A Chinaman's Chance (16 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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where is she going the plain girl in a red hat running up the subway steps and the cop joking the other cop across the street?    and the smack of a kiss from two shadows under the stoop of the brownstone house and the grouchy faces at the streetcorner suddenly gaping black with yells at the thud of a blow a whistle scampering feet    the event?

tonight now

but instead you find yourself (if self is the bellyaching malingerer so often the companion of aimless walks) the jobhunt forgotten    neglected the bulletinboard where the futures are scrawled in chalk

among the nibbling chinamen at the Thalia

ears dazed by the crash of alien gongs the chuckle of rattles the piping of incomprehensible flutes the swing and squawk of ununderstandable talk    otherword music antics postures costumes

an unidentified stranger

destination unknown

hat pulled down over the    has he any?    face

In the USA in the 1930s, the self was presumed white. And only by chance would that self, stumbling into a joint filled with nibbling chinamen, find himself suddenly a stranger in a strange land, ears dazed. Only then would
he
be the one without face.

How times have changed.

How have times changed?

—————

At the old Yankee Stadium a few musical riffs used to come over the PA system whenever the home team rallied. One was the opening of “Hava Nagila,” starting slow and then picking up momentum as the crowd clapped to each frenzied beat. The other was from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass playing “Zorba the Greek.” Same lazy start, same
accelerando
. Same Mediterranean vibe. Those slices of in-game sound may have originated with the Yankees and their Noo Yawk Italian-Jewish-Greek fans, but they're now ubiquitous. When you hear them at a game somewhere else in America, right before the cavalry bugler signals “Charge!,” you don't think twice. These are all part of the same all-American soundscape.

Which got me wondering: Is there a Chinese tune that could crack the ballpark repertoire? Which made me remember that at Louisiana State University, where the 1958 football team's crafty defense got the nickname “The Chinese Bandits,” a fan was inspired to write the following tune:

Chinese Bandits on their way

Listen what Confucius say

Tiger Bandits like to KNOCK

Gonna stop a touchdown

CHOP CHOP!!!

Tradition now holds that whenever the LSU Tigers' defense makes a third-down stop, fans bow in unison, arms extended, and the marching band plays a Chinese-ish pentatonic ditty. Out of some measure of—what? embarrassment? enlightenment? ignorance?—fans no longer sing the words. But the tune is unchanged; the bowing continues.

Like the “tomahawk chop” performed by fans of the Florida Seminoles and Atlanta Braves, the Chinese Bandits bit contains a dose of backhanded respect for the civilization being belittled (
Gosh those Chinese are good at stealing!
). But fundamentally, this ritual, the casual appropriation and distortion of bits of nonwhite cultures, reinforces the whiteness of the default point of view in public life. If I were Irish, I might like the feisty leprechaun who represents Notre Dame. Because if I were Irish, my place in American society would be so beyond dispute that I could happily suffer that relic of Yankee stereotyping and be known always as Fightin'. The Irish got power and have it today. If I were Native American, though, I'd be less happy about Chief Wahoo, the toothy caricature still the logo of the Cleveland Indians, to say nothing of the Redskins NFL franchise in the nation's capital.

Whether the terms of appropriation of a culture's symbols and stereotyped essences offend or honor has to do less with the content of the symbols than with whether that culture's people enjoy civic equality. Native Americans, I bet, would trade all the brave/warrior/chief/tomahawk honorifics for a fair shot at a decent life in this land. And Chinese Americans? We are neither subjugated nor fully integrated. Many of us have more power than ever before—particularly economic power, and the power of educational achievement and example—but many more do not. And some of us in the second generation still don't feel so culturally secure that we would laugh off, let alone embrace with pride, a sports mascot called “The Scrappy Chink” or “The Mining Chinaman.”

But who knows? Maybe the third generation—my daughter's generation—will. Maybe one day a beloved Chinese American athlete-hero will go by the moniker “The Chinese Bandit” and have as his signature ditty a sing-songy Chinatune. Maybe the fourth generation will live in an America where stadiums full of non-Chinese fans will clap along with a Chinatune as they root, root, root for the home team, and where the Chinese American fans in attendance will feel not strange, not masquerading, neither invisible nor conspicuous, but right at home. Maybe we will think of that as progress.

—————

The Jews, writes Neal Gabler in
An Empire of Their Own,
invented Hollywood. A small group of Jewish immigrants were pathologically motivated to escape their pasts and their outsider status—men like Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zucker, the brothers Jack and Harry Warner. Many came from garment business families but went west to claim a domain exempt from the heartbreak and struggle of the Old World, where they could transcend their fathers' failures, give themselves new Anglicized last names, and create families without histories. They projected, literally and psychologically, all their assimilationist dreams of a perfect America onto the screens that in turn framed everyone else's dreams of a perfect America. And they came to the fore at a freakishly perfect moment, when a few ambitious men truly could mold a medium, an industry, a culture, and a country.

Much is made of the comparison between the Jews and the Chinese in America. Outsiders, middleman minorities, chip on the shoulder, striving to bypass an old-boy establishment. This is the Chua-Rubenfeld thesis. But what, nearly a century after the Jews invented Hollywood, might Chinese Americans today comparably invent?

The golden age of the movie industry was so golden because the industry had democratized just enough that a bunch of sons of tailors and peddlers could build an empire—but not so much that they had a lot of competition. They could lord over American culture. Today the fragmentation of our civic and aesthetic life—the way “community” has come to signify a subgroup more often than the whole—means that no single group of immigrants is likely ever to define the interior lives and experiences of hundreds of millions of Americans. There are too many channels, too many screens for anyone to control the means of reflection.

Consider the apparel industry that the Mayers and Zuckers and Warners left behind. Today thousands of Chinese immigrants still toil in American sweatshops making clothes. Jean Kwok's acclaimed novel
Girl In Translation
, about a teen immigrant who's a star student by day and burdened garment worker by night, brought this reality home to many American readers. Meanwhile, organizers and advocates at places like the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York continue to combat the exploitation of garment workers.

At the same time, Chinese Americans like Alexander Wang and Jason Wu now make
fashion
. Their designs become the new must-haves. Chinese Americans like Eva Wang, editor of the uber-stylish
Lucky
magazine and a protégé of
Vogue
's Anna Wintour, make
taste
. Her choices become the new chic. These were not things that Chinese Americans in my youth were expected to do or expected themselves to do—making fashion and making taste.

But timing is everything. And these days, it's not so easy to be a mogul of fashion and taste. There are a million styles, pinned on a million boards, sketched on a million pads, more than can ever be directed by a few tastemakers. The cacophonous, flattening, global churn of modern pop culture has made dominating this game more difficult than ever. So yes, Chinese Americans today can enter the culture-making business more readily than ever and even make it to the cultural elite. The cultural elite, though, has become just another noisy niche in an age without empire.

The question is: Is that bad news? The Jews who created Hollywood, writes Gabler, invented a whole new America but, in their fierce determination to assimilate, lost themselves. Perhaps it's not possible anymore for any cohort of newcomers to invent a whole new America. Perhaps it's not necessary anymore for those newcomers to lose themselves.

3. Improvisations

It's tempting to look at the arrival and semi-disappearance of Jeremy Lin as a cautionary tale. A parable about the half-life of hype. It was so beautiful while it lasted. “Linsanity”: the national frenzy over a young, skinny, Harvard-educated, Taiwanese American walk-on point guard for the New York Knicks of the NBA who went from barely a benchwarmer to an unstoppable force, a scoring machine whose kid-like heart and gloriously free style of play transformed a group of selfish individuals into a true team, who sparked a magical winning spree, who made New York cynics and weary Knicks fans believe again, whose underdog ascent made every Asian American and especially every American of Chinese descent, whether they had ever watched a basketball game, get teary-eyed not just at his court prowess but at the fact that all over America now people of every color were making yellow masks with Jeremy's face and wearing blue jerseys with LIN on the back, and for the first time in this country someone who looked and lived like them—like me—could be the mythic sports action figure that little kids dreamed of being and becoming.

The whole thing lasted, basically, several weeks. Then the Knicks were at last eliminated, their season over, and instead of retaining Lin at the higher price his agents thought he merited, the front office let him leave. He signed a very rich contract as a free agent with the Houston Rockets. To counter the deflating feeling that this was too far from the bright lights and big stage of Madison Square Garden, people in Lin's circle explained that Houston, where China's Yao Ming had once played, had a rabid Chinese and Chinese American fan base and that this move made great business sense and that Linsanity would have a revival the next season. It didn't. Houston signed another point guard, who displaced Lin as franchise cornerstone. Lin's play, while respectable, was not inspired or outstanding anymore. The same national press that had brought him so high now brought him low.
Overrated
.
Overpriced
.
Told ya so.
The chants got in his head. His play deteriorated further. He couldn't sleep. He stopped smiling. He cried. He was benched, his big contract and recent legend now millstones more than milestones.

So yes, it's tempting to think of Jeremy Lin in terms of Icarus and overreach, or as just another in the nameless endless roster of flash-in-the-pan pro athletes. Except for this: this man has the capacity to reflect and to articulate his reflections. He is a man of God, and his Christian devotion certainly feeds these capacities. But so perhaps does his Chinese instinct for self-cultivation and finding a middle way. After his failed first season in Houston, Lin spoke candidly at a religious event about how all the affection and attention of Linsanity had affected its object:

I felt chained to the world's lofty expectations. . . . I had to ask, would I allow myself to listen to what everyone else said about me? Would I allow myself to be consumed by my performance on the court? To be consumed by my job? I based my self-worth on how many points I scored or how many games I started. I based my self-esteem on being the player that everyone else expected me to be. But my identity should never have been based on basketball. And this is when God showed me I needed an identity check.

So what did I have to do? I had to re-prioritize my life. I told myself, I'm no longer going to listen to everyone else's voice. I'm not even going to listen to my own voice anymore. I had to get back to listening to God's voice. I had to get back to being what God made me to be. I had to return to my identity as one of God's children, rather than trying to be “Linsanity,” which was an identity created by the world.

So my challenge to you today is this: who are you? What is your identity? In order to know the answer, you have to know what makes you the happiest, or what makes you the most proud of yourself. You have to know what makes you the saddest, or what makes you feel like you're not worth anything. What gives you your self-worth or your feeling of importance?

Other people's expectations. These words have for so long been the defining frame of so many Chinese American lives. What society expects. What parents and aunts and uncles and grandmothers expect. What classmates expect. What the people you are attracted to expect. And not just for achievement but for behavior in general. This is the cage built by Tiger Mothers and their fixed notions of success, by Seth MacFarlane sitcoms that ridicule Chinese characters (with a postmodern self-exculpatory wink), by the child's knowledge of the parents' sacrifices that make every opportunity an obligation, by narratives that deem Chinese men unmanly, by the surprise in the eyes of people who didn't expect someone with these eyes and this hair to speak English/play sports/fill-in-the-blank so well.

Jeremy Lin didn't on this occasion address the larger frame of societal expectations. He spoke about one man's confusion—about how the public's insatiable appetite for Linsanity, for an endless upward spiral of performance and for him to represent rather than to be, leached every ounce of intrinsic motivation from his play and his life. He named his failure and examined it. He invited others to behold it. And because he is able to do this, it turns out his story really
can
be a parable—not of failing to live up to expectations but of failing to live unconfined by them.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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