Asian-American Stereotypes: “A Whole Different Issue”

Jeremy Lin puts up a shot in a game against the LA Lakers last year.
Jeremy Lin shoots in a game against the LA Lakers last year.

60 Minutes devoted a segment of its April 7th show to Jeremy Lin. Lin’s is a great story—born to Taiwanese parents in California, he graduated from Harvard and now plays basketball for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. The interview covers a range of topics, including culture, race, religion, and . . . prejudice.

When Charlie Rose asked Lin about why he didn’t get any scholarship offers from Division I schools, even though he was named California’s player of the year in high school, Lin replied: “Well, I think the obvious thing, is . . . in my mind is . . . that I was Asian-American, which, you know, is a whole different issue, but that’s . . . I think that was a barrier.”

“When you say because you were an Asian-American, what is that?” said Rose. “Because there’s nothing about being an Asian-American that doesn’t give you the ability to play basketball.”

“Yeah,” said Lin. “I mean it was just, I mean it’s a . . . it’s a stereotype.”

“Average” Asian Americans?
While Lin certainly contradicts some common Asian-American stereotypes, he seems to fit with others.

A study by the Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” gained attention last year for announcing that Asian-Americans had surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of immigrants entering the US. But there is a lot of other information in the detailed report, including:

  • In 2010, 49% of Asian Americans age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or more (compared to 28% of the overall US population).
    “More than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals, and almost surely makes the recent Asian arrivals the most highly educated cohort of immigrants in U.S. history.”
  • The median household income of Asian Americans is $66,000 (US population: $49,800)
  • 93% agree with the statement, “Americans from my country of origin group are very hard working.”
  • 50% identify as part of or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 28% identify or lean Republican.
  • The largest religious affiliation for Asian Americans is Christian, at 42%. The next largest group is “Unaffiliated,” at 26%.

A Double-Edged Sword
While much of the information in the Pew report reflects well on Asian-Americans, some feel that the statistics can have negative consequences.

Deepa Iyer, executive director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, told NPR that

it’s really important to understand that the community’s not a monolith and that we can’t use this information to think that it is the norm across all Asian-Americans because, historically, our communities have either been seen as model minorities or we’ve been put into the box of being disloyal, suspicious or we’ve been put into a box of foreigners who take away jobs. And the reality is that none of these stereotypes are true. Right?

Iyer wants us to remember that within the group of Asian Americans are many subgroups, representing people from a great diversity of circumstances and from a great diversity of countries—such as China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines. (The Pew site has a great graphic that breaks down the demographics for each country of origin, here.)

Asian immigrants themselves tend to identify more with their country of origin than simply as “Asians.” While 19% most often refer to themselves as “Asian” or “Asian American,” 62% most often describe themselves by their country of origin, as in “Chinese” or “Chinese American.” Only 14% most often call themselves “American.”

Academic Robots?
The question of what to call oneself can be especially relevant to high-achieving high-school graduates. According to an Associated Press article, published in USA Today, some are refusing to check the “Asian” box on applications for top colleges. That is because they believe they need to score hundreds of points higher on test scores to compete with applicants from other ethnic groups. Critics of the current system believe

that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.

Some applicants refuse to mark any box in the race section, but some who are mixed race, have a choice of which box to check.

Tao Tao Holmes is a student at Yale. Her mother is Chinese-born, and her father is a white American. She told AP:

My math scores aren’t high enough for the Asian box. I say it jokingly, but there is the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have (been expected to) excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects.

Holmes calls herself “an American . . . an Asian person who grew up in America.”

Susanna Koetter, another student at Yale, said that her racial identity changes depending on where she’s at. The daughter of a Korean mother and a white American father, Koetter said she’s “not fully Asian-American. I’m mixed Asian-American. When I go to Korea, I’m like, blatantly white.” But back in the US, when it came time to fill out her college application, did she leave the “Asian” box unchecked? No. “That would be messed up,” she said. “I’m not white.”

(“Linsanity: Jeremy Lin’s Rise to Stardom,” 60 Minutes, CBS News, April 7, 2013; “The Rise of Asian Americans,” Pew Research Center, June 19, 2012, updated April 4, 2013; Asian-Americans on the Rise,” NPR, June 20, 2012; “Some Asians’ College Strategy: Don’t Check Asian,” USA Today, December 4, 2011)

[photo: “Jeremy Lin 林书豪,” by DvYang, used under a Creative Commons license]

Jeremy Lin Takes to Taipei Streets in Hello Kitty Head

Jeremy Lin recently took a trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan and has pretty much mapped out a solution to the whole “hidden immigrant” problem. Lin—for those who don’t follow the NBA and aren’t conversant about “Linsanity”— is the 24-year-old Taiwanese-American who became an overnight sensation as a point guard with the New York Knicks and who now plays for the Houston Rockets.

If you’re a cross-cultural kid who travels back to your “homeland” but finds that you don’t quite fit in, you might want to follow Lin’s lead to make things easier: First, become wildly popular in a professional sport that’s wildly popular around the globe. That way, people will know all about you before you arrive, and they won’t care about your language skills or your grasp of local culture. They’ll simply want to get your autograph and snap your photo. Next, when you realize that your celebrity makes you a prisoner in your hotel room, and you want to escape to play some streetball, borrow a giant Hello Kitty head for the perfect disguise. (At least that seemed to work with the Taipei paparazzi.)

Watch the video below to see a scripted look at Lin’s adventures in Taipei, including his airport arrival, his hotel escape, and his evening of playing basketball on public courts in the city. It was put together as a promo for an upcoming 60 Minutes segment on Lin, scheduled for this fall:

I assume 60 Minutes will delve into Lin’s cross-cultural experiences. I hope they also ask him about the role his Christian faith has played in his outlook on life. It’s a big part of his story. In fact, Lin closed out his 9-day trip to Taiwan by sharing about his beliefs at an event titled “Jeremy Lin’s Miracle Night.”

Here’s what I wrote about Lin for a newsletter back when he first came on the scene in the NBA two years ago, followed by a video from NBA.com detailing his rise to stardom:

Jeremy Shu-how Lin, a second-generation Taiwanese American has become the first person of Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA. Even though he was undrafted coming out of college, the Golden State Warriors signed him to a two-year contract before the current season began, making the 6’ 3” Lin the first Harvard graduate to join the NBA in 57 years. In 2009, Time featured Lin in an article, discussing his faith in reference to his calm demeanor in the face of racial taunts from opposing fans:

Lin’s maturity could lead him to the ministry. A devout Christian, Lin, who is an economics major, is considering becoming a pastor in a church near his Palo Alto home. “I’ve never really preached before,” Lin says. “But I’m really passionate about Christianity and helping others. There’s a beauty in seeing people change their lifestyles for the better.”

(Jeff Schapiro, “‘Jeremy Lin’s Miracle Night’ Marks End of Star’s Tour of Taiwan,” Christian Post, September 3, 2012; Sean Gregory, “Harvard’s Hoops Star Is Asian. Why’s That a Problem?” Time, Dec. 31)

[photo: “Hello Missy,” by Nawal, used under a Creative Commons license]