A few days ago the internet was chattering with the most remarkable news: a stereotype was misbehaving! An Asian was cleaning up on multiple basketball courts, surrounded on all sides and at all times by gigantic, powerful black people—their muscles like pistons, their hearts threatening to burst, as they thundered back and forth along the court, as though each was John Henry reborn! What the hell was going on here? Had the gods of the races lost their minds? Would a man in a mustache and a sombrero put down his acoustic guitar, step away from his mariachi band, and form a Silicon Valley startup? Would a woman in a black beekeeper’s burka go on national television and ask how short skirts and bare cleavage equal female liberation, exactly? Would The Autobiography of Malcolm X slip out of Donald Trump’s business suit by accident? Would a man with dreadlocks finally formulate a proper theory of quantum gravity?
I have a confession to make. I try to care about sports. It is the artist’s duty to find the beauty in everything (even the nape of Rick Santorum’s succulent neck), regardless of how Sun Tzu (or apparently Frederick the Great) says that when you defend everything you defend nothing. But seriously. Even when everyone here was going apeshit over the world cup with Japan—if you sat by a quiet window on one of those summer nights, you could hear the entire city of Busan screaming from every building, every bar and restaurant, in unison, like a chanting choir in a church made of skyscrapers and high-rises—I would try to join in the festivities, and I would look at the giant green screen before me fraught with dashing soccer players, and I would just zone out. I couldn’t help it. Everyone else was jumping and shouting, but I was turning over something I’d read that day despite myself. I cannot escape who I am. I like playing, even though I suck, but watching bores me to tears.
I didn’t know too many Asians before I came to Korea, and though I counted (and continue to count) a half-Indian and an Iranian as my closest friends—each of us has a different heritage but we are all full-blooded Americans; we don’t really notice that we belong to different tribes, it doesn’t matter—I had never gotten too close to anyone whose ancestors were from China, Korea, or Japan. There was Wataru and someone else who was named something like Yoomoo in kindergarten, and Xi from high school, and a friend of a girl I was after in college, and a few people in the background, but nobody really too close. No one close enough to destroy the stereotype of the zealously hardworking Asian, the perfectly robotic, uncreative, uncharismatic, hopelessly single straight-A student who will never be in charge of anyone…
…no one, that is, except for my friend Jacqueline, who is Asian, though I honestly never noticed, anymore than 99% of my friends and acquaintances noticed that my father comes from a family of secular Jews…
But anyway, then I came to Korea, to Busan, and one day I found myself walking around in the subway station under the Sports Complex, one of several stadiums in the city where Asians of all stripes regularly play baseball and basketball before legions of adoring fans. On the walls in the station there were life-size pictures of many of the players. I’m not going to lie here, but when I saw those pictures, and when I saw those guys playing on TV, I disdained them, not necessarily because they were Asian, but because I thought (possibly correctly) that the best players would have left for America at the first opportunity. There were some black players mixed in among them, and you can bet that (as with nearly everyone who comes to Korea), this country was not their first choice.
I’m a snob. I disdain. I also disdained and continue to disdain the pop bands, the singers, most of the actors and filmmakers, all of the comedians (how many foreigners have even cracked so much as a smile when watching a Korean comedy show?), the politicians (each rotten and corrupt to the core), even the writers (like Kim Jong Il-loving Gong Ji Young) and poets, regardless of the fact that my wife just told someone on the phone that my level of Korean is somewhere between beginner and intermediate.
Always, I thought, if these people were really remarkable, they would be famous in America. Even the warriors and kings from the country’s history seemed mediocre to me. The guy who invented the Korean alphabet, Korea’s favorite king, a one Mister Sejong, achieved this feat roughly five centuries after two Byzantine scholars named Cyril and Methodius gave what we now know as Cyrillic to the Bulgarians. Yi Sun Shin’s naval achievements are definitely astounding, but how do they compare with Alexander or Hannibal or Napoleon?
Although the media here would have the locals believe that people like Kim Yeona, Rain, and the members of The Wondergirls are world-famous, and that every American child adores Pororo, and that every American mother is using a podaegi, the only Korean who has ever gained household prominence outside of this peninsula is named Kim Jong Il.
It seemed to me that the Koreans who adored these Korean celebrities would not really give a damn if they themselves were not Korean. The Korean Wave has made some of them famous throughout Asia, but answer me this: if Asians were regularly starring in TV shows and movies in America, if Asians were not being victimized by their stereotype, if they were playing basketball and baseball and singing and dancing and marching and signing bills into law just as much as whites or blacks or anyone else, do you really think the Korean Wave would stand a chance inside or outside this peninsula? I’m not saying that Rain can’t dance, but if the man had a twin brother in America, and if that twin managed to ascend to the very top of the American pecking order against the likes of the successors of Michael Jackson, who would be more famous? Rain would be in a silver suit and a pink tie, selling cell phones out on the sidewalk, no question about it. The Korean Wave exists because Asians do not have an attractive place in American popular culture. These “World Stars” are definitely talented, but, like me, not that talented.
There’s a lot of protectionism going on in this country. The currency is kept artificially low. Foreign cars and electronics have almost no hope of competing against Korean ones inside Korea. The same supposedly goes for celebrities. But Jeremy Lin may just be the first nail in the coffin of the Korean Wave—he represents Asians all over America, he is playing against the very best in the world, and as a result of what are apparently remarkable achievements, he is proving to even the most skeptical racists that Asians are individuals, like anyone else, and that it’s high time America stopped worrying about the Yellow Peril, and learned to embrace it.
The first Asian-American president is not so far away as everyone believes. In fact, he turned eight months old just over a week ago.