As with most people, I don’t remember much of my early childhood; I emigrated to the State from Taiwan when I was 5 years old and the only relevant and vivid memories I have from my time on the Formosan island was sitting 2 feet away from a sizable television watching Michael Jordan win his first championships. I still have the Bulls snap-back from back then; the logo is faded and the brim is bent, but it represents the simplest and only remnants of a forgotten upraising.
So it wasn’t far-fetched to feel a sense of pride as Jeremy Lin dropped 25 on the Nets, playing against a premiere point guard in Deron Williams, and then 28 on Utah to take command of a team without two of the top 15 players in the league, let alone his team. Tonight, he plays against John Wall, the player picked in draft in 2010 before anyone else, the same draft that Lin himself wasn’t picked in. Facebook and Twitter will explode like it did the last two games, and the story will continue to write itself.
The day after the Nets game, I watched the Super Bowl with a few other Asian Americans and an innocuous conversation started about Jeremy Lin’s success. I had, over the last 24 hours, scoured over all media coverage of Jeremy Lin and absorbed much of it as I could, and as I juxtaposed that coverage, on ESPN, basketball and sports blogs, and newspapers, with the conversation I had with Asian American peers, I realized that the dialogue was different; we we’re appreciating him for different reasons.
If you look into it, Lin’s exposure is rather curious. Averaging 26 points over 2 games isn’t much to rave about; it doesn’t always happen, but it does happen. After all, there are rookies and sophomores out there who are having better years than Jeremy Lin (Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Paul George to name a few), with less exposure. And while the event is historic , the history is terribly uninteresting. Who cares that no one’s put up a 25 point, 8 assist game in their first start since Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas did it? Or that the last person to score 20 points in the NBA from the Ivy League was journeyman Chris Dudley, who only averaged 3 points per game in his career? To put in perspective; I doubt many NBA fans remember when Brandon Jennings dropped 55 points his rookie year; and the story was gone in a matter of days, if not hours. It definitely helps that he’s in biggest market in the United States, but what if someone else did it? What if that player were Iman Shumpert? Would it still be news? Would there be LinSanity?
The point is, America’s intrigued with Jeremy Lin because he’s Asian, but America fails to acknowledge it openly; solely hinting at the phenomenon without addressing it. That’s like completely ignoring a festering wound that’s the size of the elephant sitting in the room. In many cases, it can’t. Overt conversations about race is a marketing and media third rail; you may be able to walk by and approach it, but you’re dead if you touch it. ABC/ESPN can’t dedicate segments his ethnic identity, it faces too much pressure from third parties. It’s more than that; Jeremy Lin has been forced to carry on his shoulder the burden of an entire race simply by association and under-representation, and the Asian American community perpetuates this. In the same way that his success is OUR success in tearing down stereotypes and fighting bigotry, his potential failure becomes OUR failure, and that become dangerous.
That becomes dangerous because if he does fail, Asians are then perceived as weak and emasculated; physically inferior to a game dominated by African and Euro-Americans. It’s dangerous because if he succeeds, it perpetuates the Model Minority (I’m sorry, but the VioLin? Is that not the most tiger-mother coded reference ever? That’s the best you could come up with? Thousands of fans carrying violins? Because you can’t spell it without L-I-N? Why not MandoLins? There’s an abbreviation for mandarin in there too! Let’s talk about how he can’t play at UCLA or Stanford because they’re a Division 1 school, but was a sure-in at an Ivy League school.)
Now don’t get me wrong, Jeremy Lin might not fail, but that’s no guarantee for his success either. But the subtleties of race made this a story, and by ignoring a deeper conversation about it as a nation, the Asian American community sets itself up to criticism. Maybe, just maybe, he stops being a novelty, but I doubt it. This isn’t something we can openly address; and if America doesn’t address it, the Asian American community always will; we’re going to “ride him like freakin’ Secretariat.” And if we’re lucky, he’ll carry us into a new age of racial understanding, but if not?