Explaining the Asian Linvasion

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes about Jeremy Lin, China’s newest NBA idol, who already has three-quarters of a million followers on SIna Weibo and who soared to the number-one most searched item on Baidu last week:

Lin Shuhao, as he’s known here—Linsanity has been translated to linfengkuang—is drawing attention not only for the breakout performances that have endeared him to American fans, but for qualities of particular interest to the Chinese: his earning power, his bi-cultural roots, and his place in the complex dynamic of mainland China’s relations with Taiwan. “You know his agent’s phone is ringing off the hook,” one Beijinger put it. With Yao Ming in retirement, Chinese fans (and N.B.A. marketers) are desperate for a new draw in China, and Lin has potential. He understands Mandarin, and speaks enough of it to answer some interview questions, though one joke making the rounds is that former Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury—who has spent the last two years in the Chinese league—might have better pronunciation. Most fans appear to have readily claimed Lin as Chinese, though some have taken note of the fact that he is American-born, with parents from the breakaway island of Taiwan. As one commentator put it: “Do Africans jump up to claim Kobe as one of their countrymen?”

Max Klein, a former researcher for the Letter from China, and now chief basketball correspondent, says local fans are still trying to make sense of Lin’s abrupt success. On the Chinese basketball blogs, they’re comparing him to “a trader laid off from a ‘second-tier’ firm”—Golden State—“who lands a janitorial position at Goldman Sachs, only to somehow win millions in fees for the firm within the first four days. A strategic pick-up for the Knicks, or did they hire their golden boy by happenstance?” Other Chinese fans have taken the opportunity to make a political observation: a photo of Lin towering over his parents touched off an endless string of theories about his height, including “that his stature is related to a lack of food [quality] scandals” in America, according to Charlie Melvoin, who tracked the trend at Baidu.

Osnos also recommends a list of Chinese translations of NBA team names, and those killing time can also check out the Jeremy Lin Word Generator. One person who isn’t impressed by Lin’s sudden rise, however, is boxer Floyd Mayweather. He believes that Lin, who was named NBA player of the week on Monday, is drawing attention in the United States because of his race rather than his performance on the court. From ESPN:

“Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise,” Mayweather wrote on his Twitter account on Monday afternoon.

Lin’s agent, Roger Montgomery, didn’t immediately respond to a text message sent by ESPNNewYork.com. Leonard Ellerbe, Mayweather’s top adviser, didn’t return a phone call from The Associated Press.

The Diplomat’s Jiang Xueqin writes that Lin’s story is worthy of a Michael Lewis book, alongside Moneyball and The Bling Side, though his race also helps to explain why he floundered in obscurity in the first place:

While Lin is the quintessential American underdog story of hard work and tenacity, passion and persistence conquering all it wasn’t an Asian-American story until Lin came along. Cultural prejudices against Asian-Americans tend to be stubborn and persistent because they happen to be mostly true: Many Asian-Americans excel in school without showing passion or curiosity, and become professionals where they demonstrate little initiative or creativity.

When college recruiters saw Lin play, many were probably thinking “He’s a scrawny Asian-American kid” and some may have been thinking “Does he have the passion and drive to excel at the game, or is he just playing us so that he can get a full scholarship to come to our school, drop out of the program to focus on his grades, and then end up as an investment banker?” And Lin probably didn’t articulate his love of the game because he also has those stereotypically Asian-American traits of humility, forbearance, and reticence.

As Lin’s recent performances prove, he must passionately love the game, which permitted him to stay focused and work hard, despite the cultural discrimination and his lack of genetic gifts. And that’s what makes him such a compelling story to people all around the world, whether they be basketball fans or not.

Against a tide of racism and discrimination against Asians in America, from the infamous “Debbie Spend-It-Now” campaign ad to recent mistreatment of Asian Americans in the U.S. military, Ling Woo Liu writes for CNN that Lin’s race matters whether we like it or not:

Lin himself has been candid about the racism he’s encountered along the way. “It’s a sport for white and black people,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “You don’t get respect for being an Asian-American basketball player in the U.S. … I hear everything. ‘Go back to China. Orchestra is on the other side of campus. Open up your eyes.’”

Unfortunately, success doesn’t stamp out racism. Minutes after Lin’s breathtaking career-high 38-point performance against the LA Lakers Friday night, FoxSports.com national columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” After condemnation by the Asian American Journalists Association, he tweeted an apology, acknowledging that he had “debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Almost exactly a decade ago, some of us remember similar knocks against a certain 7’6″ new kid on the block. USA Today ran a column by Jon Saraceno in 2002 saying, “the [Rockets] franchise could wind up with egg foo yong all over its face” and “What happens the first time a bona fide NBA strongman, say Shaquille O’Neal, whacks [Yao Ming] in the chopsticks?”