February 2012 has been an eventful month in the life of Jeremy Shu-How Lin. At the beginning of the month, he was a fringe NBA player in danger of getting cut from his third team just two years into his young career. Today, he is an internet sensation, the unlikely savior for the Mecca of basketball, the ultimate underdog story, an idol for young aspiring Asian ballers and a ready-made Yao replacement as the face of Chinese basketball. His transformation from unknown scrub to media darling is shown in its completion through the (graciously untrue) rumors linking him romantically to Kim Kardashian. (http://www.faniq.com/blog/Jeremy-Lin-Kim-Kardashian-to-go-out-on-a-date-Blog-44778?ob=4) That’s when you know you’ve really made it as an athlete.
It all started on the 4th of this month. This was the first game Lin was given extensive minutes. Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said the reason for this expansion of playing time was, “because we were playing so bad.” (http://www.nypost.com/p/sports/knicks/stuck_in_lin_bo_3WB9umW56jyeWP7ZYc3BfP) Lin responded to his enhanced role by scoring 25 points and distributing 7 assists in about 35 minutes in a win over the neighbor Nets. Since that day, he has started the last 10 games at point guard for the New York, guiding them to a 9-2 record despite missing all-star forwards Amare Stoudamire and Carmello Anthony for most of this stretch. In these 11 games, Lin is averaging about 24 points per game and about 9 assists, with about 5.5 turnovers as well. He has put together quite a highlight reel in this short span of time as well, with his walk off three against Toronto (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR3NhE8fBs8 ) dropping 38 in a win against Kobe and the Lakers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iWWFk6TX18) , and his cross-over and dunk on John Wall immediately coming to mind.( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiwSUxszuN0).
Along the way of his mercurial rise, lots of people have been trying to claim young Jeremy as one of their own. On YouTube comments sections of his highlight videos, on Chinese micro-blogging sites (think Twitter but with even more government censorship and monitoring) and in other corners all across cyber space, the debate over whether he belongs to the Chinese, Taiwanese, both or neither can be found raging.
First, let’s look at the simple facts: Jeremy Lin was born in Los Angeles and raised in Palo Alto, California. His parents emigrated from Taiwan to the US in the 1970s. The paternal side of Lin’s family immigrated to Taiwan from Mainland China in the 1700s, while his mother’s family had just moved across the strait during the 1940s. Due to this background, the American media can correctly and interchangingly refer to Lin as Asian-American, Chinese-American or Taiwanese-American, but in the homelands of his ancestors, this situation is a lot less clear.
There is a large misconception in this country that race is clearly and biologically defined. Craig Venter, one of the first men to map the human genome, said after completing his study that "Race is a social concept. It's not a scientific one. There are no bright lines (that would stand out), if we could compare all the sequenced genomes of everyone on the planet." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_(classification_of_humans) ) Race is individually constructed by each culture and the perceptions of race vary throughout the world and even throughout time.
For example, the 2000 US Census options for race were “White,” “Black or African-American,” “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” “Asian,” “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” and “Some Other Race.” However, in the 2010 Census, the general “Asian” choice was gone and was replaced with “Asian Indian,” “Chinese,” “Filipino,” “Japanese,” “Korean,” “Vietnamese,” and “Other Asian.” In about 100 years, Western culture has gone from calling everybody east of Constantinople “Oriental” to recognizing at least six different races coming from Asia. The point is that these definitions are made solely by each society in order to put people into groups and races are not in reality reflective of shared genetic characteristics or homeland.
In the American melting pot though, being a certain race isn’t tied to being more or less American. Our country was built on assimilating peoples from disparate places on the globe into one mass of citizenry. The racial distinctions have always been there, but they have mostly been used to describe different kinds of American. In China, the national identity is much more closely tied to the racial identity. What the 2010 US Census termed as “Chinese” for race, consists of over 50 officially recognized ethnic groups in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Of these, the Han people account for over 90% of China’s population and are the world’s largest single ethnic group. Being Han and being Chinese are practically interchangeable, and you can’t really be one without being the other.
No one can really immigrate to China. One can stay there for extended periods of time on work, school, tourist, business or family visas, but not even marrying a Chinese citizen will get you a permanent residence, much less citizenship. It is virtually impossible for a foreign to ever be given a Chinese passport. However, if a person is Han, then they will always be seen as Chinese no matter where in the world they are born or live their life. Thus, a term used in China for their emigrated peoples is A.B.C. or American-Born Chinese, not Chinese-Americans.
One example of this is Bruce Lee. I used to drive my students crazy while teaching in China because I would say that Bruce Lee was an American. He’s so obviously Chinese, they would tell me. “But, he was born in America and lived most of his life there. The rest of the time he lived in Hong Kong, which was British then and not even owned by China.” Didn’t matter. Bruce Lee was Chinese. He had a Chinese name. His parents were Chinese. He was Han. He was Chinese. End of argument.
The online Jeremy Lin debate, now understood in its cultural context, underscores the entire relationship between China and Taiwan. Taiwan wants so badly to claim Lin as one of their own, but China feels it can equally count him as one of its sons. In the end, I think this issue, as I feel all racial distinctions ultimately are, is irrelevant. There is nothing about his ethnic background that made him the basketball player he is, and no, not even Asian “philosophic heritage,” Robert Wright. (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/the-secret-of-jeremy-lins-success/253051/) Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that Lin would not have become a professional basketball player had he been born in China or Taiwan.
In China, the state run sports schools seek out the most physically gifted youths from a young age and carefully guide their progress throughout their formative years. That’s why China has produced a handful of NBA giants (Yao, Yi, Wang) but no point guards excepting the 6’8 Sun Yue. Lin’s lack of an imposing physical stature and explosive athleticism caused him to be passed over by college and pro scouts alike in America, and he would have had to stand out at a much earlier age to ever be given a chance in China. It isn't the physical process that basketball scouts and experts covet on both sides of the Pacific that makes Lin special. It is his will to compete and win and determination to make himself better that has led to his unlikely rise. Such a fierce competitive streak could not be developed in a state run academy, or I would argue in a homogenous society. In Taiwan, basketball just isn’t a very popular sport and he would have been much more likely to be playing baseball.
The truth is that Jeremy Lin’s story, not unlike Bruce Lee’s, can only be described as uniquely American. I don’t know why his parents decided to move to America, but it can be assumed that it was to seek some greater opportunity or liberty, the reasons most immigrants throughout our history have come. At every level of play he was told no. He was always too short, too slow and too Asian to play, but he kept working and took advantage of every opportunity given. Furthermore, growing up in Northern California and playing basketball, I think it’s fair to assume that Jeremy Lin learned at a young age how to socialize with people of different racial groups. Especially when you are the point guard, you need to know and understand your teammates even if you can’t like them.
Jeremy Lin’s story to me is about the successful integration of his family into a foreign culture, his ability to work and coexist with all types of people, and his tireless determination to realize his dream. That to me sounds particularly American. However, I don’t think we need to attach any of these labels to Lin. They only distract away from his amazing accomplishment. He doesn’t represent all Asians, or all Chinese, or Taiwanese, or Americans or Christians. However, his example should be a example to inspire us all. He’s just Jeremy Lin. He’s Just Jeremy Lin and his New York Knicks take on the NBA’s evil empire, the Miami Heat, tonight. How about we leave all the racial issues and debates to the side and just enjoy the Linsanity ride?