I didn't know I wanted a Jeremy Lin until there he was – on the cover of every newspaper, leading off every highlight reel, the linspiration for a slew of awful puns that cluttered my Twitter feed.
As a Canadian-born, half-Chinese guy living in multicultural Toronto, I haven't had much reason to be troubled by my Asianness. In some ways, I have more in common with my father's British family than my mother's Chinese ancestors, who come from a country I've never been to and speak a language I don't understand. I've had friends and girlfriends with ancestors from across the globe. I don't spend a lot of time thinking: “If only there was a professional basketball player who shared more of my genetic makeup.”
And yet, when I first heard that an unrecruited, undrafted Taiwanese-American point guard had come off the New York Knicks bench to light up the New Jersey Nets, something clicked deep in the primitive part of my brain that, it turns out, was reserved for exceptional performances by Asian-American athletes.
Suddenly, shockingly, and despite my rational dislike of tribalism, I became obsessed.
Obviously, I'm not the only one. The day after the Super Bowl, Harold and Kumar actor John Cho – the world's most famous Asian stoner – tweeted: “Eff the Giants. Jeremy Lin, yo.” Momofuku celebrity chef David Chang wrote: “I've got a bad case of Jeremy Lin Fever. I can't sleep, can't eat, can't breathe.” He added: “I've been waiting for this Jeremy Lin moment for 34 years. … I haven't felt this way since Barack Obama was elected for president.”
If that sounds like crazy hyperbole, you don't know how hungry Asian North Americans have been for a pop-culture figure who represents something other than the reserved, geeky, hard-working offspring of a Tiger Mom.
No matter how you happen to think of yourself, an Asian face means that people see you within a particular set of expectations. On the spectrum of racism in North America, these expectations aren't all that bad: Cops don't pull over Chinese teenagers for driving expensive cars while wearing baseball caps. Homeland Security isn't plucking Koreans from airport lineups. Instead, Asians (at least the non-Muslim ones) are either ignored, absent from TVs and movie screens and FM radio, or else portrayed as sexless, robotic strivers.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the Obama presidency “a really special reality show for black people.” For the Asian Canadians I know, the last two weeks of Linsanity have felt the same way. Mr. Lin feels like the first mainstream cool Asian since Bruce Lee. He isn't just shooting from the outside, playing with “intelligence” and “hard work” – those Asian code words.
Mr. Lin is dunking on people. He's driving to the rim with a distinctly un-Asian recklessness. He's pounding his chest, sticking out his tongue, and howling at the world.
David Chang could have turned on the TV at any point in his 34 years of life and not once would he have seen an Asian American acting like Jeremy Lin, playing his role with exuberance, bravado and a little bit of swagger.
And so on Valentine's Day, in the grips of an obsession that I didn't know quite what to do with, I dragged my girlfriend to the Air Canada Centre to see the Linsanity in person. Up in the nosebleeds, where our last-minute tickets put us, the crowd was 80-per-cent Asian. Four teenagers wore T-shirts in the Knicks' orange and blue that read, “Team Jeremy Lin.” The sold-out crowd roared when he was introduced, and roared again and again when he got his first bucket, his first assist, his first free throw.
Throughout the opening half, though, Mr. Lin looked lost. He forced his way into the lane and turned the ball over. He threw desperation shots. The man who was supposed to deliver magic suddenly looked very, very average. As the game wore on, a strange tension seemed to build in the arena: While the Asian partisans by me continued to cheer, some diehard Raptor fans, as if in response, began to boo every time he touched the ball.
I felt conflicted. Who were these people? Were they even basketball fans? How disloyal was it to cheer against your home team just because of some coincidence of shared ancestry?
Up in my section, a group of Chinese girls chatted in Cantonese. A middle-aged man sat behind us, way up in the rafters, snapping shots of the court with a huge telephoto lens. He looked like he could have been any one of the schlumpy, vaguely embarrassing great-uncles that used to try to talk to me at Chinese banquets when I was a teenager. I would have bet my life that this was his first basketball game.
“Lin Shu-How!” he said to me excitedly, using Lin's Mandarin name and gesturing at the court.
“Sorry, I don't speak Chinese,” I said – too quickly, too loudly – and turned back to the game.
I felt a twinge of something a little more shameful – a desire not to be lumped in with the people around me. Part of the promise of Jeremy Lin, after all, was that he could somehow distance me from the stereotypical Asian. Part of his appeal was his unaccented English, his fluency with basic North American conventions – the fact that he was so very different from the man behind me, clicking photograph after photograph.
And that's how prejudice works, poisoning everything. It's not just about white magazine writers airing fears that our universities are “too Asian,” as Macleans did last year. It's about Asian kids thinking their own parents are too Asian. It's about second-generation Tamil high-school students tormenting the “fresh-off-the-boaters” who give them a bad name. It's about black hip-hop artists rapping about “sexy young ladies of the light-skin breed.”
It's about the way that, when your face represents an unwanted stereotype, the easiest and most cowardly route is to distance yourself from the people that display those qualities.
Jeremy Lin isn't going to fix all that. The night I saw him, the grinning 23-year-old wasn't even able to drive left, let alone single-handedly alter racial perceptions. By opening up the range of possibilities for what it means to have an Asian face, however, perhaps he has done a little bit to move things forward.
As the game wound down, somehow, miraculously, he had the ball in his hands with a chance to win. He stood at half-court, ball on his hip, and watched the clock tick down. Then it was a few quick dribbles, a smooth release and a straight-away three-pointer that made the crowd lose all semblance of ambivalence and go nuts. .
On the way of the Air Canada Centre, fans lingered in the stairwells, reluctant to leave. A group of guys in homemade Lin T-shirts whooped, holding a sign that said “Lin Long + Prosper.” I couldn't stop grinning.
A twentysomething Asian-Canadian guy holding a sign stood in the halls, high-fiving passersby. “Jeremy Lin, y'all!” he yelled, pumping his fist. “Jeremy Lin!” he kept shouting, over and over, picking out other fans, other Asian males, and extending his hand. We high-fived – it felt as if our team, whatever that was, had just won a championship.