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Why Jeremy Lin Matters: Asian Male Image in the Media

Why Jeremy Lin Matters: Asian Male Image in the Media

 

Written by Ky Phong Paul Tran

Since he burst into the national consciousness just a week ago, basketball sensation and New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has proved that he’s just not any old underdog story. His is a very specific one. It leads me to a scene in the film “White Men Can’t Jump” where Wesley Snipes tells Woody Harrelson, “You can listen to Jimi (Hendrix), but you can’t hear him.”

Because to “hear” the story of Jeremy Lin, you have to go back to 1984 ― four years before Jeremy was even born ― and a beloved film by John Hughes called “Sixteen Candles.” It’s a cutesy high school drama with quintessential 1980s actors Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.

Except, for no reason other than as racist comic relief, Hughes inserts the nightmare image of an Asian male foreign exchange student from an un-named Asian country (and thus all of them). The character’s name is Long Duk Dong, and he alternates between being goofy, accented and clueless, but always, always, always lusting after “American” girls.

To truly appreciate and understand the joy of what Jeremy Lin is doing right now, to know why so many of us Asian American males are wearing his jersey and chanting his name, you had to have cringed as that gong sounded whenever Long Duk Dong came into a scene. You had to be called his name at school and pretend it didn’t hurt and then laugh along with your “friends.” You had to let that shame burn inside you until it bordered on self-loathing.

You had to bear the cross of the “Donger.”

And what is that cross? Historically throughout American pop culture, it alternates between never being depicted and thus never existing OR being depicted in the most humiliating and emasculating light possible.

It means you can never be the lead but always the sidekick (Kato, Sulu, Mike Chang).

To create an import culture car and film franchise only to be relegated into a prop or a villain (The Fast and the Furious).

To never front a band but maybe strum along at stage left (Smashing Pumpkins and Airborne Toxic Event).

It means to never be depicted as handsome or suave or a lady’s man. (Or a gentleman’s man for that matter).

It means to never get to kiss the girl. (In “Romeo Must Die” Jet Li does not kiss Aaliyah and in “The Replacement Killers,” Chow Yun Fat does not kiss Mira Sorvino. I despised Hollywood for a very long time after those transgressions).

Of late, there has been some breakthrough. In sports, we have Ichiro and Yao, but since they were still deeply entrenched in their Japanese and Chinese cultures, that distanced them from our American identity. Recently, the rap group Far East Movement has been the first Asian American pop music group to get consistent air play. And pretty much everyone now knows that many Asian American guys are talented dancers due to reality TV shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew.”

Of course, we do have one icon in popular culture ― probably the last Asian American guy who made us proud to be who we are and look how we do: Bruce Lee. I suspect that some of us deep down inside thought to ourselves, “Yeah, he’s great and all, but does it have to be at martial arts? That’s not exactly breaking stereotypes.”

Before Jeremy, Asian American males were akin to vampires. We’d look into the mirror of popular culture and see nothing ― or negativity. Now 26 years after “Sixteen Candles,” Jeremy Lin arrives to play basketball on its biggest stage and in doing so, to declare that we not only do we exist but that we can succeed as a professional athlete in one of the big three glory ESPN sports. That’s the power of popular media, right? For all 300-plus million of us Americans to see one collective new image.

And what an image that is. Through his play, Jeremy has already shattered some pretty heavy and burdensome stereotypes of Asian American males. He is neither short nor weak. He was born in the United States and does not speak with an accent (not that there is anything wrong with that). He is emotional and demonstrative. He has a swagger and flair to his game. He is at times flashy. He does not back down on the court.

He is a winner and best of all (and this is what makes sports so wonderful) he is a bonafide star strictly due to his abilities (not his looks, marketability, or pedigree).

In “White Men,” Snipes concludes his argument by saying, “Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.” And trust me when I write this: We Asian American males hear every single thing Jeremy Lin’s crossover dribbles, pinpoint passes and smooth swishes say about us ― and that’s that we too can be athletic, daring and heroic.

All are welcome on the Jeremy bandwagon, but there’s a VIP section for Asian American males. And since we’re a cool bunch, even Long Duk Dong can come along for the ride.

This post was originally published by New America Media

 

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37 comments

+ add your own
9:17PM PDT on Mar 31, 2012

Thanks.

9:31PM PDT on Mar 30, 2012

Man, I love Jackie Chan in every movie in which I've seen him. I'm afraid I don't know what nationality he is, but I think he's Asian... Very funny and smart, and athletic and beautiful. What more could a girl want?

6:12PM PST on Mar 6, 2012

Thanks...

9:34PM PST on Feb 28, 2012

I have not looked at Asian men and the Asian community as a whole as weak, small, and invisible. I am a multiracial woman who may seem Black to some, Hispanic to others, and believe it or not - Asian to the Asian community. Because of how I look, I have always been a mystery to people. The African American community didn't accept me because I wasn't black enough, the Caucasian community didn't know what I was, the Hispanic community loved my cooking so they invited me to gatherings thinking I was Hispanic, and the Asian community embraced me the most genuinely and fed me because I am skinny. I ate home cooked meals not the stuff sold in restaurants. The stuff that Asian family eat for real. THAT is some awesome food! The ones I had the most were Japanese meals. Excellent! To this day, I have bee drawn to and have more Japanese culture in my life. I have always loved the Asian community everywhere I have gone and no matter what city I am in I am welcomed with open arms. It bothers me that Asian men are still viewed in the light they have been seen in. These men deserve better. I have not had the opportunity to be in a long term relationship with one, if I had, I'd welcome it. Asian men are beautiful, in spirit, not their looks. Don't get it confused.

1:59AM PST on Feb 23, 2012

Thank you for the article and interesting comments.

12:33AM PST on Feb 22, 2012

I fully agree with Ky Phong Paul Tran on what he says about the Asian males. Jeremy Lin makes every Chinese across the world proud!

11:04AM PST on Feb 21, 2012

I personally thought Japanese actor Daisuke Ryu in the TV miniseries "The Ginger Tree" was one of the sexiest male lead actors in a long time. Too bad this one didn't make DVD status, even though it was a very popular series. I certainly would have purchased it.

9:13PM PST on Feb 19, 2012

cant see what all the fuss is about

8:06PM PST on Feb 18, 2012

No doubt... the guys get it the worst... the most emasculated and mocked of males in the west (ironic opposite to the girls who are fetishized in opposite versions 'docile servitude' vs 'exotic wild')... even if the guys are born here... and only the rare exceptions if they are ever liked by those (yes, the girls) with whom they were born amongst (American/Canadians). And no, Asian culture does not preclude masculinity or lack of it, but it is always portrayed as though masculinity is absent for them. I worry always about my children, more so for my son, than my daughter, the former being accepted by society here is unfamiliar, but the latter being accepted by society here has been around for a long time. Pairing up with the majority non-Asians here, is 'normal' for an Asian girl, but unusually rare for an Asian guy. Times are changing... but oh, so slow... Jeremy Lin... is the first of but a few one can name, the rest... seem still seen as poor-accented perpetual immigrants... (at least in the media) that never seem to be a 'local dude' (and even has 'local friends' of the majority).

2:18AM PST on Feb 18, 2012

Huh... Well, like Janice M, I also think Asian guys are great. They're cute, brainy and classy. Asians, in general, have such a great motivation and work ethic they will undoubtedly take over the whole world, and that really isn't a bad thing (though the Chinese have some serious issues to work out, but that's mainly the gov't, not the people).

I'm not a sports person but I love Jeremy Lin's story!

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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