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Chinese Chucker: The hopes of a country and its expatriates rest firmly on the tall shoulders of Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch center from Shanghai and 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick who makes his debut Aug. 22, when the U.S. squares off against the Chinese national team.

Always Bet on Yellow

When Asian Americans root for Asian national teams, are they real sports fans, fair weathers or just un-American?

By Todd Inoue

"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)

"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)

FOR ALL I KNOW, I could be chanting down the Spanish government. Betty, my Korean-American wife, doesn't know what the chant means either. But up on the flat-screen TV hanging in the Galleria supermarket off El Camino, 80,000 soccer-mad Koreans are chanting "Dae han min kuk" and cheering on the South Korean soccer team with lusty passion. The 300 or so red-clad soccer fans watching the South Korea-Spain World Cup quarterfinal game on the flat screen of this Korean market are doing it, too. Pretty soon, I've picked up the chant and am losing my voice.

I can't believe I'm here--at 11:30pm on a Saturday night in June--but at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. Korea is the first Asian team to make it this far in the World Cup. They have been playing amazing ball, knocking off tournament heavies Portugal, Poland and Italy. All of us are hoping the heart attack kids pull off another miracle. And with the support of crimson-clad "Red Devils" supporters, the soccer team has galvanized the Korean-American community while captivating the Asian American community and the soccer world.

When South Korea finally bests Spain in penalty kicks around 1:30am, the Galleria crowd erupts in hugs and tears and screams. Tumbling outside of the restaurant, the cars toot away, spinning exultant victory laps, their occupants waving red shirts and Korean flags. The next day, I ask my mother-in-law what "dae han min kuk" means and she replies, "Republic of Korea."

That was early in the summer, when the Korean soccer team had an amazing run--finishing fourth after bowing out to Turkey. That was when I first noticed that a lot of my friends--and most of the Asian American ones--were suddenly down with soccer, staying up late to watch the games, rooting in supermarkets and driving like idiots. During the whole World Cup, I had rooted for the United States, but drew the line against the Asian teams. Even though, as soccer-playing kids, we sucked down oranges at halftime side by side with American teammates, I felt pride watching our yellow brothers excelling on the world stage.

The fact is, I felt a deeper kinship with the Asian players. They resemble me--crazy Ahn Jung-Hwan perms notwithstanding. They probably take off their shoes when they enter a home and have rice cookers on their kitchen shelves. They make the same faces I do when I screw up on the field. Am I a bad American because I feel more in common with the Asian players and root for Asian teams?

Ming Dynasty

The question is fresh on my mind, especially since the United States and the Chinese national basketball teams play against each other at the Oakland Coliseum on Aug. 22. It's the American debut of Chinese national and 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick, the 7-foot-6-inch center from Shanghai, Yao Ming. Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown remarked about Ming, "In four years he could be one of the best players in the world." The arrival of the Chinese basketball team in the Bay Area, home of one of the largest concentrations of Chinese-Americans, should be a big event for local Asian Americans who also feel compelled to root for teams from their ancestral homeland. In two words, I'm stoked.

Ben Kim is a writer, sports nut and co-founder of the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media (FAAIM). He says international sport is the one arena where it feels OK for an Asian American to root for his country of ancestry. "It has to do with America's place in the world and one's place in America," he says. "Against the backdrop of American global hegemony, everyone else is an underdog even in sports not dominated by the U.S., and it's fun to root for the underdog. And in other realms of international competition--politics, trade, what have you--anyone's gain at America's expense isn't something you want to root for."

Kim hints at a political undercurrent lurking in the stands and it's true. A victory against the United States is seen as payback for years of cultural and militaristic superiority. When Apolo Anton Ohno sold a foul that eliminated the South Koreans from the short-track speed-skating gold medal, the Koreans got payback during the World Cup. South Korean striker Ahn Jung-Hwan, after scoring a goal against the United States, celebrated by imitating the movements of a short-track speed skater--a direct diss of Anton Ohno.

Elaine Kim is an author, filmmaker and professor of Asian American and comparative ethnic studies at UC-Berkeley. She loved Jung-Hwan's post-goal move and feels sport is the great equalizer for smaller nations used to living in the U.S.' shadow.

"I thought that was really cool," she says with a laugh. "It seems that the U.S. makes all the other countries in the world constantly think of their situation with 9/11. Their issues are the only important issues in the world. Their culture is the only important culture. When it gets moved aside, it's really exciting."

The June 10 U.S.-South Korea World Cup match, which ended in a tie, was much more than a soccer game for Korean Americans and Koreans abroad. It had deep emotional ties to occupation and outrage, a way to exact revenge without firing one missile.

Korea has been mad at the United States for 20 years, Elaine Kim says, pointing out a recent news item about a U.S. Army tank running over two Korean girls. The Status of Forces agreement allows crimes by the Army to be tried by U.S. Armed Forces courts, not Korean courts. Thus the person gets slapped on the wrist.

"It happens so often," Kim says. "It's the culmination of a lot of inequalities of the past. When people were rooting for Korea against the United States, there was all that history there. And for Korean-Americans who were not historically treated as equals in the U.S., it's great to root for Korea against the U.S. It would have been super if Korea won."

Asians of Change

For the less politicized--like the 5-foot-8-inch Asian American kids at the playground who worship Vince Carter--seeing a 7-foot-6-inch Asian brother chosen first (by the Houston Rockets) in the NBA draft is an earth-shaking event. In the case of Yao Ming, he presents a supernova of possibilities. His size and versatility has rival team scouts nervous. It's been hinted that if he's as good as he's hyped, Yao Ming could change the way contemporary basketball is played.

"I think it might open up the door for many Asian Americans who have the dream to go to the NBA," says James Ryu, editor at Koream Journal. "There's a perception of many Americans that Asians cannot compete in the NBA. However, I think it will still take another 10 years before you will see many Asian American players, like you see in the professional baseball league."

Before that day comes, Yao Ming will be have to endure a couple of years being viewed as a pricey novelty--similar to what Seattle Mariner superstar Ichiro Suzuki and Los Angeles Dodger pitching ace Hideo Nomo both experienced during their rookie seasons. A period of adjustment is followed quickly by high expectations by fans, countrymen, teammates and the swarm of foreign media.

And like Ichiro and Nomo, Yao Ming's rookie season will bring a lot of Asian Americans to the game, boosting attendance and exposure of the NBA. Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, on a DVD about the 2001 influx of Japanese baseball players called Rising Sons, acknowledged the link between the spike of Asian faces in the seats and his star right fielder. "He puts people in the stands, no question," Piniella says about Ichiro. "San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, we've drawn more Asian people to our baseball games. When you put more people in the ballpark, it's good for baseball and that's exactly what he's done."

The hopes of a country and its expatriates rest firmly on the tall shoulders of Yao Ming. It goes back to representation. Pro sport is showing some progress in Asian role models. Soccer has the South Korean team, baseball has Ichiro and Nomo and others, golf has Se Ri Pak and Tiger Woods, basketball has Wang Zhizhi and now, Yao Ming.

He could be a bust, the Asian version of Shawn Bradley or Michael Olowokandi. He'll probably get dunked on--there's a rumored pot going around the NBA for the first person to dunk on Yao Ming. But if Ming lays a Spalding facial on Shaq, the shock waves will be felt far and wide, from Beijing to the Bronx.

"I'm worried about the Chinese chucker--he's going to get knocked around in the paint," says Ben Kim. "But I invite him to shock me."

The U.S. and Chinese National Basketball Teams play on Thursday (Aug. 22), at 7pm, at the Oakland Arena. Tickets range from $14.29 to $380.95 and are available by calling 510.762.2277.

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From the August 15-21, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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