Commentary

Jeremy Lin, face of America

Fans across the board can picture themselves as Asian American guard

Updated: March 15, 2012, 1:43 PM ET
By erin Khue Ninh | Special to ESPN.com

Historians say it wasn't until a man was beaten to death in 1982, and the courts allowed his killers to shrug it off, that many people started calling themselves Asian American.

erin Khue Ninh
Ninh

The son of Chinese immigrants, Vincent Chin looked plenty enough like a Japanese automotive job-stealer to his attackers that they took a baseball bat to his brain. People shuddered at this, but it was the white men's sentence to probation and $3,000 in fines that made communities link arms and identities in protest. Before that, "Asian American" was mainly something that lefty radicals and academics called themselves; very little distinction had previously been made, even amongst those who looked the part, between being, say, Chinese American versus Chinese, or Asian American versus Oriental.

It took the miscarriage of justice around a young man's killing for the "Asian American" community to learn those distinctions, and for its members to recognize themselves in that name.

Far more happily, it looks like the stunning emergence of a young man as an NBA darling is teaching America at large the same.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJeremy Lin signed autographs at a Harvard game this month.

Nearly fifty years after the term "Asian American" was coined, mainstream American media -- and, by extension, the U.S. population at large -- is sounding out its ABCs. American Born Chinese, that is. What it is to be Yao Ming versus Jeremy Lin. Foreign versus homegrown.

Even though the Knicks have regressed, winning only three of their past 12 games, Lin's magical seven-game winning streak and high-scoring introduction have made an impact on the language we use to talk about race.

And that's what some of us who check the "Asian" box, but have never before watched sports, have paid rapt attention to.

The learning is painful, sure: racial slurs in headlines, below-the-belt jokes. But with each transgression has come a quick apology, a firm corrective -- quicker and with less dismissive eye-rolling than Asian Americans have ever seen. And that alacrity may be the best way to tell the difference between Lin and his cultural predecessors; it's the difference between begrudged reparations shelled out to outsiders, and amends embarrassed members pay to their own.

Have there been famous Asian Americans before Lin? Of course. In sports, even. But Michael Chang inspired other Asian kids to play tennis; he didn't inspire all manner of Americans to sport his face. As for skater Michelle Kwan, the infamous MSNBC headline about her Olympic loss says it all: "American beats out Kwan." The difference between his predecessors and Lin is the difference between tolerance and identification -- between being a "them" that's allowed to hang around, and being "us."

More than an expansion of politically correct speech, this is about how America sees itself when it looks in the mirror. We do this thing when we watch Daniel Craig in a Bond film or Michael Jordan in a commercial, when our superheroes leap tall buildings in a single bound: We identify. They become our Ideal-I, our more capable and smarter and faster selves. And even if we look nothing like them and can do nothing like them, even if any resemblance is imaginary, that misrecognized self becomes a part of who we are.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin Fan
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeremy Lin has become an instant fan favorite, and even a source of cultural remix.

So in our visual culture, we're all used to imagining ourselves as someone else, to some extent; it's how we get a high watching "Fast and Furious." But for some of us, watching American movies and TV is nearly always more like the human-Na'vi hybrid perspective in "Avatar." It's an exercise in seeing the world from a body with parts and skin not our own. In other words, women and racial minorities are used to looking into the cultural mirror, and incorporating the straight white male image there into our senses of self.

But not so much the other way around. Historically, other racial groups in America have not tended to look at an Asian face and see a mirror image. If anything, the mainstream has seen a foil: an image of its opposite. That's what's radical to me about this moment: Americans collectively recognizing ourselves in the face and body of Jeremy Lin.

And being part of that imaginary "us" matters. It matters in the sense of who who is assumed to be a terrorist, who looks like a spy, who looks like the one to root against even when she plays for "our" team.

Linsanity matters, because of where this self-conscious media rehearsal of Asian American Studies tenets may lead: to those tenets becoming common sense, built into language, sunk eventually into the collective subconscious.

I am a 5-foot-2 Vietnamese American woman who can't sink socks into a drawer. But I get verklempt watching America stand up and cheer for Jeremy Lin. Because what I hear us saying is, "Like you. We wanna be like you."

erin Khue Ninh teaches literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is blog editor at Hyphen and author of "Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature."

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