Wednesday, January 21, 2004

YAO MING IN THE NEW YORKER: SLAM DUNK OR FOUL BALL?


bump 'n' grind

This comes a little late in the game but in the December 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Hessler writes a profile on basketball player Yao Ming.* For the most part, the piece is good. Hessler covers ground that many other profiles I've read haven't dealt with - for example, situating Yao within the social politics of Shanghai and Chinese society writ large and including a side story about Yao's teammate Juaquin Hawkins who played in China for part of his pre-NBA career.

What annoys me in Hessler's story is this small part where he goes to Houston's Chinatown to discover what the interest in Yao is among "Houston's Chinese" and Hessler is operating with several assumptions, all of which I find lazy at best. The first is the idea that "athletics has meant little to most Chinese American communities" - a specious statement that Hessler does not support in the least. He goes on to argue that Chinese (and it should be noted, Hessler makes very little distinction between the Chinese and Chinese Americans) have little interest in basketball, conveniently using a local shop owner, David Chang, as his native informant who claims that "because of their size," the Chinese have no interest in b-balling.

This must come to considerable surprise to Chinese American youth everywhere who hit the blacktop every afternoon and weekend, trying to catch a pick-up game against any opponent willing to take them on. Anyone who's ever known about the byzantine politics of Chinese and Japanese American basketball leagues in Los Angeles and the Bay Area would also shoot a quizzical glance at the idea that APIs aren't into basketball. In fact, I can't think of a sport where more Asian Americans participate in (insert your badminton jokes here).

Moreover, the fact that Houston's Chinatown might turn up little Mao paraphenalia means little, especially considering that if Houston at all resembles every other major Asian American metropolis in the nation, Chinatown is a poor place to try to locate the whole of the Chinese American "community." Especially given that he states the economic mobility enjoyed by sectors of the Chinese American population, it makes much more sense to travel to the Houston suburbs where most of the middle class Asian American population resides. I mean, you don't go to NYC Chinatown to get the "Chinese community" sense of things - you go to Flushing. In the Bay Area, you go to San Mateo, or the Sunset district, anywhere but Chinatown.

These small things irk me because they suggest a real lack of engagement and thought from an author who is otherwise quite thoughtful. It also goes to show that in most American media, more is known about China than is known (or cared) about Chinese America. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater - this WAS a very, very good piece but I felt like I needed to address this one part.

*Hessler also has an exclusive online Q&A about his Yao Ming story