Editor’s Note: Joseph Horner weighs in on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon.
When someone becomes famous, many people turn to stereotypes to explain the success. When Asian American Harvard graduates become professional basketball players, it makes some people’s brains explode. Jeremy Lin’s recent wild success in the New York spotlight is giving the rest of us an opportunity to explore what it means to be Asian in America.
Basketball has always been a landmine of racial stereotypes. “Oh, he’s fast because…” or “Really, it’s easy for her because…” You know the drill. It’s just easier to think this ‘race’ or that ‘family’ is naturally gifted in some way. A person may be elite, but simple explanations creep into our thoughts and words about how God, or fate, or genetics, or whatever already dealt that person a good hand. The person may play their hand well, but they were dealt a flippin’ good hand (excuse my Utah talk).
Since games are played on the court and not in a laboratory, basketball offers the opportunity for individuals to find meaning in the strengths and weaknesses of their culture as their representatives compete. James Naismith’s ideas of Muscular Christianity still contribute to the Myth of the Scrappy White Guy. The great minds at Freedarko have dissected the Jewish relationship to the game.
I’m Asian American — born that way, as a matter of fact. Half so: My mother (full-blooded mainland Chinese) and father (Idahoan) met at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho back when it was kind of uncool to do the cross–culture marriage thing. My mother’s father disowned them when they got married, while my father’s dad was slightly more kind — offering up a not-so-subtle “Why can’t you just find a white girl to marry?” I don’t blame them, 30+ years later. It was the times, it was somewhat-rural Idaho. That’s just how things were. It’s human nature to embrace stereotypes when you really just don’t know.
Here’s the rub though. Both my parents were raised in Idaho, both spoke fluent English, both are as American as apple pie and sweet and sour chicken (Chinese – not really, Delicious – yes). Consequentially, so was I. White-bread former NBA player Joe Alexander knows more Chinese than Chinese-American Joseph Horner (me).
That being said, despite being one of the few people with some Asian blood in my elementary school, I never felt stereotyped growing up — other than a few hopeful “Can you teach me Karate?” pleas from fellow 10 year-old schoolmates.
That all changed in high school math class. You see, I was a good student. I was expected to be a good student, and I was especially expected to be good at math. Somehow the “Asians-rock-at-math” stereotype made its way to rural Idaho. Blame it on whatever you want: media portrayals, whiz kids on TV, or even ancestors counting rice patties (see Gladwell, Malcolm), the stereotype existed.
Unfortunately, “You’re good at math” is the opposite of “You’re good at sports.” I wasn’t. I tried, but my lanky 6’3″ not-so-Chinese frame just could never get the coordination down. I played for fun but never at a competitive level of any sort. The equation of “Tall + Asian” must have caused some kind of stereotype inter-brain explosion for the residents of my town.
Growing up, I never saw any Asian Americans contributing in major professional sports. This was especially true of my beloved NBA and the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. Stereotype or not, this was a fact. I have to admit, never seeing examples of athletic success made it hard to believe it was possible at times. Consequentially, I choose the other way. While I never blamed my lack of athletic skill on my heritage, I’m fully ready to blame my academic success on it. In a related note, I’m now working on a PhD.
What does this have to do with Jeremy Lin? He’s the second Asian American to play in the NBA (after Ogden’s own Wat Misaka). Is he over-hyped in typical NY fashion after a few games? Yeah, but I don’t care. I believe in everyone there is part of you that wants to see someone, somewhere, somewhat like you succeed in something that you can’t. There is a part of you that wants to know it can be done, that those stereotypes aren’t true. I, like all others of the “knowledge is power” generation grew up believing that with a little college and a lot of work I could do anything. But part of me never really believed that applied to sports. So, thanks Jeremy Lin. Thanks for showing me it can be done.
Joseph Horner is a Chinese-Caucasian clinical psychology grad student and Utah Jazz fan from Idaho. No, really. Follow him here: @josephhorner