The Asian American Identity in the Jeremy Lin Era

The Asian American identity isn’t what it once was. The griping about discrimination and racial stereotyping that used to overshadow all other aspects of the Asian experience in this country has faded. It has been replaced by a kind of lull as we reassess what it means to be Asian American in an era of a swiftly rising Asia and an Asian American global superstar.

It isn’t so much that Jeremy Lin has single-handedly changed the Asian American experience. It’s more that the latent social and economic power of Asians in American society, and the world at large, has swelled like a tsunami to carry aloft a lucky Asian American celebrity who happens to be Jeremy Lin. Not that Lin isn’t one of the best point guards to come along in a generation, but there’s much more powering Linsanity than just basketball.

Jeremy Lin represents a distillation of the Asian American experience wrapped up for mass media consumption. He had reasons to gripe. How many athletes who led his team to a championship in a state as big as California get passed over by every single Division 1 college? How many NBA players with his speed and smarts get cut by two NBA teams within a month? And like so many of us Lin was quietly overachieving educationally even while struggling to win a fair shake in the non-stereotypical chosen field of endeavor. And again like so many of us, once he got a real chance, Lin blew away all stereotype-based expectations.

That Linderella story is really the story of the collective Asian American experience. To one degree or other, so many of us — maybe too many of us — has known what it’s like to be tougher, smarter, funnier, sexier, savvier and just all-around better than we are expected to be. You can find versions of Jeremy Lins in virtually every school, company and club in America.

Today’s Linsanity is built firmly on a foundation of historical precedents playing on the same themes.

The American nation briefly set aside racial bigotry and fears of Chinese stealing American jobs when Crocker’s Pets won recognition for the speed and efficiency with which they blasted through the frigid Sierra Nevadas to lay down the impossible half of the transcontinental railroad. The Go-for-Broke Japanese Americans of the 442nd and the 100th won star-spangled honor at the end of World War II for their unmatched gallantry in blasting through Nazi-occupied Italy and France. Asian Americans like An Wang, Albert Yu and Jerry Yang won riches and respect for their brilliance in turning silicon into a new form of American gold in the digital age.

Linsanity was fueled by a subliminal accumulation of the inspiring roles that Asian Americans have played in building the world’s leading society.

Ultimately, even Linsanity in the narrowest sense is powered not so much by Jeremy Lin’s ability to shoot and jump and pass and steal but by his ability to lead. Until Lin came along no Knick could see beyond egos to meld the talents of towering Tyson, leaping Landry, attacking Amar’e, sharpshooting Steve, ineludible Iman and others into a winning whole. Lin’s quintessentially Asian American knack for seeing both sides of seemingly opposing perspectives gave him the leadership skills to untangle the tensions that had been hogtying the team.

Now as the Knicks try to avoid a speedy exit from round one of the playoffs, Jeremy Lin is considering another act of leadership — risking a possible career-ending injury to cut his rehab short and return for that crucial game 4 because the team needs him.

Moving beyond basketball and into a world facing possible fallout from the rivalry shaping up between the US and China, we Asian Americans may find our new identity in the need to provide for the United States and for the other side of the Pacific the kind of leadership that Jeremy Lin provided for the Knicks.