Jeremy Lin, the C-Word and Me

First, the glory.

By now, you’ve probably heard it all, about Jeremy Lin’s fabulous debut in the NBA, a start that has set new records and inspired fans around the world.  We love his underdog story – the fact that he went undrafted in the NBA and was instead picked up like a previously-returned back-of-the-store bargain item.  (The part of the story I really love is that he went to Harvard because he couldn’t get a sports scholarship at Cal, his first choice.  In this story of the Asian-American dream, the hero *settles* for going to Harvard.)  We loved it all, including the pun that captured it all: Linsanity.

It was a true “there I am” moment for so many of us who had never seen an Asian-American face on the courts, a person whose story already belonged to us.   I thought of the12-year-old girl from my book, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, who desperately loves basketball in spite of her parents’ approbation.  At one point in the story, her father asks her, in an attempt to dissuade her from playing, “Can you name any Chinese-Americans making a living in basketball?”  I wrote to my editor: “I think Lucy has a new hero.”

Then, the pain.

In the wee hours of Saturday, February 18, following the Knicks’ loss to the New Orleans Hornets, the ESPN mobile website posted the following headline:  A Chink in the Armor.  Another sports pun, this time not so embraced.

Whatever the animus behind the comment, ESPN has sacked the responsible party, and issued an apology, which Lin has graciously accepted.  The apology obliquely refers to “offensive and inappropriate comments.”  If only I were merely offended.

When I see the word chink, I am taken back to Mrs. Burger’s first grade classroom at Stenwood Elementary. The new kid, the only Asian kid in the entire  school.  I was bewildered by the differences between my old and new classrooms: reading groups and less than/greater than signs.  We moved in November, and there were paper cornucopias on the wall.

I like to think I was a nice kid, shy, and eager to make friends.  It quickly became clear, however, that certain members of Mrs. Burger’s class were not going to like me, in spite of the fact that I had done nothing to them.

Some of them approached me with unchecked aggression:  Chinese chink!

Others sidled up to me with a low-key unpleasantness: Why is your nose so flat?

When I told my husband about the ESPN headline, I was surprised to feel my eyes sting,  even now, as an adult living in an area where diversity is celebrated.   That word, chink, that one word, contains so much white-hot hate in it, I guess I can’t pick it up without getting burned.  I think about that confused kid in first grade who didn’t realize the name-callers were clearly wrong; I just wished I could stop being Chinese so they would stop teasing me.  I remember the tremendous relief I felt when a second Chinese-American girl joined my class because I wasn’t alone any more.  Leslie Tsou and I never became best friends – I think she moved away within a year – but I was grateful for her presence.  There I am.

With the benefit of a few days’ contemplation, though, I have realized that those moments helped form me as a writer.  That word gave me power.  People who are pushed to the outside, whether by birth, circumstance or temperament, begin to live in a writer’s greenhouse.  We watch, we record, we remember.  We listen to the conversations that don’t include us; we watch dramas unfold and construct better endings in our heads.   We learn to see the world through other people’s eyes.

I also write for that girl, those kids, who look for there I am moments because they feel unrecognized.  When I write, I don’t just think of Asian-American readers, I think of all children who face bullies, who dream big, who don’t understand their parents.  I think that is the special work of children’s book writers – we give kids there I am moments, so that when the unkindest words come for them, they know they are not alone.

Here is a list of some of my favorite multi-cultural books:

Iggie’s House, by Judy Blume: Winnie’s best friend Iggie moves away, and into her home comes the Garber family, the first black family on a previously all-white street.  Amid different reactions from her neighbors and family, Winnie tries to do what she feels is right, but does not always succeed.

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia: The turbulent 60’s serves as the backdrop for this story of Delphine and her sisters as they travel to Oakland to spend time with their mother who abandoned them.  They quickly become intertwined with the Black Panther movement as they go there for breakfast and camp cum political activities, while at the same time, struggle to reconcile the harsh reality of living with their emotionally cold mother.

The Red Umbrella, by Christina Gonzalez: During Operation Pedro Pan, thousands of children fled Castro’s Cuba, with the plan that their parents would follow them to the United States.  Gonzalez carefully recounts every step that young Lucia takes from her ordinary life in pre-Castro Cuba to living with a foster family in the Midwest.

The Year of the Boar, Jackie Robinson and Me, by Bette Bao Lord: It’s 1947, and Shirley Temple Wong has come to America.  It is not easy to make friends when she doesn’t know English, but the miracle of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers help ease her way into the American way of life.