TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — With only a handful of foreign embassies, and a political leadership forced into international invisibility, it’s not surprising that the 23 million people of Taiwan feel their island home doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
Perhaps that’s why they’re now embracing emerging New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin as one of their own, reveling in his basketball exploits with a passion rare for a place better known for its flat screen TVs and computer chips.
Lin was born and raised in the United States, and his maternal grandmother comes from China, but his parents spent their formative years in Taiwan, and that’s enough for people here to see him as a true-blue son of the island.
The Harvard graduate’s remarkably rapid rise from NBA obscurity to stardom appeals to the Taiwanese as embodying the virtues they say propelled their island from agricultural backwater to high-tech powerhouse: hard work, devotion to family and modesty.
“Jeremy Lin may not consider himself a Taiwanese, and his success has had nothing to do with Taiwan, but Taiwanese regard him as one of their own,” said political scientist Liu Bi-rong of Taipei’s Soochow University. “Now he has taken the world by storm, and they are proud and enthralled by what he has done.”
Across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait, China too is claiming Lin as a native son, pointing to his grandmother’s roots in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang as proof of his Chinese-ness.
He is being touted as the next big Chinese sports star after Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, whose retirement last year has tested the NBA’s deep-seated popularity on the mainland.
China’s pride of ownership is all too familiar to most Taiwanese, who are constantly bombarded by Beijing’s assertions that they live in a political never-never land, lacking all the elementary accouterments of statehood.
The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and China claims the democratic island as its own, to be brought back into the fold by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.
Watching Lin’s latest performance against the Sacramento Kings at a Taipei sports bar Thursday morning, 22-year-old saleswoman Tsai Shu-fan dismissed China’s Lin identification with a barely disguised sneer.
“He is a native of Changhua, where his parents came from,” she said. “He is not a Chinese.”
Adjusting to China’s domineering posture has become something of a cottage industry on Taiwan, particularly since it lost its seat in the United Nations to Beijing in 1971, and virtually all of its diplomatic allies — including the United States — abandoned it for China 30 or 40 years ago.
Its political leaders now have nowhere to travel on official international visits, except to countries like Paraguay and Burkina Faso, two of the 23 nations around the world that still recognize it.
That kind of isolation has helped engender outsized reactions when local people make it big on the world stage. Director Ang Lee became a favorite son for the wall-to-wall acclaim he received when “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain” hit the silver screen. Former New York Yankees and current Washington Nationals pitcher Chien-ming Wang was commonly referred to on local television broadcasts as “Taiwan’s Glory,” and Yani Tseng, the No. 1 golfer on the LPGA Tour for the past year, has given her sport a huge boost on the island.
But only a month into helping transform the New York Knicks from underachieving losers into the NBA’s hottest team, Lin looks set to leave the other Taiwanese icons trailing in the dust.
His Knicks games are broadcast not only on sports stations, but also on news channels, which devote talk shows to his exploits once the games are over.
Newspapers have totally forgotten about last month’s presidential elections, apparently mindful that filling their pages with Linsanity is a far better bet for attracting readers.
And a English tutoring school is airing TV ads to teach viewers newly coined words like “Lincredible” and “Linternational,” noting Lin’s cascading global impact.
None of that surprises Tsai, the young saleswoman, who came to the sports bar Thursday wearing a dark blue hat emblazoned with the Chinese character for her new hero’s name.
“Lin is the young Michael Jordan, and he has Taiwanese blood,” she said. “I am so proud of him.”