Jeremy Lin Makes Us All American

The only Asian American in the NBA is not just breaking stereotypes, he's also redefining his country

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After watching my first World Series in 1977, I wanted to be Reggie Jackson. I bought a big Reggie poster. I ate Reggie candy bars. I entered a phase during which I insisted on having the same style of glasses Reggie had: gold wire frames with the double bar across.

As a 9-year-old son of immigrants, I was claiming Reggie and, through him, this country. Every time I imitated his explosive swing, every time I adjusted my glasses like he did, with a thrust of the chin, a touch of swagger, I imagined that my family had been American as long as the Yankees had. Such an act of imagining, in its own little way, is what any of us means when we call ourselves “American.”

I thought about that on Friday night when, for the first time, I saw Jeremy Lin play basketball. Lin, as anyone not in a cave now knows, is a point guard for the New York Knicks, a backup who has become a Twitter-age supernova. Friday he faced off against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and prevailed, reeling off 38 points in the victory. Saturday he led them to their fifth consecutive win. Who knows how long this sensation can keep scoring. But another sensation — the feeling of awakening Lin has inspired across the country — is real and seems likely to last.

(MORE: It’s Official: Jeremy Lin is For Real)

In the stands Friday some fans wore Lin’s visage on cardboard masks. You couldn’t tell what age or race they were. You could see only how they wished to be seen: as a 23-year-old second-generation Taiwanese-American Harvard grad from Palo Alto, Calif., of late with a golden touch. These fans, first-, second-, or 10th-generation, cheered the underdog newcomer and strummed anew those chords of narrative in which anyone with grit, talent and a little luck can make it in America.

Their embrace of Lin has made millions of Asian Americans feel vicariously, thrillingly embraced. Not invisible. Not presumed foreign. Just part of the team, belonging in the game. It’s felt like a breakout moment: for Lin, for Asian America and, thus, for America.

Context is everything. Earlier this week a Senate candidate in Michigan unveiled a campaign ad using Chinese-accented broken English to suggest his opponent was doing China’s bidding. (“Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs,” says an actress bicycling through rice paddies.) Friday night in Madison Square Garden a fan waved a crude red and yellow poster with the clichéd Chinese restaurant font made of jagged brushstrokes. A sign like that could have been used to mock, to make the Asian an outsider. Instead, it was used to worship. EMPEROR LIN, it proclaimed.

(PHOTOS: China’s Hoop Dreams)

There have been, in recent years, many Asian American pioneers in the public eye who’ve defied the condescendingly complimentary “model minority” stereotype: actors like Lucy Liu, artists like Maya Lin, moguls like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. They are known, often admired. But Lin is something new: an Asian American whom millions of other Americans want to be.

Identity in America is complicated but it’s also simple: it’s about whom you identify with and who identifies with you. Lin is the only Asian American in the NBA today and one of the few in any professional U.S. sport. His arrival is surely leading other talented Asian American athletes this week to contemplate a pro career. Just as surely, though, it’s leading many non-Asian non-athletes to expand their identities; to redefine, just by their rooting interest, “American.”

Jeremy Lin the point guard might transform his team and his sport. We shall see. Jeremy Lin the citizen has already changed his country.

(MORE: Tim Tebow’s Testimony)

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