The Lives of Others


Jay Caspian Kang thinks John Henson should wear a muu muu and a fat guy hat. Follow him at twitter.com/maxpower51

In the summer after graduating from college, as part of my introduction to New York City, I took the A train down to the fabled West 4th Street basketball courts. All melancholy literary types are required to vividly remember, and then write about, their first encounters with The City and so I, too, can recall the heat that day and how it curled the edges of the wheat-pasted posters, pushing those sight-bending currents of hot air out of the subway exits. When I got to the courts, a middle-aged man with a camera around his neck told me that the league games had been delayed on account of the heat. Two lines of massive men in jerseys leaned up against the chain-link fence, occasionally looking up at the cloudless sky for some form of absolution, occasionally looking out at the court where some teenage kids were playing three on three. Two of the kids—how could I have not noticed?—were Asian. The game was a fundamental mess, just six guys scrambling around until one could find a dunking lane. After about five or six failed tries, one of the Asian kids managed to throw one down, eliciting a half-hearted chorus of oohs and aahs from the assembled crowd.

After a decently choreographed strut, this kid turned towards the chain-link fence and screamed, “Fuck yeah, n***a! You see me just dunk on that n***a?” Then, turning to his fellow Asian, he puffed out his chest and said, “N***a, this shit is over.”

No one the fence seemed to think this was strange or even worthy of comment. I, as they say, shat my pants.

Later, while wandering around an empty street in Flushing, I overheard two kids talking to one another in Korean. When I turned around, I saw that the kids were Black. They must have read the disbelief on my face for what it was—an ignorant outsider who was about to take a mental photo for his cultural tourism scrapbook—because they gave me a dirty look and crossed the street.

How did I, who, prior to moving to New York, had lived in Boston, North Carolina, Maine, Los Angeles and Seattle, make it to the age of twenty-three without having ever met an Asian-American kid who had grown up much differently from me? It’s true that I spent my childhood in nice, college towns and that my exposure to other Asian-Americans was limited to bi-monthly potluck dinners where all the alumni of my father’s high school would sit around and discuss God knows what, but I cannot help but wonder if this vacancy of identity might be the inevitable product of an entire generation of kids who were pushed directly into the structures of American success. Almost all the Asian-American kids who grew up with me have lost the ability to speak the native language of our parents. Our conversations with our grandparents are conducted in shouted commands and hand gestures. When we watch Old Boy or In the Mood for Love, we alternate between an unfamiliar, displaced pride in a connection we cannot quite delineate and the shame of having to access it through subtitles. This distance, at least for me, came from a desire to duck out from the traditional immigrant shelter of family and culture, and although it felt like a conscious choice at the time, I sometimes look around at my Asian-American friends who suffer from the same blind spots, and wonder if we might have had any say at all.

The truth is, I really don’t know.

If we, indeed, tell ourselves stories to live, the children of immigrants find themselves with the odd task of having to make one up as they go along. The stories projected upon me by my parents were episodic and told in a language of destinations. On the first page, my sister and I sit with the other pilgrims at the tabard. On the next page, we arrive at the Archbishop of Harvard’s door. What happens between those two markers is what a friend of mine once referred to as, “our leg in the blind sprint towards whiteness.” For him and me and the Asian-American kids I grew up with, the verbs and the adjectives in our narratives are disposable, circumstantial. What matters is the tyranny of nouns. If we see another Asian kid in the classroom or in the workplace, we simply assume that they got there the same way we did. Why bother asking? We are the Son-at-Harvard or Nephew-at-Columbia or the Son-who-works-at-Goldman or the Daughter-who-just-got-into-Stanford Medical School. When the weight of our common hyphens forces us into naming some other connection, we summon the only metanarrative we know, collected from our own memories and the commonalities we assume—fathers who are computer programmers or dry cleaners, insane mothers who only shop at Costco, piano lessons, Asian Church, pickled immigrant foods and 1500s on the SATs. For the most part, the metanarrative is enough.

The only stories that might make us pause and reconsider the paradigm of endings are the ones that provide us with an alien set of destinations—the stand-up comedian, the police chief, the mass murderer, the potential first round pick in the NBA Draft. In other words, those stories that belong to other races.

The lineage of Jeremy Lin isn’t found in racial pie charts or in the history of unlikely minorities in big-time sports. Yao, Ichiro, Wat Misaka and Eugene Chung are not his context. Neither is Hines Ward. Instead, to understand Jeremy Lin, we must look to Jin, the diminutive Chinese emcee from Jackson Heights who, for seven weeks, dominated the Battle Stage on BET’s 106th and Park.


As is true with Jeremy Lin, it mattered that Jin was American born, it mattered that he was competing in front of a mostly Black crowd on BET and it mattered that he was doing it with lines like, “If you make one joke about rice or karate/NYPD be in Chinatown searching for your body.” When Wyclef ruined his career by trying to turn him into a dance-happy club bopper, it mattered that Jin told ‘Clef to fuck off and went straight back to battle raps. More than all that, though, it mattered that Jin was legit, succeeding in the closest thing the music industry has to a meritocracy. And although Ruff Ryders probably envisioned some DOA Eminem experiment when they signed him, it mattered that Jin was better than the pigeonhole. He wasn’t a short-lived anomaly or even some college radio act fueled by a disastrous vision of cultural tourism. He was a battle rapper and even after his run on 106 and Park and his album flop, he kept appearing on battle DVDs and he kept winning.

Yes, he probably inspired a few Asian kids to see a rap career as a real possibility, but Jin represented more than another against-all-odds Asian success story. He wasn’t Connie Chung or Gary Locke or Jerry Yang, who, regardless of their intentions, confirm the country’s racial math. Jin went Black. In doing so, for those of us who were heeled on the mantra of assimilation, who have grown weary of the race towards whiteness, who have lived our lives in the strange space of identifying with hip-hop’s stories of racial oppression, but who have never really felt that our own stories could live up to the comparison, Jin’s bravado and skill offered an alternative interpretation of what it meant to be an Asian-American.

Try to understand, most of us, at some point in the race, have wanted to turn around and start running the other way.

What, then, do you do with Jeremy Lin? Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube. The Son-at-Harvard of a computer programmer from Palo Alto by way of Taiwan, Jeremy Lin is the metanarrative, and yet, without having done anything but dunk a basketball, his unwitting doppelganger waves a flag on the other side. If basketball doesn’t work out, Lin has said he would like to become a pastor, citing his family’s long-time devotion to the church. But in the spray-shot saloon of professional athletes and public assumptions, no place is more sinful than his first career choice: the NBA. Of course, it doesn’t even need to be said that none of these things, are, in fact, contradictory, but Lin’s story has already been taken over by writers, bloggers and fans who feel the need to distort, tweak and primp him up into a perfect metaphor.

In those hands, we are all absurd and riddled with contradiction. As perfectly as Jeremy Lin might fit inside our expectations for Asian-Americans, the reason for his sudden celebrity goes outside of the cultural matching game his fans play when they compare Jeremy Lin’s story to their own. There have been other Asian-American athletes who have excelled in other sports, only to elicit little to no response from the community. Across the Bay from Lin’s hometown of Palo Alto, Kurt Suzuki just turned in the best season of any position player on the Oakland A’s. A little way down the 101 in San Luis Obispo, Chris Gocong’s Philadelphia Eagles jersey hangs in the locker room at Cal Poly. Hines Ward was Super Bowl MVP and a possible Hall of Famer. So why does Jeremy Lin, shooting guard for the Harvard Crimson, repeatedly sell out gyms across the country?

It’s mostly about the dunks. The attention surrounding Lin has exploded this year, not because he’s playing any better than he did last year or because anyone cares about Harvard basketball, but because of the clips that have started circulating around youtube and sports websites that show Jeremy Lin dunking all over Georgetown, Boston College and UConn. Without this footage, which is studied with an almost anthropological zeal on some Asian-American sports blogs (yes, they exist), Jeremy Lin would be nothing more than a nice human-angle story, another kid from unexpected origins who was making the best of his God-given ability.

In one of his most watched YouTube clips, Lin sprints back on defense and swats a dunk attempt by UConn’s Jerome Dyson. In the clip’s caption, Dyson is described as “Jerome Dyson, projected 2nd round pick in the 2010 draft.” For the author of the caption, the equation is clear: Jeremy Lin not only can play, but he has the hops to youtube a guy who will one day be playing in the league, and not some white kid from Dartmouth, but a bona-fide African-American athlete.

Therefore, by the transitive property, Jeremy Lin can also play in the league.

With its giants in skimpy uniforms, basketball allows us to see, clearly and plainly, the differences between us, the fans, and the athletes on the floor. Our perception of those bodies is driven by antiquated, but overwhelmingly accepted ideas of race. Dwight Howard is described as the winner of a “genetic lottery.” Lebron is either “otherworldly” or “superhuman,” whereas Steve Nash’s success comes from his ability to “overcome his athletic limitations.” When confronted with the task of placing their man on either side of the divide, Jeremy Lin’s fans, who have spread their research out across message boards and sports blogs, point out his breakaway speed, his vertical leap, his deceptive height. What they do not discuss is his jump shot, his free-throw percentage or his ability to throw a crisp bounce pass. Somewhere in the endless comparisons, odd personal anecdotes about meeting the man, and obsessive odes to Lin’s musculature, these fans have placed an implicit caveat onto his story: if he makes it to the league and plays a White game, this will all be for nothing.

Unfair, yes. But those of us trapped within the metanarrative have been conditioned our entire lives to imagine White. Like Jin before him, what Jeremy Lin represents is a re-conception of our bodies, a visible measure of how the emasculated Asian-American body might measure up to the mythic legion of Big Black supermen.

Within that singularly American calculus, it’s not about basketball at all. It’s about our fucked up anthropology.


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At 1/14/2010 6:09 PM, Blogger Dr. Lawyer IndianChief said...

I battled Jin for fun in Boston before we both participated in the Superbowl Battle at the Middle East. This was in 2000.

At 1/14/2010 10:49 PM, Blogger bloomer said...

Go Blue!

At 1/15/2010 10:44 AM, Blogger Benjamin said...

This cat Jay Caspian Kang can WRITE. What really moves in this piece is the juxtaposition of three seemingly disparate, yet ultimately interconnected, narratives: the mythological elevation, hyper-destruction and endless analysis of the African-American male (athlete or otherwise), the stereotypical Asian social striver and climber and their individual and collective pursuit of white privilege and white social status. Viewed through the lens of sport, the stories become the single metanarrative detailing the oddly American fixation on socially-constructed race-based stories. Plus the dudes Jeremy Lin and Jin just happen to be kinda nice.

At 1/15/2010 11:58 AM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Awesome piece. Go Lin!

It's interesting that there are way more Asian Americans (mostly Samoans) in the NFL. For whatever reason, Samoans seem to have a propensity to be "big", which makes them good candidates for football or pro wrestling.

Punjabis are known to be very tall, but there are no Indian-Americans that I know of who have succeeded in major college basketball. (If anyone has examples, please let me know. The only thing I can find on google is this guy, who doesn't appear to actually be a college basketball player.) All the Punjabis are the "son at Goldman" or "family friend at Stanford Medical".

BTW I think you meant the "transitive property", not commutative property.

At 1/15/2010 12:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great piece dude, I started reading expecting to skim a few paragraphs and found myself engrossed enough to turn off the music in the background and focus solely on what I was reading. This is coming from a guy who listens to podcasts while the TV is on while reading sports webpages when he is supposed to be working. This piece forced me to tune everything else out, which is impressive these days.

At 1/15/2010 12:45 PM, Blogger Jay said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1/15/2010 12:52 PM, Blogger Jay said...

Bhel, thanks for the catch. How embarrassing--an article about Asians written by an Asian and the math is wrong.

I don't even know what the commutative property is or if it even exists. Now that I look at it, it sounds more like a religious term. Like, "the holy spirit rises up to heaven through the commutative property..."

At 1/15/2010 1:24 PM, Blogger Will in Philly said...

Great writing jay. My only comments are that

1) Did you really hear black dudes speaking Korean in Flushing? That really makes no sense. I grew up in Astoria and would be pretty shocked if that ever happened.

2) Asians don't view Hines Ward as Asian. asians view pure-blooded asians as asians or they have an asian surname (father is asian). Not gonna comment on that, but that's the way it is. There are some tricky intersections of sexuality and race and gender issue here.

3) I think unlike some other athletes held up as a great hope, jeremy is obviously very proud of his background and heritage and that's why asian people like him. Yes, the dunks help, but the more important thing is that he can play.

4) Jin is from suburban Miami, not Jackson Heights btw. He might live there now. He's not exactly ghetto.

At 1/15/2010 2:07 PM, Blogger dreamleague said...

I have a problem with this piece and I'm not quite sure how to explain it, and I certainly can't match the admittedly eloquent prose in doing so. The problem is that, once again, someone has managed to analyze Jeremy Lin by not analyzing him.

You mentioned the dunks. Well, sir, he did *not* dunk against Boston College (actually, he tried, but he missed it) and the Georgetown YouTube clip...


...only has him dunking amongst a PLETHORA of other highlights which would've answered your question about whether or not he can pass.

Your transitive property statement about him swatting Dyson. Maybe that is one emphatic example. People need to first be caught on attention, then led into the room for more discussion. The highlights of the swats and dunks are supposed to be the invitation to come in and learn more. Apparently, you haven't come in the door.

If you look at ALL of Jeremy's highlights from the UConn game, you will see that he definitely deserves discussion if people have already pegged Jerome Dyson as a 2nd round draft pick. It is arguable who was the best player on the floor that day.

Yet, the tone of your article seems to be critical of Jeremy in the context of the UConn game. Incidentally, that's just yet another microcosm. If people want to learn more about Jeremy Lin, then there's plenty out there besides the gift wrapping of dunks and swats. Watch his other games.

Understandably, some people go to an NBA game to see Lebron dunk. Other people go there to see him play the game as a whole, to see someone do MANY things on the basketball court, not just dunk -- and even if he doesn't dunk, these people are more than happy to have appreciated how good he was on the court, sans dunking.

The problem I have with your piece goes like this. Picture yourself eons ago with a 10-year-old Michael Jackson. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are in the room. They are discussing what this prodigy/talent will mean to the black community. They are there to support him. They are there to help Michael be the best he can be.

Your piece here, it's like some guy outside this room who is bitching about the plight of the black community, why there needs to be this 10-year-old prodigy for people to realize what's going on.

Please don't be mistaken. I'm not here to equate Jeremy Lin with Michael Jackson. It's just an example. In the grand scheme of things there were many people other than Michael Jackson who helped the black community. As such, Jeremy Lin is but one Asian-American. Sure, he's in the spotlight and basketball is a very visible sport.

I just don't get the sense that you support him, and you're Asian. The vibe of this piece is not about support. The vibe I get is that you're upset at how Asian-Americans are viewed, even by Asian-Americans, which is fine. But in the process, as the darn cliche goes, you put Jeremy under the bus.

I'm not saying that you must support Jeremy. It's okay to doubt, as long as you present evidence that shows your conclusion to the doubt. But the assumption that people only want to see him dunk, or the hinting that all he can do is dunk, without the context of the Jerome Dysons and others whom he should be properly compared to, and the fact that you are a fellow Asian-American, that bothers me.

At 1/15/2010 3:00 PM, Blogger DW said...

Re:Dream League

I feel like the post is more about how Jeremy Lin is processed, and what people want him to become, than actually his skills as a basketball player.

At 1/15/2010 3:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

of course i wanna see the dunks!!!! i ain't youtubin no bounce pass! lol "nice SCREEN" lol

At 1/15/2010 3:17 PM, Blogger BigSaxmo said...

Are you saying that Lebron James and Dwight Howard are not genetically gifted, that it's all a social construct? Grow up.

And yeah, that was totally awesome when that member of my ethnic group threatened to murder someone!


Jin is a tool.

"What really moves in this piece is the juxtaposition of three seemingly disparate, yet ultimately interconnected, narratives: the mythological elevation, hyper-destruction and endless analysis of the African-American male (athlete or otherwise), the stereotypical Asian social striver and climber and their individual and collective pursuit of white privilege and white social status. Viewed through the lens of sport, the stories become the single metanarrative detailing the oddly American fixation on socially-constructed race-based stories."

Aaaand now I'm having Wesleyan flashbacks.

I like how there are a bunch of 6'11 white guys who can jump like Howard (and apparently Asian guys, too), they just all apparently decided to become accountants or bankers due to their white privilege or pursuit of same.

Kill yourselves.

At 1/15/2010 3:51 PM, Blogger Teddy said...

So this shit got cross-posted somewhere, I somehow sort of suspect.

Excellent post.

At 1/15/2010 4:14 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Why so?

At 1/15/2010 7:16 PM, Blogger Seth Johnston said...

Yet Jin ultimately felt he needed to move to Hong Kong to be successful.

At 1/15/2010 11:30 PM, Blogger americanmidwestsamurai said...

Wait a second...this seems oddly autobiographical.

An American of East-Asian descent writing in an identifiably 'white' style on an identifiably white intellectual basketball blog about East-Asian Americans departing from preconceived notions of their race and ethnicity by virtue of existing in identifiably white or black worlds.

Yes, I'm completely aware that the notion of a white writing style or the existence of a white intellectual basketball blog is juvenile, undercooked and just plain destructive...but this is FD. Where identity and style is so often defined by society's antiquated ideas of phenotype regardless of whether they represent the actual viewpoint of the author or not.

It's not the mere discussion of race, or the the stereotypes they elicit I feel are problematic but the simplistic structures they are presented. We live in a culture of pluralism (Christ, look at our president). Stagnant as society may seem, people have made progress. Why wade in the waters of how far we have yet to go?

At 1/16/2010 1:52 AM, Blogger Toasterhands said...

Hey! I've played against some of those dudes you have pictured in the IM building.

The guy with glasses is very fast.

At 1/16/2010 4:41 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I don't see how Jin's inability to make a hit or be an interesting rapper outside of the battle context is a positive. How does that make him "better than the pigeonhole?" If anything, his failed recording career reveals him to be an extremely limited rapper. Unless the he's somehow "blacker" for not making any hits, which just doesn't make sense.

(OK I'm kinda performing here and get that the pigeonhole you're talking about him transcending is racial and less rap specific, still it's weird to see this guy that ultimately became ultra-niche canonized like he's Jay-Z or some shit, when actually he's just some dude like Supernatural or whatever. Or would people give a shit if Jeremy Lin couldn't make it to the NBA so he became an And1 streetballer? btw I don't know if those guys still exist.)

Other than that, nice post and interesting to find out that Hines Ward is Asian.

At 1/16/2010 4:47 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

"canonized" was obviously the wrong word. I meant something closer to overpraised or celebrated.

At 1/16/2010 10:01 AM, Blogger Deckfight said...

enjoyed this: "these fans have placed an implicit caveat onto his story: if he makes it to the league and plays a White game, this will all be for nothing."

and enjoyed Toasterhands' comment.

At 1/16/2010 2:13 PM, Blogger Dylan said...

"Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube." Great line. It really captures the difference of where he is versus everyone else.

At 1/16/2010 7:08 PM, Blogger Jordan Carr said...

Has the conversation moved Asian-Americans in this decade to where whites were about 20 years ago? I think Jeremy Lin may be the new Billy Hoyle in that sense. Either way, great post.


At 1/17/2010 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an Asian American who also lives in NYC and gawks at Jeremy Lin as the Great Yellow Hope, I appreciate this post. In fact, this might be my favorite post I've ever read on the blogosphere (hyperbole aside). Thanks.

Side-note: did any catch Lin's Draft Express profile?


At 1/17/2010 8:30 AM, Blogger Ilmusains said...

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At 1/17/2010 8:18 PM, Blogger Asher said...

I also take issue with the claim that "Jin kept winning." He put out a terrible joke of a first single... and then he disappeared. And not because he was too good to be commercial in even a very narrow way, like a Canibus, but because he wasn't any good. As for 106 and Park, 106 and Park Freestyle Fridays were (and I assume still are, I haven't watched in a while) to freestyle rapping what NBA cheerleaders are to female beauty. In theory an impressive achievement to get on there/win, but in reality, 95% of NBA cheerleaders are pretty hideous, and pretty much everyone to ever participate in a 106 and Park battle sucked. Frankly, if I were an Asian-American, I would take more heart in the achievements of Smilez and Southstar. They were terrible, and I can't even remember which one was Asian, but they did have that catchy song that sampled 'Stop, Look, and Listen.'

At 1/18/2010 1:47 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

2 Live Crew's Fresh Kid Ice made it in the world of hip hop more than a decade earlier than Jin, and actually experienced chart success as part of a group. Though this fact might add relatively little to the debate about the cultural and sporting significance of Jeremy Lin, it should at least be noted.
Also, in answer to Will's first question, though I have never been to Flushing, the idea of "black dudes" speaking Korean is not as shocking as it might initially seem. Without specific figures, there are numerous children born of mixed African-American and Korean parentage, primarily from couplings where the father is American, and often from a military background. When such children are raised by a single Korean mother, they are likely to speak Korean in the home. The "dudes" may well have been brothers.

At 5/13/2010 3:47 PM, Blogger SYL said...

I'm way late to this party but had to comment. Great article.

Regardless of peoples' comments on Jin or Lin's college performances, I think the focus of the article (and most interesting part of this entire subject) is the perception of Lin, especially within the Asian-American community (of which I belong.) Of course I'm rooting for the guy, but I also find interesting the pedestal that he has been put on (especially when you look at YouTube comments- OMG look at that dunk!! OMG he got a bloody nose and kept playing!! He has the heart of a champion!!!) Who ever heard of Harvard selling out road games?

The thing is, if he was black, would attract nearly as much attention or praise? Of course not, he'd be another good/very good small-conference guard with some NBA prospects. That's not to take away from what he has accomplished- anyone starting on a mid-level or above Division I basketball team is a great player, by almost any scale. What's interesting to me is that it almost seems like he's become the 'Great Yellow Hope' in a way that no other Asian athlete has (in America.) I guess maybe because he's doing it here in America, among Americans, in the American way (look at that dunk!), instead of being some product of the Chinese Communist Athletic Machine or whatever. He's not just one of by skin color, he's also one of us by culture.

To me, that he can dunk pretty well is almost irrelevant compared to, well, just about every other aspect of his game- can he be a real 1, or is he a 1/2 combo? Because he'll need to be a pure 1 if he wants to play in the NBA. How is his jumper? His defense? Etc...Plenty of guys at your local park can dunk, almost none can do these other things at a level even approaching pro basketball much less the NBA. If he can pull those things off and stick around in the League for awhile, then I will definitely be impressed (hopefully he will have more of an impact than Sun Yue did on the Lakers, though Yue does have a ring.)

Also, you forgot the most popular Asian athlete in the world today- Tiger Woods! (half-Asian, but since you brought up Heinz Ward...)

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