Saturday, February 11, 2012

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Is Jeremy Lin Taiwanese or Chinese?

2/11/2012 Taiwan Explorer
How a talented athlete bolstered the Taiwanese pride

Photo from New York Knicks website.

A new basketball superstar is born: Jeremy Lin, a 24 years old Taiwanese-American point guard of the New York Knicks. He is filling up the headlines all across America and abroad. The craze surrounding this talented player is called "Linsanity" and has not only taken over American basketball enthusiasts, the fever has started in Taiwan and has recently spilled over to China, where both countries identify him as one of their own. And this is the tricky part, where I'd like to shed some light on, because a lot of people might not understand what is this about, especially American readers, who are not familiar with the Taiwan-China issues.

Taiwanese Next Media's animation placed an ROC's flag behind Jeremy in this video.

"One China, one Taiwan"

Taiwan (officially Republic of China or ROC) is a small sovereign country in East Asia, with a very complex political situation and a limited international recognition, due to blockades from China (officially People's Republic of China or PRC), which claims that Taiwan is just a breakaway province. I won't go into a detailed discussion of Taiwan's legal and international status, you can read more about this here. Fact is, if you're living in Taiwan, you will most probably feel that you're living in a free and democratic country with a predominant Chinese speaking population, who see themselves either as "Taiwanese" (台灣人) or "ethnic Chinese" (華人), and most likely not as "Chinese" (中國人) in the sense of "nationals of People's Republic of China". There are exceptions of course, because as mentioned before, the issue is complex. The two countries are a product of a very complicated history in this part of the world (foreign interference, internal turmoil) and if we simplify it - a civil war from 1927 to 1950 between the communists (who today rule China) and nationalists (who today rule Taiwan), that among other things caused a separation of the national and cultural identity on each side. Whether you like it or not, in the issue of Jeremy Lin's identity, which is the main topic of this post, we need to see Taiwan and China as two separate entities, because that's what they de facto are.

"Jeremy Lin is American! And Taiwanese."

Jeremy Lin is first and foremost an American. Not only is he born in America, one could say that his personal story of a taunted underdog, who never gave up to pursue his dream, caters to that famous narrative of the "American dream", which was brilliantly explained by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America (1931), where he said that the American dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" (source, page 214). Jeremy is a son of first generation immigrants, that left Taiwan in the late 1970s. Both are Harvard university graduates and engineers in two different fields, father in the semiconductor field, mother in software (source). This is the part, where the average Taiwanese could identify with, especially people of the older generation, who survived the tough times of the Cold War and the immigration wave, that accompanied it. In Taiwanese culture, that roots in Confucianism, the concept of filial piety 孝順 (xiàoshùn) is very strongly anchored in people's minds and it basically means that you have to take care of your parents until they die. Not only that, they always have a say in your affairs and in return you have to show love, respect, support and understanding. This strengthens the bonds of a family and the whole ancestry, which manifests itself in the way one sees his ethnic or national identity. It is therefore hard for Taiwanese to see Jeremy Lin as not one of their own, despite the fact, that he has not grown up in Taiwan and that his success is (beside his personal talent and hard work), a consequence of growing up in America. "His parents are Taiwanese, therefore he is Taiwanese" is probably the common thought among his fans in Taiwan. And the Linsanity here started way before the current one in America and China. If you turn on the Taiwanese ESPN, most of the time you will see Jeremy Lin, and not only his games and interviews, there is a broad array of Taiwanese sports journalists and commentators, who share their views and opinions on the young talented player - nonstop. In Taiwan he is known as 林書豪 or Lin Shu-how. Another very important aspect, why Taiwanese have adopted him so quickly as one of his own, is the lack of the country's international recognition. Even in sports, a lot of Taiwanese athletes are commonly mistaken or deliberately taken as Chinese. Since China is now so rich and powerful, it represents a very big market for Taiwanese talents and that's why you will rarely see one of them vocally involved in this issue. Money and pragmatism too often trump the national pride, at least on the outside. Jeremy Lin is born in America and when he says "I'm really proud of my parents being from Taiwan" (in an interview with Elie Seckbach), he definitely makes a lot of Taiwanese hearts flutter.

A video made by Taiwanese-Americans.

"I'm really proud of being Chinese"

On the other hand, Jeremy Lin is also proud of his ethnic Chinese heritage (his grand grand mother came from China) and has received a lot of attention from media and fans in the Middle Kingdom these days. In China he's known as 林书豪 or Lin Shuhao. Fans in China regard Taiwan as part of their country and its people as Chinese, therefore they also see Jeremy Lin as one of their own.

Jeremy Lin's profile on Baidu, Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia, whole article here.

On Baidu, the Chinese online encyclopedia, Jeremy Lin's profile emphasizes the fact, that one of his grand grand mothers came from the Chinese province Zhejiang ("祖籍是浙江省嘉兴市平湖"), furthermore it says that his parents are Chinese from Taiwan ("父母都是中国台湾人", the part 中国台湾 means something like China's Taiwan, implying Taiwan is part of China - there is no simple translation for 中国台湾人 in English).

Read Chinese netizens' reactions to Jeremy Lin.

Asian-American underdog

If we put all the excitement in Taiwan and China aside and revert back to America, we come to an area, where Jeremy Lin might really leave a big impact: He might be the first Asian-American basketball superstar, an idol to many other Asian-Americans (and even Asian-Canadians alike). This was brilliantly pointed out by an article in the Economist today:

"The second question is whether he is likely to draw increased attention to the sport from other Asian-Americans, and perhaps shatter some racial stereotypes along the way. Although Yao Ming was the league’s first Asian star, Asian-Americans only partially embraced him as their own. He grew up in China rather than in the United States. And at 2.29m, he is too much of a physical outlier for most fans to relate to.

Mr Lin’s modesty and academic pedigree conform to mainstream perceptions of Asian-Americans. But his profile as a player does not. Some of the aspects of the game where he is weakest, such as long-distance shooting, are those that require the most practice and repetition. In contrast, his court vision, which enables him to execute precise passes in traffic, and his killer crossover dribble and powerful dunks, which recall Allen Iverson at his best, are usually seen as “innate” skills that historically have been associated with black players".

Sure, at this point it's hard to say, in which direction this young talented basketball player will go. Maybe he just had the best week of his life or maybe the best is yet to come - we will see. I really hope he doesn't get caught up in political issues between China and Taiwan, it would only distract him from what he's doing best: Playing basketball. In the end, only he knows who he really is and I think he has multiple identities and all the rights to not explain it to anybody.

Jeremy, all the best to you!

▷ Here are some useful related links:

Jeremy Lin on Twitter (@JLin7)
Jeremy Lin's Facebook page in English
Jeremy Lin's Facebook page in Chinese
Jeremy Lin's homepage
Jeremy Lin's YouTube channel
Jeremy Lin NBA Profile
With 38 Points, the Legend Grows, NYT article

▷ Old articles about Jeremy Lin (2009-2010):

Immigrant dream plays out through son, ESPN, December 10, 2009
Harvard Superstar… On the B-ball Court!,, December 11, 2009
Jeremy Lin One Step Closer to NBA Contract,, July 18, 2010

▷ My follow-up post:

Linsanity in Taiwan

Have you already gone "Linsane"?

Read related articles: [My UNIQUELY TAIWANESE page]