was taught essential Asian cultural doctrines, filial piety being chief among them. Respect your elders, and don’t let them down. They’ve sacrificed everything for this one golden opportunity you have here in America. They’ve worked, prayed, and cried tears of blood for you. Don’t waste time. Work hard, study, practice, be a good human being. I’ve seen my parents let down once before. I never want to see that again. We learn that sacrifices need to be made for the good of oneself and one’s family. That may or may not include the dissolution of dreams.
But I’m American! What do I have if I don’t have dreams? The typical high-ranking professions are the gold standard for Asian parents. They’re financially stable, a mark of prestige, and always hiring. But we don’t all dream of being doctors, lawyers, and financial analysts. For those of us who don’t quite fit those specific molds, we’re stuck in crisis. We struggle in a tug-of-war between our ingrained ancestral identity; our filial piety, our duty to carry out the will of the family, and our own dreams. Some of us never find that balance, relinquishing our passions for a life built around crippling pragmatism or bitterly abandoning our ancestry completely. But some of us do find the balance to appease elements of our past, present, and future.
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.
Jeremy Lin is humble, spiritual, and disciplined. He is also fearless, aggressive, and creative. He’s found his mode of expression and his definition of success. Whether he blossoms into a legitimate NBA star or shatters his glass slipper sitting at the end of the bench is of little importance to me. Ethan Sherwood Strauss may be right. He may never exist as anything other than Jeremy Lin, the symbol — but only because the symbol does not stray far (if at all) from Jeremy Lin, the individual. Beyond the ability to galvanize an entire population of Asian-Americans or the ability to spin the narrative of the stereotypical Asian overachiever, what inspires me most is how comfortable he is with his abilities and his place among the best basketball players in the world; how comfortable he is with himself. While I was raised to believe in a culturally-assigned definition of success, more than ever, I have faith in my ability to form my own definition. If Jeremy Lin has proven anything, it’s just how vital being true to oneself is.
Lin has found his mode of expression; a force with the power to subvert preconceptions, a force that highlights the individual in positive and negative light, a force that can articulate dreams so vividly, fruition is the only plausible end. He’s found it in his relentless forays to the rim, finishing plays with an improbable grace and flourish — something he’s done long before the lights of New York shined down upon him.
What do we see in Jeremy Lin? Ourselves — and the options in life that we may not have truly believed existed before.
I’m Asian. I’m American. I’m small, unassuming, and meek. But I have a voice and I have control. And I hope that one day I’ll be able to showcase it as confidently as Jeremy Lin has with his.