A few weeks ago, I was feeling very anxious about giving a presentation. A friend noticed my mini-panic attack, and told me to “just chill.” Seizing an opportunity to tease me about my interest in Taiwan, he offered to call out the name “Jeremy Lin” while I spoke. I smiled, threw up a big two-handed heart symbol, and replied, “That actually might help.” Then he added, “Or, maybe I’ll just yell ‘Barack Obama’ instead.” At first, I was confused. (I guess nervousness makes you slow). But pretty quickly the analytical and visual parts of my brain started creating multi-column lists on the similarities and differences of these two superstars in my life.
After a few minutes, I stood up, went to the mic, and promptly flubbed the presentation. However, I had quite a bit to think about when I returned home and to the topic of Lin and Obama, how they identify, and how we identify them.
Self identification :: Jeremy Lin
Nationality: American (born Los Angeles, California)
Parent’s Nationality: Taiwanese
Pan-Ethnic Identity: Asian American
From what I’ve heard in interviews, both video and in “print” media, Jeremy Lin seems to embrace all of these identities. So, I suppose with regard to “self-identification” that’s really all she wrote.
But many journalists and bloggers aren’t so lax about letting Lin choose how he “self” identifies. There are apparently cultural and political formulas to determine his identity for him.
But, really: how much do politics or the length of time his ancestors spent in Taiwan actually matter?
Three Centuries in Taiwan
When Linsanity first broke in mid-February, the argument about whether Jeremy Lin was Chinese or Taiwanese quickly followed. I read this article a few weeks ago. It stirred up some feelings, and I decided to wait to see how other people were discussing identity and ethnicity before I got into the conversation.
Particularly, I was blown away his uncle’s insistence that Chinese and Taiwanese cultures dictated “that Jeremy Lin’s identity should be determined by his father’s side of the family.” The father’s family had been in Taiwan for 300 years, the mother’s side for about 60 years. The implication of his statement was twofold. First, he implied that the mother, who was second generation Taiwanese, was in some way not Taiwanese enough to make Lin Taiwanese on her own. Second, the 1707 wave of immigrants from China to Taiwan should/ could claim a mutually exclusive (Taiwanese but not Chinese) identity.
I’m sorry, but in my experience identity just doesn’t work like that. “Length” of ancestral stay is never the sole determining factor of how you are identified. And it definitely shouldn’t be the marker for how someone is allowed to self identify.
Just think of it this way. For Asians, the first immigrants arrived in the U.S. in 1850. For descendants of Africa, the slave trade began in the 1500s. Yet today in 2012, both groups still have hyphenated identities. Length of time in a country certainly doesn’t wash away historical roots no matter how long you’ve lived there.
I’m sure there are a lot of dynamics at play here. But sometimes, with our love for [check just one box] categories, I think we forget that identity isn’t so neat and pretty. It’s personal (and by extension complicated). For people to say that they are ethnically Chinese with Taiwanese parents (embracing both), they are acknowledging that identity doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. It can just be.
Public Reclaiming :: Barack Obama
Now, this brings me to a very famous “I knew Lin before you did” fan, Barack Obama. After the last election, news media called Obama’s win historic precisely because Obama was a pattern changer [the only not white guy on the presidential posters]. But sometimes how you identify yourself and how others identify you doesn’t necessarily match. But in my opinion, it doesn’t really have to.
Nationality: American (born Honolulu, Hawaii)
Parent’s Nationality: Kenyan (father) + American (mother); Indonesian (step-father)
Ancestry: Kenyan and European (various)
Pan-ethnic Identity: African American
Putting aside for a minute the details of how Obama self identifies (and his political policy for that matter), I’ve read, heard, and met tons of people who have plenty of opinions about who Obama is to them.
Many Black Americans swell with pride at the person they identify as “the first black president.” And several journalists have pointed out that slaves built the White House. (However, this isn’t actually Obama’s ancestral narrative at all.)
Back in the summer of 2008, I met someone whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was White. She introduced me to the word “hafrican” (“half” + “African”) to describe those of us who have one African parent and one parent of another nationality. This was her identity and she felt like seeing Obama was like looking into a mirror.
Like my Kenyan American friend, I admire the fact that I have a “first ever” type of role model who has an African father like mine (did you notice how I’ve generalized and gotten rid of Kenya?), an American mother like mine (let’s not mention that she’s White ~ unlike my mother), and grew up in a multicultural home like mine. When I hear him say that he’s African American, I don’t think black descendent of slaves like some people; I think African and American like me.
I’m obviously not alone with my very earnest desire to see myself in people who I respect whether they are leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, professionals, or just wholesome “role models.” But if I can’t find someone who shares my exact cultural background and history (how unlikely that they would!), I’ll just do some “harmless” stretching and reinterpreting.
”Self Centered” Identification
Thus, how we understand superstars and role models depends a lot on how we understand our own identity. Identifying with some one like Jeremy Lin is no different. This is what I’ve picked up on in the past several weeks:
Taiwanese American (mirroring) :: Of course there’s a great sense of pride to see someone represent an intersecting Taiwanese and American identity. If you’re Taiwanese American, you’re almost certainly experiencing the mirroring that my Kenyan American friend felt four years ago. “That’s me up there.”
From a statistical point of view, what seems particularly awe inspiring is that self identifying Taiwanese Americans make up only about 0.06% of the U.S. population; add to that the fact that only about 0.03% of male athletes have the talent to make it into the NBA (the upper echelon of professional athleticism). Let those numbers settle for a bit.
Taiwan (identification) :: I used to live in Changhua and all of my Taiwanese friends from that town especially love Lin. Forget that Lin was born in Los Angeles. My friends still feel a sense of hometown pride, because that’s where his parents hail from. Thus, by association, he’s one of their own. This extends all over the island in many ways too, of course.
Chinese and Chinese American (mirroring) :: Obviously, there’s this tense reinterpretation of Lin’s identity in China and with Chinese Americans that is political. But for a lot of the people I’ve talked to lately, much of it isn’t about politics. Sometimes, it’s just awesome to see someone who is part of your particular Diaspora achieving success.
Asian American (mirroring) :: The friend who offered to save me from my nervousness by calling out Jeremy Lin’s name is Korean American. For him, Lin is ethnically Asian. The finer details of whether Lin is Taiwanese or Chinese don’t matter nearly as much to him. And so, the mirror flexes.
[Edit: When I first wrote this, I completely forgot to mention the "Wai-Taiwanese" perspective ("wai" in this case meaning not ethnically Taiwanese but interested in the culture). For me, there's not really that element of "mirror" flexing. But I do feel a sense of excitement to see someone who identifies as Taiwanese in the national spotlight.]
Others? :: For other groups that fall outside of Lin’s identities, at least from the articles I’ve read, the details of Lin’s identity matter less and less.
Noticeably, very little (if anything) I read from most other communities debated the specifics of Chinese v. Taiwanese identity politics. Some articles noted his race/ ethnicity, but urged basketball fans to look past race and focus on his talent. But generally, while most journalists, bloggers, and vloggers used the words Asian American (Chinese American, Taiwanese American, etc.) to describe Lin, the feeling behind the articles were either about Lin’s identity as an “Asian” specifically or as a “person of color” more broadly.
Here’s what I mean: The articles that treated Lin as a “person of color” or as a “second generation American” were usually pretty empathetic. For example, I read a few articles by Latino and Black Americans setting out the difficulties of non-white populations in American to assimilate into “mainstream” expectations. Here, the narrative was “He’s like me. We share a similar story.” So, not surprisingly, most of these articles ended by urging careless sports writers, ice cream companies, and the like to stop being so ignorant.
On the other hand, there were some who framed Lin as “Asian” and who interpreted his identity as “other.” These individuals were often more critical of the idea of Linsanity. One Latino journalist lamented that America would probably never permit a version of Linsanity for the Latino community. Then there were a number of pretty offensive articles which I won’t repeat here (and some responses). There was certainly a range, and I got pretty disappointed when the language started sounding like “ignore this guy because he’s not like me.”
In any case, this past month of reading tons about Jeremy Lin continues to reinforce my belief that self-identity is personal and emotional. It deals uniquely and profoundly with the individual. On the other hand, our natural instinct is to want to see ourselves in the people we admire – even if that means taking a “self centered” approach to reading their identity. For me, that approach is okay as long as we know that’s actually what we’re doing and permit our role models to identify themselves differently than we identify them.
What other perspectives am I missing? Do you think this accurately reflects how you (personally) see your celebrities, role models, and superstars?