Sun, Oct 30, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Getting called Jeremy Lin, Yao Ming, brings pain

Having Asian features in the US can bring the burden of being called by a famous name

By Andrew Keh  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Constance Chou

For a long time, playing pickup basketball as an Asian-American guy involved the considerable likelihood that someone would call you Yao Ming (姚明).

Yao is Asian. You are Asian. That was the joke.

That formulation began to fade, though, about four years ago, when Jeremy Lin (林書豪), a Taiwanese-American point guard from Palo Alto, California, playing at the time for the New York Knicks, became a household name in a blinding, month-long metamorphosis still referred to today as Linsanity.

I felt things shift about two weeks into his rise. I was covering spring training baseball in Port St Lucie, Florida, that month for The New York Times. One afternoon, I drove to a public basketball court to find a game.

“Jeremy Lin is here,” someone announced.

At one point, I caught a pass on the move, juked to my left, then hopped to the basket for a layup.

“He’s nice like Lin, too,” somebody joked.

This is how it is going to be now, I guessed.

And I was right: Weeks later, back home in Manhattan, I held the door open for a man at a bank and instead of saying thank you — the two-word phrase we’re conditioned to expect in that situation — he looked at me and said: “Jeremy Lin.”

It is common as an Asian-American to feel like an unwilling participant in society’s lazy word-association game: See someone Asian, say something Asian.

An absence of reference points for Asian identity in popular culture has helped create a perpetual stream of hackneyed encounters, for men and women, children and adults.

“In elementary school, it was Jackie Chan (成龍),” my friend Daniel Sin, a fellow hoops addict and Korean-American, told me about playing pickup ball. “In high school, it was Yao Ming. At the gym now, it’s Jeremy Lin. When it first happened, around Linsanity, I thought: ‘Nice. At least I’m a guard now.’”

Lin has returned to the public eye in New York as he prepares to begin his first season as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. His narrative continues to resonate with Asian-Americans, in part, because of the way his skin color has shaped the substance of his life.

During a talk at the New Yorker festival this month, Lin recalled that as a little-known high-school basketball player he dreaded the moments before games when he knew he would hear those familiar taunts from people in the stands: “Yao Ming, Yao Ming.”

Nicknames on a court, of course, can be wielded with affection or respect, and rhetorical sparring can be one of basketball’s auxiliary pleasures.

However, as Ren Hsieh (謝仁), the Taiwanese-American commissioner of the Dynasty League, a recreational basketball organization in Chinatown, pointed out, the intent of words is usually pretty clear.

“I’m a 5-foot-9 [1.75m] point guard,” Hsieh said, laughing. “If you call me Yao Ming, I know what you’re saying.”

Lin might be too famous today for those proper-noun taunts, but he remains a magnet for abuse.

“Even now, to this day, you go to NBA arenas, guys will say racist things, ‘chicken lo mein’ or whatever, which is a really good dish, by the way, but I don’t like being called that,” Lin said at the New Yorker event.

Likewise: Jeremy Lin is a good player, but we do not like being called that.

Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American chef, writer, and television host, recalled an interaction three years ago, on St Patrick’s Day, in which a group of men emerged from a bar near his restaurant on 14th Street and shouted to him: “Yo, Jeremy Lin.”

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