Even if you do not follow professional sports, you have probably heard that there is a whole lot of fuss going on about someone named Jeremy Lin. He’s the 23-year-old New York Knicks point guard who has transformed from last man on the bench to the team’s savior faster than you can say “Linsanity.”
A man of committed Christian faith, Lin has attributed his successes to God and directed all accolades towards his fellow teammates, prompting television commentators to dub him “the humble hero from Harvard,” which by the way is an unlikely source for professional basketball players. Born in Los Angeles, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin experienced success at the high school and collegiate levels, yet was not drafted by any NBA team. Instead, he bounced around the league until he finally landed with the Knicks late last year.
Just a little over a week ago, Lin was sleeping on his brother’s couch and wondering if the Knicks were going to keep him on the team. But as injuries whittled down the Knicks’ roster, Lin’s number was called against the New Jersey Nets on February 4th. He scored an improbable 25 points, started in the next four games, and repeated the seemingly impossible by scoring in double digits each time, including 38 points in a prime-time, nationally-televised performance against Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
It’s an amazing, Cinderella-esque story. Some have even made parallels between Lin and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow due to their shared Christian beliefs as well as their improbable success. But what truly sets Lin apart in his profession, besides his Ivy League education and unexpected rise, is his Asian American background.
Judging by the frenzied response of the Knicks’ multiethnic market of fans, it doesn’t matter that Lin is Asian American. Most see him as a superhero, swooping in from out of nowhere to save a seemingly doomed season. Others may be thinking he’s winning despite being Asian American.
But, make no mistake about it, Lin does mean something particularly special to those of us in the Asian American community. I have not seen Asian Americans galvanized in this way for anyone before Jeremy Lin. Not Barack Obama, not Tiger Woods in his pre-scandal days. If Asian Americans formed a political party, Jeremy Lin would clearly be the uncontested nominee for president.
The role of Lin’s ethnicity in this extraordinary narrative cannot be ignored. Coaches and scouts were quite likely unwilling to give Lin a chance purely based on his ethnicity. Phil Taylor wrote about, “I knew on some level that part of the reason Lin was so quickly dismissed was that NBA people had a hard time believing that an Asian-American could play point guard in the NBA.” It’s a testimony to Lin’s tenacity and faith that he refused to accept the reality that he saw around him. He had never seen an Asian American man play in the NBA, but he stayed fixed on his goal of being a professional basketball player, even when no one else was giving him the chance.
People have been describing Lin’s breakthrough as a “Jackie Robinson” moment, and perhaps one of the eventual results of Lin’s success is that in a decade or so, we’ll start to see more Asian Americans in the NBA. But what I find fascinating about “Linsanity” is how the Jeremy Lin story reveals racial and ethnic differences amongst us and illuminates assumptions that still persist.
For one thing, Asian culture is collectivistic rather than individualistic, which essentially means that it fosters thinking such as “we’re all in this together,” and “what happens to you, happens to me.” When an Asian American reaches a particular level of accomplishment and achievement, we all feel the sense of sharing in his or her successes (and the reverse is also true, such as the deep shame many of us experienced after Seung-Hui Cho went on his murderous rampage at Virginia Tech).
In Asian American churches, adults go by the appellations “Auntie” and “Uncle,” further communicating to the next generation that we are all just one big family. Given Lin’s clear profession of faith, Asian American Christians in particular embrace him both as fellow ethnic kin as well as a fellow believer. He is a “brother,” in every sense of the word. And so when he does well, it reflects positively on the larger family of Asian Americans everywhere.
But why do Asian Americans need the collective ego boost that is coming from one, singular professional sports figure? Aren’t they already considered the “model minority,” rightly or wrongly? Don’t Asian Americans easily assimilate into the larger culture, just like Lin is fitting seamlessly into his team of non-Asians?
Often when I write or speak about matters of race, I invariably hear questions like this, implying that we now live in a color-blind society, that racial conflicts are relics from the past. But I think the excitement that Asian Americans are demonstrating over Lin reflects the exact opposite: that racial and ethnic differences still matter a great deal. As Michael Luo reflected in the New York Times on his own thrill over Lin’s success, “It boils down to a welter of emotions from finally having someone I can relate to enter the public consciousness.”
If you think race does not matter in the 21st century, you likely have never been that lone ethnic minority walking into a room. Asian Americans (and other minorities) know and feel it instantly when they are the only non-white face in any gathering. We feel it whenever we walk into a classroom, a conference room, a coffee shop … a church.
To add further to our sense of marginalization even in the Christian subculture, when none of the role models presented to us in Christian contexts look like someone we can relate to, little by little we begin to doubt that our voices will ever be heard, that we are valued contributors, that anyone even notices we exist at all. If all we ever see in the pulpits, at the podiums, or on the covers of magazines and books are the faces and names of majority America, then those institutions and places of influence are missing a significant part of the American story.
Jeremy Lin gives us a great story that we can all rally around — America loves nothing more than an underdog tale. And the fact that Lin has gained such widespread, mainstream acceptance has filled Asian Americans with a collective sense of sheer, unbridled joy and pride. Lin’s popularity has suddenly given Asian Americans a gift we have not always experienced: acceptance, from a society that still mistakes us as outsiders.
Talk to any Asian American, and you will likely find that he or she has a story to tell about being on the receiving end of a racist epithet or some racially charged comment. Just the other day, I was speaking with a Korean-American named Susie who recounted a recent experience in a Wal-Mart parking lot. As she walked toward the store with her family, a pickup truck sped by with its passengers yelling “Hi-yaah!” at her and her family in a cartoonish mockery of martial arts screams. The truck then passed them, turned around, and returned for a repeat performance before peeling away. On the night of Lin’s incredible 38-point performance against the L.A. Lakers, I watched my Twitter feed spew comment after comment celebrating Lin while still regarding him as a foreigner. “So excited #jeremylin speaks solid English,” read one such tweet.
Jeremy Lin’s recent successes won’t wipe away all the years of racial stereotyping, all the ways that ceilings and misconceptions still block the paths of Asian Americans and other minorities in countless institutions, the church included. But shared appreciation for his extraordinary story is binding together both his fellow Asian American “brothers and sisters” as well as his fans from every tribe, tongue and nation. I don’t think the fact that Lin’s team is located in one of the most multicultural cities in the world happened by chance. Behind all the amazing events surrounding this young man’s rise is a deeper purpose, and I believe there’s way more to this story than just basketball.