Yo, Yao! What does the "Ming Dynasty" tell us about race and transnational diplomacy in the NBA? (Culture).
Yao as Commodity
The star power of Yao Ming is not the result of his extraordinary stats for the Houston Rockets. He averages a respectable 13 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The flurry of magazine covers, billboards, and television commercials featuring Yao reflect the desires of American and Chinese companies to cash in on Yao's popularity. Beyond the efforts to sell basketball to more than 2 billion Chinese nationals, the NBA hopes to capitalize on the sudden explosion in ticket sales to the Asian American market. Asian Americans buying group packages for Rockets games represent 11 percent of the buying public, 10 percent more than last year. In cities across America, Yao attracts fans to the Rockets' away games to such an extent that a number of stadiums, in places like Detroit, Boston, and Oakland, have offered special "Asian American nights." When the Rockets played the Golden State Warriors this spring, the Oakland arena announced parts of the game in Mandarin. Rockets' coach Rudy Tomjanovich frequently boasts of Yao 's importance in bridging cultural and political gaps. In other words, Yao is presumably schooling America about Chinese culture and history.
It's dubious that Yao's dunking and product promotions will provide Americans a meaningful introduction to China, especially because Yao's popularity and public persona is rooted in old-school stereotypes about Chinese culture and identity. For example, in honor of Yao's debut appearance in Miami, the American Airlines Arena passed out fortune cookies to all 8,000 fans in attendance. In other cities, teams have celebrated Yao with dragon dances and other "traditional" ceremonies. While understandably a source of cultural delight, the attempts to attract Asian fans through stereotypes and decontextualized cultural festivals reflect the NBA's economic and cultural hopes for the "Ming Dynasty." Asian identity and cultural values now have a place at the NBA table and within the global marketplace, but the visibility of Asianness comes through a homogenized and flat presentation of cultural identity, nor unlike the representation of black NBA stars.
Yao's popularity has little to do with his inside game or America's total acceptance of Asians. The constructed Yao serves a particular purpose within the NBA. As noted by Ric Bucher, a columnist for ESPN: The Magazine, he is "humble" and has a "ream-first attitude that blows through the NBA like a blast of fresh air into a collapsed mine shaft." In a world of supposedly greedy black ball players, Yao isn't hustling for a bigger slice of the pie. He's a non-threatening foreigner who provides an example of desirable change to the white folks at the head office.
A Freak and a Foreigner
At seven foot five, 298 pounds, Yao defies commonsense ideas about Asian men. Take Apple's most recent commercial, a kind of circus freak show juxtaposing Yao with Minime (Vein Troyer). Yao, able to take his laptop from the overhead compartment of an airplane without standing, is huge in comparison to his tiny computer. Further racializing their difference, Troyer watches "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" on his massive computer. Yao's popularity is also tied to this fascination with his freakish height and size.
The discourse surrounding Yao Ming frequently centers on his foreign status. Announcers and sports writers continually focus on his difficulties behind the wheel of a car, his strange eating habits, and the difficulties he has with the English language. Undoubtedly, many international players have had problems adjusting to English and "American" culture, but Yao's difficulties are placed in the foreground. His frequently-aired Visa commercial, which debuted during the Super Bowl, reinforces the dominant assumptions made about certain foreigners. Yao, wanting to buy a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty (he is already a patriotic American), attempts to write a check. Despite his excellent English, Yao is unable to discern the giant sign prohibiting purchases by personal check. What follows is a back-and-forth repartee between Yao and the Puerto Rican female clerk, in which she says "Yo!" and he corrects her with "Yao," lightheartedly illustrating for us their basic inability to communicate like civilize d citizens of the United States.
While the traditional stereotype of Asians is that they are timid and passive, Yao's future success, according to teammates, is dependent upon his ability to transcend his "Asianness," and perform with a more authentic masculinity, exemplified by the NBA'S black players. Steve Francis, a Rockets teammate, has commented on the need to teach Yao how to be more aggressive and cutthroat, since Chinese culture leads Yao to want to share the ball with others and not attack his competitors when they are "down." Francis implies that Asian masculinity is feminine, weak, and passive, vis-a-vis a black masculinity that aggressively attacks without consideration for ramifications, bringing to the surface the question of race within American sports culture,
In a now famous incident, Shaquille O'Neal was asked on a nationally syndicated sports talk show what he thought of Yao Ming. He replied: "Tell Yao Ming, chingchong-yang-wah-so." While nobody responded to this racial blast, its re-airing in December elicited a significant amount of controversy. Writer Irwin Tang, in Asian Week, called Shaq a racist. Moreover, Tang concluded that the public silence surrounding Shaq's comments, compared with the hammering of Trent Lott for his Dixiecrat remark, revealed the acceptability of anti-Asian racism and the double standards employed within American racial discourses.
Leaders in the Asian American community demanded a public apology, fearing that without a response, the media was condoning anti-Asian prejudice. Diane Chin, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said Shaq's unretracted comments sent a problematic message: "It gives license, a green light, to others that says that kind of action is acceptable."
While the comment was reprehensible, the way activists like Chin often frame the problem reflects a simplistic approach to consciousness-raising and anti-racist organizing within the world of sports. It was the rare commentator who took the time to contextualize Shaq's remark within the historic pattern of stereotyping Asian Americans in popular culture.
Shaq'S comments reflect not simply individual prejudice, they bring up a larger issue facing the NBA: the friction between African American players (who make up the majority of the league) and the growing number of international players who have signed on in the last few years. In 1999-2000, international players, mostly from Europe, made up 11 percent of the NBA roster. The preparedness of overseas imports to immediately contribute, the affordability of signing these players, and usefulness of international players in lightening the color of the league all contribute to this trend of siphoning off the world's best talent-"B1 visa" style.
An influx of international stars are systematically displacing the up-and-coming "diamonds in the rough"-the proverbial tenth man on the bench-from the pool of national draft choices. "Europeans have now squeezed [blacks] out of the draft, unless they are a cant miss talent," reports Andy Katz of ESPN corn. The 2001-2002 NBA draft saw 17 players drafted from overseas. Tony Ronzone, an international scout for the Detroit Pistons, predicted, in ESPN The Magazine, that within the next five years, 40 percent of NBA players will be "foreign."
The media marketability and sheer skill of foreign players is also a factor in displacing black players. For the 200 1-2002 season, the NBA named Pau Gasol, a Spanish player for the Memphis Crizzlies, rookie of the year. Yao Ming, who was the first pick in last year's NBA draft, is likely to corner the title for 2002-2003, further eroding the dominance of black ball players. Unlike their American counterparts, foreign-born players are able to turn professional at an early age, so that by the time they enter the U.S., their skills--especially their offensive skills--are much more developed. O'Neal's mockery of Yao Ming reflects this growing tension among players for control over the NBA--which often plays itself out racially.
The fact that international players, including Yao, are continuously praised as model players--fundamentally sound, hardworking, coachable, good immigrants--while black players ate riddled with a barrage of critiques, complicates the Shaq incident. The February issue of Sports Illustrated reported that more than 70 percent of fans approved of the "foreign invasion." Like Asians in society as a whole, Yao (and other international players) is set up as a model minority, whereas the shorts-sagging, trash-talking, tattooed black "gangstas" in the NBA get blamed for the league's demise. Refusal to acknowledge this reality and the league's very public attempts to market international players oversimplifies the Shaq remarks. If we really face the phenomenon head-on, it becomes apparent that the popularity of Yao Ming, as a racialized body conveying sportsmanship and a work ethic, does not reveal America's acceptance of "Chinese culture" but rather conveys a racialized distaste for the majority of other players--who are black.
An Alternative Masculinity
But Yao Ming also represents a complicated racial phenomenon. He is not simply a stooge of globalized capitalism, nor a perfect foil to Shaq's racism. He is indeed a reflection of globalization in the NBA, in terms of the border crossing of athletes and the efforts to sell basketball (and America) around the globe. Moreover, he surely is a model minority in the NBA, a commodity, and a useful image in a larger project of cultural imperialism. These realities help explain the phenomenon known as the Ming Dynasty, but so does his place as a symbol of Asian American pride, especially for males. He challenges the dominant conception of Asian American masculinity. Yao's dominance in a world defined by masculinity and body reflects his trans-gressive presence in Asian America. Connected to a world of hyper-masculinity, defined by the presence of the most "authentic" black male bodies, Yao offers Asian American males an alternative conception of self--a masculinity of power, strength, and machismo seldom available pu blicly. Given this confluence of complex factors, it shouldn't be surprising if the Ming Dynasty has a long reign in the United States.
A Bastion of Multiracial Appreciation?
Although the TV networks and sports merchandisers would have us believe otherwise, the world of professional sports is not a bastion of multiracial appreciation or integration, or by an even longer shot, of anti-racism. Like other star athletes of color, such as the Williams sisters or Tiger Woods, Yao Ming is often cited as an example of how the world of sports is destroying its own internal racist barriers.
But the simplistic formula of access and opportunity equaling racial progress denies the complexity of racism and its globalized effects on sports and society as a whole. Despite the gradual integration in professional sports, racialized ideas and white supremacy dominate the way athletes are represented and merchandised to the star-searching American public.
David Leonard isa professor of comparative history at Washington State University.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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