With this column appearing on the downhill side of both October and 2012, it occurred to me that this soon-to-end Year of the Dragon, aka year of change, will go into the history books as when two Asian men — one an American — each made a large, surprising and organic impact on the world.
Jeremy Lin’s star turn came first. In one of the greatest underdog-made-good stories ever, the Taiwanese American NBA baller went from sitting at the end of the bench (and sleeping on his brother’s sofa) to becoming the toast of New York City’s Madison Square Garden as the point guard for the New York Knicks.
Normally, the story of an Ivy League grad achieving his goal isn’t something with which most people could identify. Those types are expected to do well, whether it’s politics, law, academia, the sciences, literature or getting a gig writing for “The Simpsons.”
Lin’s story, however, clicked with people from all walks of life, regardless of gender, race or age. Who could resist the unfolding story of an unheralded “never was,” seemingly days away from getting bounced from the team, getting a chance to play ball in the world’s major media market, thanks to injured superstars — and putting on a show (and putting up numbers) that had nearly everyone saying, “Who is this guy?!”
It was, for a while, the greatest show on earth.
But before any of this happened, despite solid credentials in high school and college basketball, none of the major dudes in a position of influence — scouts, coaches, executives, TV commentators — took Jeremy Lin seriously. Why not? One simple, unavoidable reality: Jeremy Lin was (still is, last I heard) an American of Asian ancestry.
To most other Americans, it just did not compute. An Asian newscaster? OK. An Asian scholar, math whiz or violinist? All right. But something athletic? It was almost as though Olympic gold medals in skating (figure or speed) or world championship Little Leaguers from Japan or Taiwan didn’t really count or predict the eventual, inevitable success of an Asian who wasn’t taller than 7 feet 5 inches in the NBA.
Lin shattered that old paradigm in the biggest way possible, with stats and two back-to-back Sports Illustrated cover stories. The world — with the possible exception of Carmelo Anthony — loved it. Lin became a transcendent superstar. (Incidentally, he’s now on the cover of the November 2012 issue of GQ magazine. You can read the story here.)
The other Asian man to shatter stereotypes in 2012 did it a few months later, subsequent to when Lin’s team and knee failed to advance very far into the postseason. This time it was a South Korean comedian and recording artist named Psy, who also seemingly came from nowhere and set off a new dance craze and pop culture touchstone with a toe-tapper titled “Gangnam Style.”
Granted, earlier in the year, at the end of January, the Korean pop act Girls’ Generation appeared on David Letterman’s show, a first in and of itself. But that was completely surpassed by Psy and “Gangnam Style.” Suddenly, Korean pop music had a face.
The viral video of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” took K-pop to an unprecedented level, not only making him the new “Who is this guy?” guy, but leading to downloads (sales), several TV appearances and, the greatest form of validation, video parodies (“Romney Style” and so on). According to a source on the Internet, “Gangnam Style” is the “most-liked video in YouTube history.”
So, in 2012 Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” met Psy’s “Psychosis.” A Taiwanese American and a South Korean. While both are men, they are quite different. Lin is tall, slim and muscular; Psy is chunky, chubby and squat. Lin is a product of this country; Psy is from South Korea. But in an American media landscape that’s still mostly devoid of depictions of Asian men, good, bad or indifferent, it’s significant that two dissimilar individuals could achieve the visibility and acceptance they did.
It’s impossible, of course, to know whether Lin and Psy’s respective brushes with fame will have any staying power. Lin’s now a Houston Rocket; the regular season has yet to begin, and his surgically repaired knee is still a question mark. Psy, meantime, will probably never again have a hit song as big as this one.
But what I like most about their improbable success stories is how they occurred organically, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers and power brokers, whose conventional wisdom would have never plucked them from obscurity and “made” them into the superstars they became. The sagas of Lin and Psy are pluses in my book. The demographics tell me this is just a herald of more stories like theirs to come.
2012 is not over yet. There’s still time for another person of Asian heritage — female or male — to make a dent in the zeitgeist. But even if we ride out the year with nothing more from Lin, Psy or anyone else, this year will go down in the history books as the one when two unknown Asian men got everyone’s attention.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.