Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Welcome to America, Yao Ming

On June 28 2003, after the Houston Rockets used the number one pick of the NBA draft on Yao Ming, Shaquille O’Neal went on the Best Damn Sports Show Period to say, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.’” He followed his taunt with some kung fu chops through the air. Yao, a 7’6” center from China, was heralded as the NBA’s next dominant center, the next Shaq, the man who would take O’Neal’s crown as the best at his position. Shaq, ever a media darling, received almost no negative press for the comment. The Asian American community did complain, to which Shaq responded that his comments were not racist.

Surely to O’Neal’s chagrin, NBA fans voted Yao Ming to start in that year’s All-Star Game, over Shaq. In fact, Yao received more votes than any other player that year, primarily due to the fact that voting was global. Said ABC sportscaster Brent Musburger, “the hordes of China” helped Yao steal the All-Star berth from O’Neal.

Since Yao Ming entered the NBA, he has embodied a number of contradictions. His 7’6” 310-pound body is large and numbering, but his playing style has often been criticized as soft. His popularity in China generates resentment from fans and commentators alike, and yet he has been the face of the NBA’s attempts to break into new markets, especially China. The mixed results of Yao’s foray into the mainstream, masculine world of the NBA is a case study for how Asians have entered pop culture, and how Asian men have dealt with constructions of masculinity.

In basketball vernacular, players and teams can rely on power or finesse. O’Neal is the prototypical power player, using his strength to push, crash, and simply move players on his way to a thunderous dunk. Yao is the opposite: a finesse player who uses skilled shots, clever passes, and deft hooks. In a league obsessed with manly toughness, the finesse player gets no love; Yao has been called soft throughout his career. He lacks aggression, toughness, and the ability to intimidate other players. His YouTube highlights include falling down when attempting to defend against fast players, and getting blocked by a barely–six foot Nate Robinson. Commentators have noted that Yao’s lack of aggression reflects cultural differences.

How does Yao’s performance on the court affect Americans’ perceptions of Asian men? How does Yao, nick-named the Great Wall of China, represent Asia and China to the U.S. public? How does Yao’s integration into basketball (or lack thereof—none of his teammates attended his wedding) speak to Asians’ integration into U.S. culture?

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