Culture Breach Exclusive: Jeremy Lin blog summit

jeremy_linEditors’ note: In honor of America’s newest hardwood hero, Jeremy Lin, we thought it would be fun to host a WWA (Writers With Attitude) pow-wow to help us answer some of the stickier questions about hype, identity, and cultural representation. Joining our panel are Oliver Wang, sociology professor at Long Beach State and co-founder of poplicks; Jay Kang of Free Rashad, and author of this mammoth two-parter on Lin; and Hua Hsu, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, and who penned this Lin-centered op-ed. Breach on, my fellow breachers. Breach on.

Oliver Wang: I’m of at least two minds when it comes to Lin. On the one hand, I think he’s a great story, both because he’s such an underdog figure given his route to the NBA and because he’s also an unorthodox figure as this Palo-Alto, born-again-Bible-thumper whose on-court skills are contrasted with a seemingly un-swaggerish off-court presence. (Maybe he can get Carmelo to loan out his tat artist and get “I Ball For Christ” inked on his triceps).

On the other hand, I’m more ambivalent when it comes to the question of “How big of a deal is Lin?” which isn’t to take anything away from his accomplishments, but is more to ask what a figure like Lin means at this cultural moment in Asian American history. I don’t doubt that, amongst the AZN hoopheads that Jay was writing about, Lin is a Big Fucking Deal. And as an athlete, Lin certainly seems like the most interesting Asian American sports figure to emerge in at least a generation (who doesn’t wear skates). I think if Lin had emerged 10 years ago, my reaction to him would probably have been far more dramatic but in 2010, I see Lin as more of a capstone to an already remarkable decade for Asian American entry into mainstream media culture. I’ve seen my former Cal classmate, John Cho, become a legit sex symbol, successful actor and ass-kicking Sulu. I’ve seen a show like Lost practically triple the number of Asian/Asian American actors on network primetime. I’ve seen America’s Best Dance Crew become the de facto competition for Asian America’s Best Dance Crew. And do we even need to talk about Youtube and the Nga Hgas and Legacis of the social media generation? So within that environment, Lin feels more part of a wave than the leader of one (at least until he wins MVP and leads the Warriors to the finals, presumably to play the Lebron-less Cavaliers). I know the timing is coincidental, but Lin strikes me as a fascinating counterpoint to the forthcoming reality show, K-Town. Superficially, they stand at opposite ends of the “positive/negative” image spectrum but I wonder if they help accomplish the same goal: diversify and normalize the mainstream media impressions of Asian America.

How Lin relates back to race, the body, and masculinity is complicated, to say the least, but my quick impression is that, for me, it’s less about dominance and more about parity, less about competition and more about validation.  In other words, I don’t care who Lin can dunk on (not that I wouldn’t have delighted to see someone like Lin posterize Mark Madsen back in the day), so long as he can dunk. I don’t know how to express this without it sounding like I’m saying, “we’re just happy to be here,” but ultimately, for my sensibilities, Lin’s entry into the conversation is what matters most. For better or for worse, I came of age in the second generation of Asian American Studies (and last era of Asian American Movement politics), for whom the ability simply to be heard was considered a victory. I realize that perspective may not wash with everyone but it still holds sway for me.

My last point (and I apologize for doing this so hit-and-run) but if we’re talking about the masculine identity of Asian men, to me, the greater insecurity isn’t who can play on court but who can score in the bedroom (forgive the bad pun AND crassness). In other words, it’s not the lack of physicality that is the source of our collective anxiety but the belief in our un-desirability. I don’t think Lin does much for that at all (until he convinces Jessica Alba to leave her husband or something).

Passing the hot potato to Hua now…

Hua Hsu: A couple months back, I was browsing through some back issues of early 1970s Asian American “movement” newspapers, and I came across an op-ed on the occasion of Bruce Lee’s death. I’ve always understood Lee to be some ideal, cross-cultural, transnational touchstone, so I was surprised to read an evisceration of Lee and what he had come to “represent.” The newspaper’s protest was that Lee hadn’t devoted himself to fighting “capitalism” in his movies, only other humans, and that his individual stardom did little to uplift the masses that propped him up.

It struck me as ridiculous, but it was also a familiar instinct, this question of representative “enough.” If we view someone like Lee or, in this case, Jeremy Lin, as somehow representative of a broader community, what kind of expectations can (should) we project upon them? Is the mere fact of representation “enough” or do we need to guide that representation toward anything? (It’s complex enough when the representation is literal and expectations have concrete metrics…I still can’t feel “a way” about right-leaning Asian American politicians…is “representation” and its diffuse possibilities a self-sufficient political position?)

I started hearing about Lin last fall, and despite what happened versus U. Conn, I didn’t make much of it. Throughout my basketball-watching life, the Ivy League has been one of those places where you can expect “novelty”–Pete Carril and Princeton, the “other” Michael Jordan, Tommy Amaker’s gainful employment, etc. Had Lin been doing his thing consistently at Stanford or Cal, perhaps I would have dared dream, but an Asian American guy tearing up Columbia didn’t exactly excite me. I spent last year at Harvard and I was able to go to a lot of home games–even then, he only occasionally impressed me, though I’m sure this had to do with an inconsistent supporting cast and fellow Ivy Leaguers desperate to stump the conference star. Lin showed flashes of skill, but he ultimately struck me as a player who, at best, might find his way into a system where he wouldn’t be expected to do much more than play some tenacious defense, dive for loose balls and not lose the game (the Lakers or Spurs, perhaps). Obviously he was a lot better than my amateur projections. (I’ve always been a terrible prognosticator. Based on a 1997 afternoon spent watching the McDonald’s All American game, I remain tethered to the idea that Larry Hughes and Khalid El-Amin simply never found the right systems for their near-infinite talents.)

Part of my underestimation might have been a reaction to the publicity, which seemed to make Lin out to be much better than he actually appeared to be. And the idea that he represented “our” only/last chance, as a community, to find a way into the NBA seemed absurd as well. Which is another way of saying I’m not sure there will be any enduring ripple effect if he never plays, or is out of the league within a year or two. Even if he fails spectacularly (which is improbable, given that he is playing for the Warriors…he’ll probably be starting by February) I don’t think this ruins the path for any other Asian American basketball players out there. Maybe it’s my own cynicism–I somewhat doubt most NBA viewers will bother to distinguish between Lin-the-Asian American and Yao, etc-the-Asians. But at this point, NBA scouting is so diffuse and global, front offices are a tad more diverse (Jay—I was really fascinated by your Lin/Rich Cho comparison), etc…the stakes don’t seem so high, and the constituency isn’t so uniform, at least not compared to someone like Tamir Goodman in the 1990s.

I don’t mean to rehash this longstanding “Asians-as-Jews” conversation. It’s just that if you watch the Goodman clip, there’s a real sense of us/them, inside/outside community, etc—there are clear delineations where, for the Asian Americans that Jeremy Lin is meant to represent, there are only eyeballed approximations. I guess I agree with Oliver’s view that, generally speaking, this has been a powerful decade for Asian Americans in the cultural imagination. Or maybe the way we approach and consume culture—as something which is customizable, aggressively social, etc—has altered which categories of identity we privilege or act upon. Or maybe we found a new set of tropes for American masculinity. Obviously such triumphs in the image-world doesn’t necessarily make any of our lives better, but it’s slightly tweaked my expectations, and made me reconsider what I “want” from figures like Lin, if anything. I was really struck by Jay’s observation about Lin dunking on Jerome Dyson as opposed to someone like Jon Scheyer (though I would have enjoyed that too). There was something elusively thrilling about that moment. But for me it had less to do with Dyson’s blackness, per se—it was the sensation of seeing Lin excel against someone who was actually good, and excel in an unexpected way (i.e. with athleticism). Dyson was one of the most athletic (if not best) players in that game and he was a prospect from what then seemed like a high quality team from a bona fide conference. This isn’t to abstract the race stuff out of that moment—is it possible to watch American basketball and not think about race politics/racialization? Maybe it’s that I don’t really associate with Lin, so my attachment (and pride) is ultimately abstract, amorphous, low-priority. I don’t really expect anything out of him.

I’m rambling and I’m sure I’ve exceeded my word allotment. But I just wanted to touch on something Oliver said about Lin as the “underdog.” Lin is certainly an “underdog” figure—he’s already guaranteed to become some kind of cult hero, and not just among AZNs. It’s just weird to me that a middle class dude with a Harvard degree can ever be considered an underdog…I suppose this is why I find the idea of the “underdog,” with its hint of moral superiority, so maddening.

JK: Hines Ward is somewhere in the middle of all this. Here’s a guy who was born in Korea and raised in the South by his Korean mother. He plays a glamor position for a glamor team in America’s #1 sport. His toughness is so legendary that every time the Steelers play on TV, the announcers are required to gush for at least three minutes about Hines Ward and playing the game the right way. He won a Super Bowl MVP and he will probably make it into the Hall of Fame, not so much based on his stats, which will probably fall just short of HOF numbers, but because of his heart and physicality. Unlike Lin, who, I agree, seems non-committal, at best, about the whole Great Yellow Hope thing, Ward is an active advocate, both here in the States and over in Korea, for kids who are borne of a Black Gi and a Korean woman. Anyone who has been to Korea or grew up in a Korean household knows that these kids don’t stand a fucking chance in that country and Ward’s work is certainly much needed, and, at least within an athlete’s context, heroic. A few years ago, I went to go visit my parents in Seoul and I was struck by the amount of Hines Ward schwag in the streets– every knock-off jersey store had a wall of Ward jerseys, street vendors hawked Steelers hats alongside fake Prada bags. The idea that a half-Black, half-Korean guy raised in the States could have such a visible place in Korea is actually transformative and inspirational.

And yet, we mostly ignore Hines Ward. Why? And why do we care about Jeremy Lin? Hua and Oliver are right– he’s not even really all that good and certainly lacks Ward’s everyman charisma. I can’t really articulate the answer to this in any precise or even illuminating way, but I do think that’s the question at the heart of the split between Hua/Oliver and myself. If we truly live in a pluralistic society and all of us are as post-race as the liberal rhetoric would have us believe, Hines Ward should be the Barack Obama of sports. He is not. It’s impossible for me to believe that the reason for this isn’t tied up entirely in Ward’s Blackness and a passive, perhaps even subconscious rejection of Ward by the hordes of Asian-American sports fans who have taken up the mantle of Jeremy Lin. So, I guess that’s the question I want to follow up with here: why not Hines Ward?

OW: Jay, I think you answer your own question: in the racial logic of America, Ward is Black, not Asian, regardless of his own identity or advocacy that would suggest otherwise. It’s the same reason Tiger Woods – who is probably at least half Asian, if not more – is Black. Hell, it’s the same reason Barack Obama is Black even though his mom was White.

Lin, however, is “full” and that, in this case, makes all the difference, the same way him being Chinese American and not an immigrant also makes a big difference to “us”.

Brian Hu: I’m fascinated by how generational contexts might be leading us in different interpretations of the whole Lin phenomenon.  It has to be at least partly geographic as well.  I grew up in post-Monterey Park Asian America, in the suburbs bordering LA and Orange County.  I played JV basketball in high school, and anybody who knows from where I hail and who’s seen me play ball would know to immediately ask: you went to an Asian high school, didn’t you?  I did, and in fact our high school JV and varsity teams were made up of every color of Asian imaginable, so much so that we never thought of ourselves as Asian — of course except when we played other schools.  I think a lot of Asian Americans are growing up this way now, in suburbs from SF to Chi-town to Houston.  And though we shouldn’t generalize the new generation, I think that a lot of us who grew up in our Asian ghettos (and who participated in things like Japanese or Chinese American basketball leagues) were raised not worrying about if Asian Americans could make it on the next level since we saw that on the high school circuit it was already happening, but simply about when it’d happen and who‘d have the honor.  Not to be our only and last chance, but to be our first chance.  Not to “represent” in the sense of good/bad representation on the national stage, but to “represent” as a way of throwin’ up fingers and making our presence felt.  Yeah I’m Asian.  Now watch me dunk on you.

Call us spoiled, but we want to see parity and dominance.  Parity because we recognize that this is still a political issue.  Don’t forget that for all the debate on Lin’s skill set, there was that lingering suspicion before summer league that Lin wasn’t being considered seriously because of his race.  That still boils our blood and makes us back him more as the underdog.  Dominance because we’re tired of tokenism, tired of People magazine having Asian faces in the middle of their “most beautiful” issue and not on the cover.  Which is why we’re willing to be so flexible about what is “Asian American,” including great athletes like Hines Ward (who nobody but us in America even thinks of as Asian) and Yao Ming (who is a freak of nature, let alone a freak of Asian-ness).  And which is why most of us are taking a wait-and-see attitude on Lin, since we know better than to expect dominance from him.

On the issue of transnational stardom, I think we can say that China and Taiwan crave dominance as well.  They’re not going to jump on the Lin bandwagon just based on parity (though the Taiwanese government will try, since for them parity is a political act).  As far as I know, nobody’s buying Sun Yue or Mengke Bateer jerseys in China.  And kids (and old kids like my grandpa) in Taiwan are baseball savvy enough to know that Wang Chien-ming isn’t just representing Taiwan with his passport, he’s representin’ Taiwan with his ERA.  That Lin is Taiwanese American will not matter because the concept of diaspora overshadows that of Asian Americanness there.  That another Lin — Justin — was called “the light of Taiwan” in Tokyo Drift advertising in the Taiwanese media speaks to the fact that they’re ready to hail Taiwanese Americans as soon as they’re North American box office champions.

I suppose it might come down to what we mean by “dominance.”  As Hua pointed out, for a certain generation (or specifically, a certain 1970s political faction), Bruce Lee was ultimately a weakling.  And as Oliver throws in (and I admit I agree with), Asian American male dominance will be measured in the bedroom (to continue Oliver’s crass and awkward puns).  But “dominance,” like “Asian American,” is something we’re prone to be flexible with, as long as it brings us our jollies and our talking points.  (Might it be that Lin is more of a male hero because basketball is a more sexed-up sport than figure skating or baseball, and by some fucked-up logic, closer to blackness?)  And let’s not forget that this flexibility of signification is a marketer’s dream.  If we make Justin Lin “Taiwanese” enough, we can sell out more screenings in Taipei.  If we make Hines Ward “Korean” enough, we can sell more memorabilia.  If we make Jeremy Lin “dominant” enough, we can sell more season tickets.  Could it be that if the Bay Area Asians come out in droves, the Warriors won’t have to break .500 to be winners?

Chi Tung: I think what Jay’s getting at here is the age-old fascination with cultural ownership, which I’m sure we’ve all spent much of our lives puzzling over. Hines Ward is a fascinating, near-life-imitates-art example of Dave Chappelle’s now-legendary skit, “The Racial Draft.” Of course, we all remember the Whites claiming Tiger Woods and the Asians claiming the Wu-Tang Clan — from a broadly neat sociocultural perspective, it seemed appropriate and uncontroversially controversial enough, not to mention being pretty damn hilarious.

Jay’s also right that Ward’s off-the-field accomplishments make him an ideal candidate for real-life Asian American heroism. But I wonder if the fact that Blacks would much rather “claim” someone like Ward — who happens to be a supremely gifted athletic specimen, and tough-as-nails too — than Tiger Woods (even before all the philandering), helps explain the reluctance for Asian Americans to embrace him in the same way we’re now embracing Lin. Mixed-race identity definitely mucks up the discourse: celebrity Blasians like Ne-yo, Kelis, and Pharrell lie much closer to the dominant end of the spectrum than Jin, whose sole claim to fame as a battle-rapper has yet to garner him any widespread acclaim. Yet we ride for Jin, as Jay writes, in the same way we cheer for Lin, because they’re up against a stacked deck, in daring to challenge a racial/cultural/social hierarchy that comes with its own set of predetermined rules. Mixed-race accomplishments, on the other hand, have an air of entitlement surrounding them, as if hybridity breeds only contempt and impossibly beautiful faces.

Before we lose our way into the rabbit hole that is mixed-race politics, I want to revisit an earlier point Oliver made about Asian American male sexuality, and plug it back into transnational identity. While it’s true that John Cho and Daniel Dae Kim have become household names in American pop-culture, their status as all-out sex symbols is hardly undisputed. Even when People Magazine named Kim as one of the 50 most beautiful men, it struck me as a conciliatory gesture (Hey Asian America: here’s our olive branch to you for all the years of Long Duk-Dong abuse). But in Asia, pop stars ooze exoticism and get away with songs that fetishize Taiwanese girls. (Or, in the case of Edison Chen, you simply become a sex-lebrity.) I say this out of deference to unquestioned demigods like Wang Leehom and Daniel Wu, but also from firsthand experience; in my three years in Shanghai as a sub-lebrity TV host, my desirability couldn’t have been any higher if my karaoke singing voice had magically morphed into Luther Vandross’.

Perhaps this also speaks to Jay’s point about Ward’s marketability in South Korea — it couldn’t hurt that the man is easy on the eyes. It’s hard to imagine Jeremy Lin ever melting hearts like that in the States (except maybe at whatever congregational gathering he attends regularly). But in Taiwan (where he’s already a press magnet) and even in China, it will be interesting to see if his stock — and the temperatures of tweens everywhere — will continue to rise. I guess we’ll have to wait until NBA preseason starts to find out…

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