A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 2/13/2012.
By Kim Young-jin
By now anyone with a passing interest in American sports has heard of New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, the undrafted Harvard graduate causing a stir with his unexpected, dazzling play.
If you haven’t, due perhaps to the limited broadcasting of U.S. basketball here, worry not. The infectious excitement surrounding the Asian-American guard is piercing the region and starting to show up on the local radar.
People in Korea, fans of the sport or not, should take heed. Considering the intimate links this country shares with the United States, his story and its effect on Asian-Americans could very well reverberate here.
It’s been just over a week since Lin, the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent in the NBA, was summoned from his seat at the end of the bench to shake up his team. Previously an unknown, he has responded with a string of exhilarating performances that have quickly won fans across the nation.
Pure “Linsanity” has ensued, with the Internet and media going haywire over his emergence and whether or not he can sustain the high level of play. Reporters from Asia have arrived on the scene. From the din has emerged the narrative of a hardworking athlete raised with traditional values, who has defied doubts at every step.
One important element of this phenomenon is seen when the camera swings to the Asian-Americans in the stands who come out to support him. These people exude pride, excitement and gratitude to have someone like themselves out on the court. This surely includes Korean-Americans, a great many of who are avid basketball fans. I am one of them.
He relates to Asian-Americans differently than, say, the recently-retired Chinese star Yao Ming. The 23-year-old Lin, raised in California by immigrant parents from Taiwan, shares more of these fans’ life experiences.
The fans know that what’s happening with Lin is shifting the dialogue on race in America to them, finally, after growing up feeling excluded from the discussion.
Some are likely well-versed in the terminology attached to their challenges, for example the misperception that Asians in their country comprise a “model minority” of hard-working, docile people. They are often grossly misrepresented in the media and may feel they have been cast in the role of “perpetual foreigners.”
All this matters for Korea simply because so many here have loved ones who reside, study or work in the United States, home to some 1.7 million Korean-Americans, and face these or similar challenges.
Many thousands of young Korean people go to America to study each year and encounter a myriad of problems fitting in. Some face similar difficulties upon return, subtly shunned for adopting Western ways ㅡ proof that the transnational dynamics at play are not yet fully appreciated.
By examining the underlying causes behind Asian-Americans’ joy over this development, people here can more clearly understand the challenges ㅡ and wonderful opportunities ㅡ their siblings, cousins and children in the United States encounter.
Such challenges are real. Just take the case of Army Pvt. Danny Chen, a Chinese-American man from New York, who relatives say recently killed himself after enduring brutal, racially-charged hazing while serving in Afghanistan.
There was the dumbfounding campaign advertisement of Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra last week that featured a young Asian woman speaking in caricatured, broken English about China stealing jobs from Americans. This was slammed as a threat to stir up discrimination and aggression against all Asians in the United States.
Even Lin’s Harvard as well as Princeton University, fervently-coveted among Koreans, are under government examination for complaints of discrimination against Asian-American undergraduate applicants.
On Sunday, Kang Dong-hee, head coach of local basketball club Dongbu Promy, said Lin’s rise gave hope to hoopsters here with NBA aspirations.
Who knows? Maybe young Koreans will find inspiration in a fellow person of Northeast Asian descent daring to compete where few like him have before. Perhaps they will identify with the fact that Lin’s parents stressed education and that he has been able to succeed in basketball while sticking to that upbringing.
Certainly, there exists the danger of going overboard with the novelty of it all. Maybe society is pinning too much on Lin’s image. Some will question whether he is being cheered too much on the basis of race. And Lin, confronted with the best players in the world, will certainly see both highs and lows on the floor.
But just as he has so well seized the opportunity before him, society should take a moment to reflect on why the Asian-American community is so fired up about this. Korea should take note too.