Jeremy Lin: The Forest for the Trees

Jeremy Lin: The Forest for the Trees

The Illinois Humanities Council (ICH) has commissioned a number of people - from the arts, media and academia - to share their thoughts on the cultural swirl around New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. This is the final in a series of four essays that I’ve featured on my blog. You are also invited to join the conversation! Leave your comments below and join us at Jane Addams Hull House Museum tonight, for the IHC program Linsanity: What’s Beyond the Hype? We’ll talk about Lin and watch the Knicks-Bulls game!

Jeremy Lin (AP photo by Bill Kostroun)
The Forest for the Trees: Riffing on Jeremy Lin, by Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

I’m a poet, an Asian American poet, and more specifically, a Chinese Taiwanese American spoken-word poet living in New York. So, I’ve known pretty early on that I would inevitably write about Jeremy Lin. The poem brewing within hasn’t revealed itself entirely. Yet I keep coming back to the character for Lin, which in the inherent poetry of Chinese ideograms is two trees beside each other, a forest.

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I have not watched one game. (I intended to, at least, at first.) Nor have I bought jerseys, hats or any of the other ubiquitous “Linsanity” paraphernalia. I’ve kept up on general media (point totals, Floyd Mayweather, ESPN, Ben & Jerry’s, interviews) but have read precious few critical versus factual articles on him. I’m still shocked that both of his parents are 5’6.”

All of this didn’t stop me from putting his screensaver on my laptop the day after Game 1, and simultaneously Googling and texting with one of my girlfriends until 4 a.m. about how amazing it all was.

For me, the presence of Jeremy Lin brought into fine focus the absence of anybody like Jeremy Lin in mainstream American culture. I identified, for the first time ever, with a mainstream media figure whose family comes from where my family comes from, who is smart and relatable, who shares the same last name as my childhood friends, who is second-generation.

The feeling enthralled me and then depressed me in its newness. All at once, my own sense of possibility as an Asian Pacific Islander American expanded, as I also felt the sharp pang of what it means to have such a narrow sense of possibility in mainstream American culture in the first place - an issue that I talk about with young APIA audiences at length when I travel across the country for performances.

Whatever I was feeling was exponentially more explosive for Asian Pacific Islander American males, and particularly, those who play basketball. The invisibility and emasculation of APIA males are to such a great degree that a friend recently confided how he felt that Harry Shum Jr. of Glee was the only person in mainstream American culture who was saving the masculinity of East Asian American males.

That was, of course, before Jeremy Lin.

Although caught up in the initial elation, I took down my Jeremy Lin screensaver a few days later, as an antidote to the constant stream of J. Lin content on my Facebook and Twitter. During his winning streak, it seemed as though nothing else in Asian Pacific Islander America was happening except for Knicks’ games, point totals, D-League development history, Internet memes. Again, it made me excited but sad that all of this rallying effort was expended, in part, because, we as a community have never had anyone in mainstream American culture to rally for.

The funny thing about the Internet is that its content based on social network and search history falsely conveys that what’s topical in your world is topical in the world. Not everyone’s Facebook and Twitter feeds looked like mine. Some were filled with RIP messages for Don Cornelius and Whitney Houston or the latest gaffe from the Republican debates. A very unofficial poll of my non-Asian Pacific Islander American friends during the height of “Linsanity” resulted in “Um, who is that?”

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai (Berman Fenelus)
Even more stark, as a Facebook friend pointed out, is the contrast between our fervent embrace of Jeremy Lin’s victory versus the quieter acknowledgment of Pvt. Danny Chen’s tragedy, a NYC Chinatown native whose controversial death occurred in October 2011 in Afghanistan hours after being hazed by his fellow soldiers. The visibility of class and the overall dichotomous nature of the Asian Pacific Islander American community is clear in the circumstances of these two young men. Lin’s family, like my own, immigrated from Taiwan to pursue higher education, grooming him for the Ivy League. Chen’s family immigrated from Taishan, China, his father laboring ten hours a day in a Chinatown kitchen.

In light of Pvt. Danny Chen’s death, many issues in the APIA community persist like high APIA poverty rates in New York, re-districting of APIA communities to weaken political power in Chicago, low levels of funding towards APIA social services nation-wide. I hope that we can be inspired by Jeremy Lin’s hustle and hard work, recognizing that we need a hell of a lot of visible and vocal heroes in a broad range of industries (government, business, arts, media, finance, not-for-profit, education, sports, technology) to be able to “see the forest for the trees” and make the kind of impacts for our communities that count.

KELLY ZEN-YIE TSAI is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based spoken word poet, playwright and filmmaker who has performed at over 500 venues worldwide, including three seasons on Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry. (