The moment I hopped into a cab at Union Station on Saturday morning, the driver turned and bellowed into my ears: “Have you heard? LIN-SON-ITY!” At first I thought I was getting kicked off the cab, but the huge grin on his face and the paper he held in his hand gave it away. One man dominated the entire front page as conspicuously as he had dominated Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers the night before.
Of course I’ve heard. How could I not have? From round-the-clock SportsCenter coverage to walls of ecstatic Facebook posts, Jeremy Lin has rocked the entire nation. He’s living the classic underdog story: The undrafted rookie from Harvard seems on his way to rescuing the entire New York Knicks franchise from a decade of ineptitude and dysfunction.
Despite one dazzling performance after another from the sensational point guard, the conversation surrounding Lin has not always stayed on the basketball court. In particular, much of the commentary has focused on his ethnic background. After all, although he’s not the first Asian American to play in the NBA — that would be Wat Misaka, who also played for the Knicks, but in 1947 – he is joining a pretty exclusive club. It’s no secret that the Asian population as a group is significantly underrepresented in professional sports. Therefore, Lin’s breakthrough seems to be cause for celebration indeed.
Yet perhaps it is still premature to say that Jeremy Lin has single-handedly overturned the stereotype of the nerdy and unathletic Asian. If anything, the astonishment and almost universal jubilation that followed his rise testifies to the sheer power and scope of that stereotype.
In the months leading up to his magical run, no one expected Lin to make it big in the NBA — perhaps not even those who have become his biggest fans. When my beloved Houston Rockets cut Lin to make room for the signing of Samuel Dalembert in December, I hardly flinched. I thought that Lin would be a quality pick up for Yao Ming’s Shanghai Sharks, a professional basketball team in China.
Stereotyping is most destructive when we begin to internalize it and buy into it ourselves. It shackles our imagination and robs us of spontaneity, inspiration and, ultimately, a chance at greatness. I’m not saying that Asians shouldn’t be engineers and doctors but rather that we should all think more deeply about why people assume that we will.
I know that if I truly wanted to, I could choose to work in a field that’s generally not associated with my ethnicity, but I might suspect that the path was unpopular for a reason. Maybe there’s something inherent about me — about us — that will always put me at a natural disadvantage in those professions, no matter how hard I try.
It is difficult to be a trailblazer, to walk the less-trodden path. There are no guides to point the way, no guarantees, no assurances; there is only the darkness of the unknown, and it’s scary. It’s scary for you, for me and for our parents, who try their hardest to secure a promising future for us.
Yet the mere fact that we can gauge how promising a future career might be suggests it is known to us, at least to some degree. Often, we stare so intently at the options that convention has made available to us that we lose sight of what can be.
Sometimes we actively choose to buy into stereotypes because they can provide an easy way out. They narrow our field of vision so we can avoid facing the unknown and cuddle in the coziness of the familiar. Stereotypes can even serve as an excuse for laziness, because to succeed where you’re not expected to requires so much more effort.
Perhaps this is precisely why Jeremy Lin’s story is so extraordinary. From the get-go, he rejected the Asian stereotype and refused to settle for any excuses. Instead, he dreamt big, and to every obstacle and every challenge on his way he responded with determination, hard work and unrelenting belief in God’s will. I suspect that’s the reason why his story has such profound appeal across ethnic and cultural boundaries.
As I reflect on my own future, I wonder if I’ll have Lin’s courage. I’m already a fan of Jeremy Lin. Now I just want to be a fan of myself.
Xiuyi Zheng is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .