I sat down to write about the fallout that’s ensued since ESPN editor Anthony Federico wrote that “Chink In The Armor” headline a little over a week ago, and I ended up with a bunch of stories about myself. In some ways though, I think these notes better articulate my frustration and anger over many of the conversations that have taken place about Jeremy Lin with regard to race than explicit words to that effect would have. Or maybe I just really like talking about myself.
For most of my life, I’ve been a sports fan. I was born and raised in Texas, so it was mandatory. More to the point, I was born and raised Chinese American in Texas. I couldn’t look like my peers, I couldn’t be accepted as an equal by many of my peers, but I could root for the same teams as my peers. And somewhere deep down, I probably figured that if I could demonstrate the same devotion to the idols of my peers, they would eventually come around to the idea that I wasn’t all that different from them, and perhaps even accept me as one of their own.
My father arrived in College Station, Texas from Taiwan in 1965 on a student visa. He was one of several students from Taiwan who went to Texas A&M to pursue graduate degrees in the sciences that year. They all lived together. They all had nothing. Only two years before my dad began his studies at A&M, the school admitted its first African American students. My dad recalls that was right around the time the school shut down its campus chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He and my mom met a few years later when she came over from Taiwan to attend a nearby women’s college. I have to think the cultural climate of small-town Texas was what put their relationship in fast-forward. They met one Thanksgiving when all of the American students from their schools were home with their families, married a year later, had my brother less than a year after that. My mother has stories from that time of being told to sit at the back of the bus; my father, who only had a bike in those first few years, used to get run off the road by other students in cars who thought it was funny to see a Chinaman in a ditch.
I only started watching sports when I was 8 because I had an older brother I was dying to impress. He decided one day that he liked the Dallas Cowboys. So I decided the next day that I liked the Dallas Cowboys. He started reading the sports pages instead of the funnies and cramming his brain with stats, so I did the same. It bugged him, how I copied his every move when it came to fandom, and it failed to bring us closer. We would watch games together, but it was almost like we were in separate orbits. He liked offensive players like Tony Dorsett and Drew Pearson, I liked defensive players like Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Everson Walls. I remember the year we thought we were going to the Super Bowl. (By “we,” I mean our team. We never had enough money to see a live game.) It was January 1982. We were up 6 points over the 49ers in the NFC championship game with under a minute to play. My brother and I could taste it: what it was like to be a winner.
We lived in a shitty duplex rental on the wrong side of town. All of our furniture was donated by friends or from the Salvation Army. Neither of my parents had their green cards. My dad was just getting around to his postdoc work because of their green card problems, after years of selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and life insurance. My mom was working a shit job even though she wasn’t supposed to, and getting paid under the table. They had had a lot of doors slammed in their faces–literally and figuratively–often simply for being Asian. They fought a lot about money. There was a lot of talk about “the poor house.”
We needed this win. Just one time.
But then Joe Montana did his thing. He found his receiver at the back of the end zone, and over the head of one of my favorite players, connected with Dwight Clark’s impossibly long, outstretched fingers. I collapsed after that on the grimy carpet of the home that didn’t belong to us, next to my brother, both of us immobilized with grief, completely unable to comfort one another. We just sat there. In silence. Crying. Silently crying.
You know who else saw The Catch that day? Tom Brady. Only he actually attended the game at Candlestick. And his team won. Which maybe explains why Tom Brady is Tom Brady and often compared to Montana, and I’m here eating a sandwich at my desk, writing about one of the saddest days I’ve ever had as a fan.
We moved from College Station to a town outside of Houston the summer before 6th grade. I remember the first high school football game I went to that fall. I was 10 going on 11, one of the youngest in my class, one of the smallest in my class, a bag of bones with buckteeth. The football stadium was a huge concrete behemoth, astro-turfed, professionally lit. Even though I’d moved from College Station, home to a Division I college football team, and I’d gone to Aggie games, already committed the story of the 12th man to memory, sat on my dad’s shoulders during The Aggie Bonfire–a world record-worthy totem to A&M’s rivalry with UT–and even struck up a correspondence with then-Aggie Coach Jackie Sherrill, I was dazzled. Texas 5-A football is its own mythical beast. I remember as I walked down the concrete steps of that stadium with my new friends, I understood I was in a hallowed place.
And that’s when I heard someone from the stands, on our side, yell “CHING CHONG CHING CHONG CHING CHONG CHING CHONG.”
I kept walking like it never happened. More than feeling wounded over what I’d heard, I felt mortified that my friends might have heard what I’d heard. If they did, if they’d heard the worst that could be said about me, they’d think of me differently. How could they not? Naturally, I remember nothing else about that game. Who I was with, whose parents drove me home, who won or lost. None of it.
Jesus and Basketball. I came to both at the same time. The summer after eighth grade, my best friend dragged me to church camp. It would be my first church camp of five. This particular church camp was marked by a careening out-of-control boy-craziness. We made lists in our heads of our crushes, of who suddenly seemed so much cuter out there in the piney woods than they did at school, of who we wanted to make out with in the Prayer Garden (no one, in the end, was able to capitalize). We’d walk extra distances to “happen by the pool” just to see the Baptist boys glistening wet with their shirts off. We did our hair, which kept falling in the humidity, about five times a day. Then at night, after evening service, we’d huddle up around the large TV that was rolled out so we could watch the NBA Finals. We were all usually buzzed by then because evening service was when everyone got saved. So we watched basketball in salvation’s afterglow. The Houston Rockets were playing the Boston Celtics that year. That didn’t mean very much to me then; I just wanted to be where the boys were.
People always assume that because I love sports I must be athletic. I am not. It wasn’t for lack of trying, especially on my dad’s part, who was always figuring out ways for me to become more “coordinated.” I played softball, rode horses, and did gymnastics, but the biggest trophy I ever received as a kid was for typing 75 words per minute.
Sometimes people assume that because I love sports, I must have been a cheerleader. I was not. It wasn’t for lack of wanting. At the end of eighth grade, I wrote a letter to myself about my goals for high school. One of these goals was to become a cheerleader. (I think one of my other goals was to become “popular.”) I then folded the note up and hid it away inside my microscope case, where I was sure no one would find it. My mom was a snooper who read my diary. My dad had already told me that if I ever became a cheerleader, he would disown me. I hid it away not so much from them though but from myself, from my own shame over wanting something that was so utterly out of my reach. I was practically invisible at school except when I wasn’t, when someone was picking on me and calling me names. I wasn’t “popular” and never would be, no matter how hard I wished on it.
So in high school, I joined the marching band. One year at camp, my band director told this joke in front of me and a small group of kids who were hanging around him after practice:
What do you call a Chinese girl with one leg?
I’m sure I laughed. Then pretended like it didn’t happen.
This man’s still band director at my high school. I came across a picture of him a few years ago on the internet. It made me happy to see that he’d gained weight and lost all of his hair.
My brother, inexplicably, became a Rangers fan. I spent my last break of grad school down in Florida with him to catch some games at spring training. This was right after the Rangers had signed A-Rod. We sat around one steamy afternoon after a game waiting for him to emerge so that he could sign my brother’s jersey. We joked that I should sex it up to get A-Rod’s attention when he came out to greet the fans. We waited for hours. Unlike the rest of his teammates, A-Rod never showed. I think I’ve hated him since for that reason alone.
Pudge Rodriguez was playing for the Rangers then too. One summer my brother was home in Texas from England, where he was working on getting his D.Phil. He went shopping at a nearby grocery store, wearing his Pudge jersey. As he was carrying his groceries to his car in the parking lot, a kid rode by, saw the “Rodriguez” on the back of my brother’s shirt, and yelled out, “FUCKING GREASER.”
The kid, who couldn’t have been older than 8, was in the passenger seat of an SUV with his father. Who then high-fived his son.
Remember the Jordan walk? That heavy-footed pigeon-toed uneven almost-limp that moved all the way up to his shoulders? I used to try and walk like that. Like, I’d be alone in the house and just bust with my best imitation Air for no reason. Bear in mind, I was an adult woman by this point. I think I believed that if I could mimic some of the more awkward physicality of Michael Jordan, I could also, somehow, magically capture his grace. Not in basketball, but somewhere in life. One year I hurt my knee and had to wear one of those neoprene sleeves that Jordan often wore to keep the knee from bothering me when I exercised. I was only 25, too young to be having problems with my knees. But it made me a little more Like Mike, so I didn’t care.
To me, Dat Nguyen was another name for “God finally heard my prayers and it turns out he really really likes me.” Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American in the NFL, grew up in Texas, like me, went to A&M, like my father and my brother, and then he played for the Cowboys, America’s team, but more importantly, my team. Also? His last name was “WIN.” His rookie season for Dallas, I was a rookie in grad school. With sports pioneers on the brain, I decided to write a research paper on Walter Achiu, the first Asian American football player in the NFL. Achiu attended the University of Dayton from 1922-27, playing three sports: football, baseball, and track. He then played for the Dayton Triangles, in the league that would become the NFL, from 1927-1928.
The internet being what it was 13 years ago, I had to travel to Dayton and rummage through university archives to learn more about “The Sneeze.” It was a weird trip. When I wasn’t buried in old documents, I just drove and walked around town, trying to figure out what it was like for someone like Achiu–who’d spent his entire life until college in Hawaii–to live in this place. I visited Dayton mid-fall and it was already getting cold. What did he think of his first snowfall? Did he stick his tongue out to taste it?
But it wasn’t just the weather I thought about, when I tried to imagine Achiu in Dayton, it was the time. Ohio had the most Ku Klux Klan members out of any state in the US in the early 20’s. In Dayton, the Klan didn’t exactly hide out or meet in secret. The following is a description of a KKK parade that cut through the city in September 1923:
The parade took 45 minutes to pass a given point. Hundreds of spectators followed the parade to the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. After prayer and a Bible reading, a bomb exploded and a huge cross, attached to a telephone pole, was set afire. Men wishing to join the Klan gathered, according to the newspaper story, in front of the platform behind which was a cross in red electric lights and an electric sign bearing the inscription ‘KKK 100 Per Cent, Dayton O.’
After the new recruits were sworn in, more crosses burned. Fireworks were set off, the band played and signs were set alight. One said ‘Without Fear,’ and another, ‘Without Reproach.’
During my visit there, I only saw one other Asian person, a woman, in town. We smiled at one another knowingly when we passed each other on the street.
Wen Ho Lee.
He was the last Taiwanese American to make so many headlines in such a short amount of time. Lee wasn’t a star athlete though, he was a physicist at Los Alamos. In 1999, he was accused of passing nuclear secrets to China. At the outset, the “evidence” against him seemed flimsy. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months nevertheless. Although a naturalized citizen since 1974, he was consistently smeared in the media as a thief, a liar, and a spy with an unwavering allegiance to China, even by “respectable” publications like the New York Times. The takeaway from everything that was written about Lee seemed to be that a person like him, with that background and that face, could never really be American enough.
To me, he sounded just like my father. They were the same age. They grew up in Taiwan (though Lee, unlike my father, was born there). They were both physicists. Lee had also come over to the U.S. to study in 1965. They both liked listening to opera.
One weekend during the Wen Ho Lee investigation, I was back in Texas visiting my parents. They rarely have coffee that isn’t instant in their house, so my mom and I drove to Starbucks one morning to get something drinkable, and I brought up Lee while we were sitting in the drive-thru. I was worked up. It was like they’d thrown my dad in prison.
“Yeah,” my mom said. “Wen Ho can be a little weird, but he’s no spy.”
That group of students from Taiwan who came to Texas A&M in 1965 along with my father to study the sciences? I only learned that day Lee was among them. He and my father had lived together. He was a good cook. He had even made my parents’ wedding rehearsal dinner! My mother told me a funny story about how, whenever Lee would hear about a new Taiwanese female student coming over to study, he would go to the airport to greet her, armed with flowers.
The charges against Lee eventually fell apart. The federal judge who denied him bail and sent him to solitary later apologized to him. President Clinton apologized to him. The New York Times apologized to him (sort of). The judge who freed him said directly to Lee, “I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch. The executive branch has enormous power, the abuse of which can be devastating to citizens. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”
It seemed the whole world apologized for condemning an innocent man, yet when you look up famous Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans on Wikipedia, a list where you’ll find both Jeremy Lin and Wen Ho Lee, you still see this:
“Wen Ho Lee, engineer falsely accused of spying [dubious – discuss], author of book ‘My Country Versus Me’ 李文和.”
Yes. Let’s discuss.
The first year Yao Ming played in the NBA, my brother and I were both home for Christmas. I got tickets for us to see him play at the Compaq Center. The Compaq Center was called The Summit when we were kids. I’d seen my first concert there. It was Whitney Houston, in fact, on her second worldwide tour, the Moment of Truth World tour. Since 2003, it’s been home to Lakewood Church, Joel Osteen’s creepy self-help megachurch.
Not a lot had changed about The Summit, except for the name. The parking was still shitty. The women’s bathroom lines were still unnavigable. The arena was still dark and dank like an old musty 1970’s sweater. But some things were different. There were signs in Chinese everywhere. There were Chinese people everywhere. There were people who weren’t Chinese wearing Yao’s jersey everywhere. There were people who weren’t Chinese chanting his name. Everywhere!
My brother and I didn’t say much to one another during the game. We didn’t even make a lot of eye contact. We just watched, in disbelief, huge shit-eating grins on our faces, lumps in our throats. We weren’t exactly connecting–as adults, our relationship’s remained complicated–but we weren’t alone in our despair for a change.
I don’t remember who won or lost that game either. Oh wait. I do. We did. My brother and I.
Before the internet, before internet comment boards, the spaces where people could do something cruel and humiliating to someone and then cowardly slink away in anonymity were physical spaces. These places tended to be where large crowds of people gathered. At a Friday night football game, for example. At the mall for the Fourth of July fireworks display, where I was once tailed in my car by a group of boys in theirs who kept shouting, “CHINK! GO BACK TO ‘NAM!” Or at the lake during the summer, when my family decided to go paddleboating, and someone hurled a rock at my head that hit me so hard, my knees buckled. When my dad searched the shore for the person who threw the rock, furious, everyone pretended like nothing had happened, and they all went back to their picnics.
When I enter spaces where large crowds of people gather now, I still pull in my shoulders a little, protectively. I look around, taking note of who’s in my vicinity, who might be there to hurt me. I still think it’s possible someone’s going to try to stone me in one of these places, but if it ever happens again, I swear I won’t quit until I hunt down the fucker.
My parents were in town visiting when the Knicks played the Mavs. This was a day after the whole Chink In The Armor thing happened. We caught the last half of the game together, my parents sitting in stiff-backed chairs, me lounging on the bed. Even though my mother brought up on several occasions that she used to play basketball when she was young and that she had been a “good shooter,” she seemed entirely unable to follow the game. Still, she and my dad cheered–WAH!–any time Jeremy Lin did something with the ball.
The Knicks won. I immediately tweeted the first thing that came to mind after that win: “No chink in the armor today.” My mom and I then watched Lin’s on-court post-game interview together. When it was over, she said, “This guy needs braces.”
I laughed. Classic.
And then: “What do Jeremy Lin’s parents do? I mean, do they have money to buy him braces?” As soon as she said it, she told me I shouldn’t write that down.
But she should know me better by now. Because of course I only ever want to write down what other people think I shouldn’t.
Filed under: #1 Fan, Alex Rodriguez, Asian Americans, Chink, Chink in the Armor ESPN, Chink in the Armor Headline, Dwight Clark, ESPN, Fandom, Houston Rockets, Jeremy Lin, Joe Montana, MLB, NBA, New York Knicks, NFL, Pudge Rodriguez, Race Dialogue, Race Discussions, Racist Slurs, San Francisco 49ers, Sports, Sports Fans, Taiwanese-Americans, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas A&M Aggies, Texas Rangers, The Catch, The Dallas Cowboys, Wen Ho Lee
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