February 20, 2012

The Truth About Jeremy Lin

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Here’s a new, unexpected adjective to throw into the pile of puns already made to describe Jeremy Lin: or“lin”ary.

Is he a basketball phenom who has shocked the sports world? Sure.

But is he a trailblazer who has finally shattered the Asian American stereotype, as so many sportscasters and fans have trumpeted? Not even close.

Because once we finally sober up from the week-long Linsanity fest, we will clearly see a devout Christian who got a near-perfect scores his math SAT II exam and graduated with a degree in economics from Harvard.

Jeremy Lin is as neutral, bland and unassuming as they come. He shies away from the spotlight and passes on the credit for Knicks victories to his flashier, egotistical teammates. Even when he got cut by his two former teams, he simply gritted his teeth and moved on, despite knowing that he could compete with the best.

And that’s what should be most unsettling about his precipitous and unforeseen ascent to fame: His talents would have almost certainly gone unnoticed if not for a series of fortuitous injuries that fell into place at the very last moment, just before he was about to be cut again by his third team. And Lin would have just let the opportunity slip away.

But maybe thanks to a little divine intervention, Jeremy Lin avoided fading forever into obscurity. Only after the Knicks’ starting point guard got a herniated disc, their leading scorer tore his groin and their all-star power forward lost his brother to a car accident did Jeremy Lin finally show the world his basketball prowess.

On the court, Lin may be the Asian-American anomaly playing in a racially black- and white-dominated league, but he has also confirmed that Asian Americans are still the model minority that they were 160 years ago when they first arrived to California’s shores — he’s still the diligent, hardworking, goody two-shoes who walks around delicately in order to avoid stepping on other people’s toes.

So Jeremy Lin hasn’t broken any Asian-American stereotypes. He has, in fact, affirmed them.

But his underdog rise to fame — one that should have never happened — points to a larger problem. Asian Americans have reached a rut in the United States. Despite dominating the top high schools, universities and graduate schools, despite being the ethnicity with one of the highest high school and college graduation rates, despite having one of the highest household incomes and lowest crime rates, we’ve never been able to get over the leadership hump that would propel us into the upper strata of management positions.

We have so much going for us. But when we enter the real world — a world where report cards and test scores are no longer yardsticks and meritocracy isn’t the name of the game — we lose our sense of direction and fail to capitalize on our favorable upbringing.

Out of the companies in the Fortune 500, only 10 Asian Americans serve as either the chair, president or CEO and only 96 hold boards seats — a paltry and pathetic 2.08 percent.

At the prestigious National Institutes of Health, where Asian-American scientists compose 13.49 percent of the work force, only one — just one — holds a scientific director position out of the possible 27.

Even in the Ivy League, where Asian Americans are estimated to compose up to 20 percent of the student populations at some schools, we have only recently managed to break the bamboo ceiling, when Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim became the Asian American president of an Ivy League university in 2009.

So here’s the cold and bitter truth: The hard work and humility that may have worked for our parents before they immigrated doesn’t work for us. The ethos of their generation, captured by the subservient China Doll and Charlie Chan archetypes of the 1960s, no longer pays off once your SAT score is high enough and your transcript is brimming with A’s.

In fact, what they told us to do when we were young — to put our heads down to our desks and don’t stir up any trouble — has prepared us for lives in which we’re destined to excel at middle management and mediocrity.

Are these generalizations of an entire ethnicity crude and tactless? Of course.

But then again, it’s exactly this type of provocation that the Asian-American community needs. It needs be boiled up in passion. It needs to get incensed. It needs to get down and dirty, step on some toes, and create a little friction.

Because if we don’t, what we have we worked so hard for?

Steven Zhang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang2@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang

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