An Asian Sensation

Sitting comfortably in the upper tier of the FleetCenter last week, I waited, hot dog in hand, for the start of the Celtics game. Just another mid-winter contest in the interminably drawn-out NBA season, against a visiting Houston Rockets team that does not have a particular rivalry with the Celts or Bostonians in general.

The arena was, of course, sold out.

The majority of fans in the stands politely applauded the entrance of Boston’s playoff-bound team, but a solid three-fourths expended their collective cheering abilities for the visiting team’s starting center.

That’s right, folks. The Next Big Thing. The Great Asian Invasion. The Standing (Tall) Committee himself—7’5 Yao Ming—was in town. As in every other American city the Rockets have visited during their regular season carnival, Yao, this season’s No. 1 draft pick, was the big draw. A nation that was not long ago terrified by a summer of shark attacks now eagerly embraces the Pride of the Shanghai Sharks.

I was at the FleetCenter last Monday as a sports fan excited at the prospect of seeing the much-heralded Yao in person. He has been an integral part of the Rockets’ offense, complementing guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and giving the team its first viable inside presence since another foreign export, Hakeem Olajuwon, dominated the paint.

But obviously it’s not just Yao’s scoring and rebounding—he’s among the top in both categories for rookies—that’s putting everyone in a tizzy. Yao is the first Chinese player to come to the NBA with such a high profile, and he’s certainly the best the People’s Republic has ever had to offer. What Yao Ming represents is almost as important as what he does.

I attended the game—which the Rockets won in overtime, and in which Yao did not have a great performance—with two friends of Chinese descent. Also in attendance were over a hundred students who had come with Harvard’s Chinese Student Association (CSA). It was a unique outing for the organization, and one that was mimicked by a dozen other Boston Chinese student groups.

“You have to understand that Yao Ming means a lot to the Asian-American community even if he’s not really Asian-American,” says Harvard sophomore Dennis Chira, a Celtics fan who went with the CSA group. “He’s what I and many others hope will bring a wrecking ball to the ignorant insulting age-old stereotype that Asians are unathletic.”

As Chira points out, these hopes are widely shared by the Chinese-American student population, who made their feelings known loudly at the FleetCenter, cheering every time Yao touched the ball and shaking the arena the two times Yao scored. Race in athletics is always a touchy subject, and the recent furor over Title IX and affirmative action demonstrate that colleges are the staging arenas for pitched battles over diversity.

But professional sports are merit-based, and Yao proves that Asian players can succeed at the highest level. In the same way the Asian-American community appropriated the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki, a star Japanese outfielder, when he jumped to the States, Yao is now the collective property of the Chinese-American community.

The CSA’s outing to the FleetCenter was extremely popular with its members, and it’s not hard to see why Yao can have an impact even at impermeable Harvard. Asian students have been a mainstay on campus for decades now, to the point that they are sometimes considered an “over-represented minority.” Indeed, nearly a sixth of Harvard undergrads are of Asian descent, and a good portion of those can claim Chinese heritage.

While Harvard students tend to steer clear of overtly racist remarks, it is not uncommon to hear jokes rich in perpetration of Asian-American stereotypes. These usually revolve around the notion that Asian students are bookish and nerdy, to the extent that they don’t enjoy or understand non-academic activities, especially sports. I should know these jokes, because I am definitely guilty of making them, and so are Asian students themselves.

22-year old Yao Ming represents the challenge to these notions, and for the most part the experiment has gone well so far. Sure, there have been some stupid incidents, including the Miami Heat’s distribution of fortune cookies to fans when the Rockets were in town, as well as the endlessly reported Yao-Shaq exchange of words. (When asked his thoughts on Yao, Shaq responded, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh’”). Yao has handled his time in the NBA with a grace and charm that makes advertisers giddy and supporters proud.

But Yao Ming also represents a worrisome future with respect to China. One of the conditions by which the Chinese government granted Yao permission to emigrate to the U.S. was that he return a portion of his income to his homeland (up to 25 percent by some reports) and that he train and play with the Chinese national team every off-season—not just in Olympic years. This type of control by the PRC on Yao is harmful. For one thing, it means he is playing year-round, which will take a toll on his 7’5 frame. The Chinese wanted this guarantee because its other NBA player, Wang Zhizhi, simply decided to ignore his government and stay in America.

But more importantly, governmental attempts to control Yao are signs of future problems that extend beyond the basketball court. I am glad Yao is representing China, but what China is that? The potentially progressive, market-oriented democracy we would like to see? Or is part of Yao’s income going back to a Communist, human rights-oppressing, militaristic China that continues to build nuclear weapons and will likely clear Beijing streets of any “undesirables” in time for the 2008 Olympics?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Yao’s role—after all, U.S.-Sino relations are for President Bush and Hu Jintao to worry about. But, as last Monday’s “First Annual Asian-American Night” at the FleetCenter proved, the hopes of many millions rests on the wide shoulders of the man they call The Great Wall.

—Staff writer Rahul Rohatgi can be reached at rohatgi@fas.harvard.edu