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Friday, July 15, 2011

On Sports Heros And Asian-Americans. A Reluctant Part II.

Last week, in response to reader emails and the quality and the provocativeness of an article, I did  a post on Asian-Americans. I am not even sure my doing so came within the Mission of this blog, but I could not resist.
Now here I go again.
I never see good articles on Asian-Americans, but now two in one week? Maybe as a rabid sports fan I am biased, but I just loved this article, "Can I Write Check?" on what Yao Ming meant/means to Asian-Americans. (Hat tip to China-based Celtics fan, Jeremiah Jenne of Jottings from the Granite Studio).
The article is by Jay Caspian Kang and it would be worth reading if it said nothing more than the following paragraph comparing Yao to Ichiro:
It was this size and his Chineseness that initially alienated American fans. Regardless of who you are, it is nearly impossible to really identify with a 7-foot-6 foreigner. But the skepticism, at least among Asian-Americans, also had something to do with the fact that Yao's first game in the NBA had come a mere 11 months after Ichiro took home the American League's MVP Award. The role of Great Yellow Hope had already been filled. What's more, when compared side-to-side, Ichiro made for a much better hero. He was cool where Yao was awkward. He was mysterious where Yao was opaque. Neither men spoke English particularly well, and both communicated through translators, but Ichiro somehow made it seem like he was too cool to speak English, whereas Yao's press conferences felt canned and foreign. Despite not saying much, Ichiro branded himself through glossy magazine shoots and public appearances. Yao just kind of frowned a lot. Neither man gave up much in terms of personality. But Ichiro at least gave us dominance on the field. Early Yao seemed as if he was only playing for the glory of his homeland — a mercenary sent to showcase the glory of Chinese genetic manufacturing.
One of the hallmarks of great writing is that it reflects what you are thinking even before you even quite knew you were thinking it. I had never coherently thought about Yao in the way the article describes him (though I had definitely thought about Ichiro in that way), but now that I see him described this way, I realize I had thought about him like that all along. 
In law school, I took Labor & Employment Law II from the same teacher from whom I had taken Labor Law I. Labor Law I was either a required course or I took it because I knew that it would be helpful for my planned business law career. I took Labor Law II simply because the teacher was so good I simply believed  I would be better off as a lawyer learning a ton about something that might prove irrelevant than taking a facially more relevant course from a lesser teacher.
I feel the same way about the two articles on Asian-Americans on which I have posted. I am not sure they are relevant, but they are so good and so informative and such a joy to read, that in a round-about way, I feel they almost have to give us a better understanding of China. Does anyone see where I am coming from on this? Does anyone agree with me on this?
Plus, as someone who has always thought of himself as an immigrant, as someone who is constantly "hanging" around immigrants, and as someone who has both parents and kids, I just really related to the following:
Every child of immigrants knows the dread of watching a parent stumble through a PTA meeting or a car purchase or even an interaction with a grocery store clerk or waitress. Your sphincter constricts, your breath freezes. Every catastrophic scenario is projected — your mother's English will break, she will say something stupid or ignorant and the grand illusion of sameness, or, at least, the attempts at sameness, will atomize and disappear.
With Yao, I always felt that same dread. In an absurd, yet still significant way, watching him over the past nine years was like watching a video of my parents. I worried he would mispronounce a word, bomb a joke, or say something awful about his black teammates. Yes, I should probably not compare a 7-foot-6 Chinese basketball player who can carefully select his televised moments with an immigrant parent who has to make his or her way through a skeptical and oftentimes cruel country, but when the scope of available cultural references goes from Jackie Chan to Jet Li to Bruce Lee to Ichiro to Yao to Yan Can Cook, you sometimes have no option but to inflate, conflate, and, at times, fabricate. We live in an era in which self-identification is just the pastiche of relatable characters we piece together while staring in the mirror. Where else could we look for that story? Margaret Cho? Tiger Mothers? The Joy Luck Club?
I apologize to Mr. Kang for having pulled such large chunks from his article, but I blame him for having written it so well. Go here and read it. I recommend it.
Oh, and please do let us know what you think. Did you too relate?

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