By Jae-Ha Kim
February 15, 2012
Jeremy Lin is riding a well-deserved wave of goodwill and adulation. After being undrafted and waived by not one, but two, NBA teams last year, the 23-year-old point guard for the New York Knicks has become the sport’s latest sensation. And Asian Americans are loving it.
Each time Lin shows off his skills on the basketball court or does an on-air interview where — surprise! — he has no accent, he helps Asian Americans get one step closer to being accepted as “real” Americans.
Like millions of other viewers last week, my family was glued to the TV watching the Knicks defeat the Los Angeles Lakers. Like most Americans, my 3-1/2 year old son, Kyle, had never seen an Asian-American basketball player in the NBA. Pointing at Lin, he shouted, “That’s me! He looks like me!”
What a difference a few decades make.
I was a little older than Kyle when my family emigrated from South Korea to the United States. I don’t recall seeing anyone who looked like me on television, except for a few extras on the original “Hawaii Five-O.” And although I loved watching “Kung Fu,” I was acutely aware even then that David Carradine — the star of the series — was not even vaguely Asian.
So it was not surprising that when I entered kindergarten, my classmates weren’t sure what to make of me—this little girl who looked nothing like them and spoke with a strong accent. A few wanted to know how I got my hair so straight. Since I wasn’t Caucasian, they assumed that I must have been African American.
To help me make friends, my mother sent me off to school with bags of M&M’s and Oreo cookies to share with my classmates. Years later, she told me that she used to watch from a distance as I passed treats out at recess, hoping somebody would play with me. It must’ve broken her heart to see them accept the candy, but not me.
When my family went shopping or stopped at McDonald’s, other children gawked at us while their parents tried to redirect their attention. I once asked my folks why the kids were pointing at us. My mother said they were staring because I was so pretty.
As I grew older, however, I realized that some people weren’t just staring because I was so cute, but because they didn’t like me. And they didn’t like me because I was a “chink.” I heard that word quite a few times in my youth. Adults shouted it from their cars as I walked to school. Older boys said it as they shoved me off the sidewalk.
And in gymnastics, a girl who was at least five years my senior, called me a “dirty chink” every chance she got. Sometimes just to mix things up, she’d threaten to beat me up, too.
But like her, karma’s a bitch. This Mean Girl, who was about 15 at the time, filled out fast, eventually becoming too big to compete. As she left the gymnasium, she tried to hurl one last zinger at me. But I beat her to the punch and said, “Who’s the chink now?”
I know that doesn’t make any sense. But at 10, it seemed like a pretty clever thing to say to a bully.
Of course, while it may have seemed like it at the time, my entire childhood wasn’t filled with racism. But prejudice is such a powerful thing that the memories of it stay with you, long after the words have been spit out.
I am grateful that my son is growing up in an era where there is more diversity all around. Back when I was a kid, toddlers didn’t eat ethnic foods unless they were part of their culture. Kyle and his friends have already been exposed to pho, Greek yogurt and quinoa and don’t think twice about it.
And pop culture is slowly catching up, too. In the revamped “Hawaii Five-0,” two of the four leads are of Asian descent. My little guy is too young to watch that show. But he’s just the right age for “Ni-Hao Kai-lan” and “Dora the Explorer,” which teach toddlers to speak Chinese and Spanish, respectively.
Never mind that he still thinks I’m speaking Spanish when I’m actually talking to him in Korean. He gets it that I’m not speaking English 24/7, and that a lot of his friends’ parents aren’t either.
I’m not sure what Jeremy Lin went through when he was a kid or what was going through his mind during his Harvard days when opposing teams taunted him with racial epithets. Was he irritated that people told him to go back to China, even though he had been born in Los Angeles? Or did he just rise above it?
I suspect he rose above it, which is what I hope my son will do, too, should the need arise.
Copyright ©2012 Jae-Ha Kim
* Per requests, I have added some of the reader comments from the Trib’s site, exactly as they appeared at chicagotribune.com.