Taiwan. Home to 23 million strong, the former tallest of buildings, the friendliest of people, the stinkiest of tofus. And now, proud parent of their long-lost son, Jeremy Lin.
Make no mistake, this island’s love for basketball has not blossomed over night. They boast their own professional league, the SBL, which is entertaining enough although each of the 7 team’s fan base is seemingly made up solely of thunder-stick-clapping infatuated preteen females.
Yet, it always felt to me that Taiwan was on the outside looking in. Having established their worldwide presence in baseball with former New York Yankee star Chien-Ming Wang, the public did not as willingly identify culturally with mainland Chinese NBA ballers Yao Ming or Yi Jianlin.
This all changed with an ostensibly inconsequential February 4th game in New York. Coming a night after my hometown Boston Celtics staged a furious comeback to send the Knicks to their second loss in as many nights, I cackled with glee as the disheartened Knickerbockers trudged off the Boston parquet floor. Sweet justice, I mused at the time, having lost enough football and baseball seasons along with varying pieces of my soul to our New York rivals.
Three weeks later, my allegiances have become skewed and I often find myself watching Good Will Hunting to keep my “r” drops up to speed and convince myself that I’m not secretly rooting for a New York player, much less team. Flat out, the guy is too hard not to like.
More than anything, its his ancestral Taiwan tie that has me jumping on this bandwagon. As many an expat can attest to, the more time you spend making a foreign nation a home, the more it becomes a part of your identity. I truly yearn for his success, loyal sports fan or not, because it directly impacts my life in all ways positive as a temporary Taiwanese resident.
As his arrival onto the scene over the past month has taken him from warming benches and teammates’ couches to the warm weather of Orlando for a role in this year’s All Star festivities, it has been both entertaining and educational watching this all play out from a slightly different angle.
Long-time NBA commissioner David Stern recently commented on the fervor created by this young man’s arrival. He claimed it to be unparalleled to anything he’s seen during his tenure of three decades, in which he’s welcomed the household names of Jordan, Kobe, and Lebron. I’d echo those sentiments from this vantage point. While my time as an expat in Taiwan has not even exceeded three years and I’m certainly not of commissioner status, I cannot recall a single politician, entertainer, or athlete who has been so openly and universally embraced.
Most importantly, his newfound supporters are not delegated to any specific demographic. Taking a recent Tuesday as an example, I woke, created my usual Asian oatmeal medley and settled in front of the television to find that all three major sports networks were solely broadcasting clips from various games Jeremy appeared in over the past couple weeks.
Upon arriving at a café to lead my afternoon private lesson with a retired English teacher, who couples as my overseas mother, my lesson was diverted from the usual breakdown of a New York Times article to a breakdown of the nuances of the pick-and-roll along with postgame press conference lingo.
I followed the lesson/coaching session with a green tea and some grading. Lin Shu Hao, as Jeremy’s more commonly known to the Mandarin speaker, would blush when marking that day’s high school tests. Reason being, his name appeared more often than not in the answer box to question #22: What is something that is inspirational to you? A few slight grammar miscues aside, it has become apparent who has taken over the role of role model to the Taiwanese teens.
My evening ended with a conversation class led by two female university students who regularly sour when the conversation turns to sports. Instead, they cited their fascination with Lin’s celebrity to indeed be based on his good looks but moreso his modesty. Handsome and humble, he will undoubtedly need some serious bodyguard detail to fend off the throngs of adorers when he makes his annual summer return to the island. All in all, an amazing explosion onto the scene for an athlete who was not even on the radar when Chinese New Year firecrackers were exploding in the streets a few short months ago.
Various high schools are now regularly suspending morning classes to tune in live to regular season games. That, in itself, should not be overlooked in a country that places the highest of values on education and students’ nights and weekends are spent cramming for school in buxibans, only after their ten hour school day has been completed.
Local politicians, up to President Ma Ying-jeou, are singing his praises and even referencing him within controversial legislative sessions over the potential import of banned US beef. There already has been plenty of speculation regarding the possible tug-of-war between China and Taiwan if he decides to throw himself into the international Olympic spotlight in London.
Going further, a recent US Foreign Affairs article suggests that Lin’s current iconic status within China, paired with his outspoken religious preference, could pave the way to some form of political or social change within the Communist powerhouse. Pipe dream or not, this is one of the few instances where a sports figure has transcended his usual role as entertainer of the masses and become a talking point for both President and pundit.
To the sovereign state of the Republic of China (a.k.a. Taiwan), Lin is bringing global recognition to an island that desperately starves to be respected as an equal on the international stage. ROC flags have been popping up in arenas from New York to Toronto and as tensions across the Taiwan strait continue to ease, one can only wonder if additional common ground can be found through mutual appreciation of an American born with both Chinese and Taiwanese blood. Certainly, not Linpossible.
Interestingly enough, his arrival on the scene has coincided with that of the dragon from the Chinese zodiac. The only legendary animal of the 12, it is believed to bring the luckiest of years, and comes with the motto: “I conquer.” And conquer, he has. A limited number of his jerseys hit select stores in Taiwan this past week, selling out faster than a KPop concert. A few of them found their way to the major television sports commentators who have foregone the professional neutrality reserved to news reporting and now daily don Linsanity t-shirts or jerseys over their usual button-ups.
For a public that sucks down sensational stories faster than their renowned pearl milk tea, Lin Shu Hao is more than a breath of fresh air. With a vicious election season and a scandal involving a Japanese actress stomping a taxi driver over cab fare recently dominating local headlines, this feel-good, underdog tale is a reminder that not all news stories necessarily bring out the worst in humanity.
And here we sit, a few months into the Year of the Lin, with alarmingly astronomical expectations and far too many name-based puns and clichés for a young man who has survived his initial fifteen minutes of fame and appears capable of impacting everything from Kardashian rumors to international relations. This story somehow has not yet gotten old, nor will it even after Disney finishes filming its remake of the classic Cinderella tale.
To read more from Andy Lovley, check out his blog, exploring. dreaming. discovering.