Jeremy Lin inspires other Asian Americans to pursue sports

When Jesse-Thomas Lim was a teenager in the Philippines, it never occurred to his parents to watch an athletic event, much less allow their son to participate in one.

But on Friday night at Seneca Valley High School’s varsity basketball game against Damascus, Lim, who is of Chinese ethnicity, yelled himself hoarse as his 18-year-old son, Robb, a lanky 6-foot-3 senior, sprinted up the court and shot the ball through the net.

While Robb Lim’s swift, catlike moves have for months attracted the attention of recruiters from colleges such as Hood and St. Mary’s, in recent weeks his name and his race have brought him minor celebrity status at school. Friends call him a “Lim-spiration,” and compare him to Jeremy Lin, the 6-3 Taiwanese American point guard for the New York Knicks, who blazed into the national spotlight this month.

Lin’s athletic prowess has surprised many in the United States who believed the stereotype of Asian Americans as violin-playing bookworms who think sports are a time-waster.

But Lin, Lim and other talented Asian athletes have not burst forth out of nowhere. They tend to be children of Asian Americans who have been in the United States long enough to move past the Tiger Mom mind-set and embrace a more well-rounded childhood.


Seneca Valley's Robbie Lim and his teammates prepare to take the court. (Preston Keres/The Washington Post)

These parents have not let academics slip. Lin is a Harvard man, and Lim has a weighted 4.0 grade-point average. But both had fathers who encouraged their interest in basketball.

“It’s part of his achievement,” said Lim’s father, who has lived in the United States for 23 years. “You’ve got to let them explore what they like to do.”

Over the years, icons such as martial artists Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and Asian American figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan have chipped away the stereotype of Asians. But Lin has smashed a wrecking ball into it.

Asian Americans who never watched basketball now gather to cheer for the Knicks — on Sunday Lin will appear in his first nationally broadcast game. And for those who didn’t see much value in sports, Lin’s success may be changing the conversation about what is acceptable for their children.

Before, “if an Asian kid came to the dinner table and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to join the NBA,’ the mom would whack him upside the head and say, ‘What are you talking about? You’re Asian,’ ” said David Kung, who coaches an all-Asian national basketball team based in Montgomery County as well as Montgomery Blair High School’s varsity team. “Now, not only is it okay, but the parents are into it, too.”

For many, the notion of team sports as an integral part of childhood has taken root slowly, over a generation or two.

“Part of it depends on how recently the parents have immigrated,” said Jim Hahn, 50, a Takoma Park economist whose family moved to the United States from Taiwan when he was 4.


The parents of Seneca Valley's Robbie Lim — Jesse-Thomas and Shirly Lim — cheer on their son as he plays against Damascus. (Preston Keres/The Washington Post)

His father, a mathematician, and his mother, a doctor, had iron rules about how he could spend his time. When he was 5, he had to recite his multiplication tables up to 13 before he was allowed to ride his bicycle. He got good grades and played the violin as his parents required, but “they actually forbade me to play sports in high school.”

He didn’t join a team, but he played as much sports as he could, which brought acceptance from his non-Asian peers.

“They’d see this nerdy Asian guy, and then, when we’d get out on the courts, they’d see I could play,” he said. “Other Asian guys who didn’t do sports, they weren’t quite as readily accepted.”

Hahn says he now encourages athletics with his own children.

He is not alone, according to Kung. Increasingly, he said, “there are very many parents who push their kids as much to be on the basketball team as they do in academics,” he said. “To be able to succeed [in sports] carries a lot of weight in our society, and the Asian American parents have caught up with that.”

But not all have been so quick to embrace sports. Asian parents frequently forbid their children from joining Kung’s team or their school teams.

A few weeks of “Linsanity” won’t change that, said Robb Lim, who plans to play basketball in college and study business management. “Those parents are really stuck in traditional values, and years and years of tradition can’t be ignored.”

Grace Chung Becker, president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, which advocates for advanced academic programs in local schools, agreed.

“I don’t know if it will change a lot of minds immediately, but I do think it will have more of a long-term effect,” she said. “Maybe a child down the road who’s showing talent, their parents will do some research and find Jeremy Lin and see that he went to Harvard and that he’s not only talented but smart, and say, ‘Here’s a role model for my child.’ ”

In the meantime, they may go a little easier on their kids. Austin Liou, 17, one of Kung’s players, said his Taiwan-born mother once kept him out of a game because of a low test grade but has been “more accepting” lately. “She was watching Jeremy Lin, and she was saying, ‘Man, if you were that good I wouldn’t really have to work anymore.’ ”

At Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is 50 percent Asian and an academic powerhouse, the Lin craze has students fired up.

“We are Linsanity-type people — that’s what we root for, what we believe in, being the constant underdog, and the idea that with hard work anything is possible,” said Sean Burke, a counselor and soccer coach.

After all, Lin proves that Asian Americans can be physically formidable and fulfill their academic dreams.

When Peiyi Chu’s daughter started cross-country and track at River Hill High School in Clarksville, she worried there wouldn’t be enough time for studying.

“By the time she got home, it was 5 or 6, and on weekends she was going to different competitions,” said Chu, who came to the United States from Taiwan as a graduate student.

Her daughter, Le Anne Young, 17, promised to bring her homework to meets, and her mother relented, though not completely. “I always tell her that sports is just for fun,” Chu said.

Still, Linsanity has blurred even Chu’s boundaries.

“She dragged me down to watch YouTube videos, and she’s never been interested in professional basketball,” Le Anne said. “I think it’s because he’s also academically talented, he went to Harvard — it was kind of like, ‘Oh! Asian people can have it all.’ ”

Robb Lim seemed to have it all on Friday night, streaking down the court as his parents, sister and girlfriend cheered.

“Move!” his father yelled. “Good job!!”

Seneca Valley won, 62-52, with 19 points scored by Lim. After the game, applause erupted in the gym, and his father, far away now from the Philippines, leapt off the bleachers and pumped an ecstatic fist into the air.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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