As the 2008-2009 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA) prepares to start later this week, NBA fans should already know that when Yao Ming began playing in 2002, he opened up professional basketball to aspiring Chinese back in China, and to Chinese Americans as a potential fan and marketing segment for his team, the Houston Rockets, and the NBA in general.

Following in his footsteps is Yi Jianlian, the second high-profile NBA player to come from China. After playing his rookie season last year for the Milwaukee Bucks, Yi was traded and is now set to play for the New Jersey Nets.

The Nets happen to be located in the New York City metropolitan area, home to an estimated 650,000 Chinese Americans. As the NY Times reports, these numbers and the potential revenue from the Chinese American fan base in squarely in the minds of the Nets organization:

Yi’s name recognition runs high, and people in Chinatown said they would go watch him, if time and funds allow it, but would not necessarily go out of their way to cross the Hudson River. . . .

The Nets are hopeful that Yi connects with the nearly 650,000 Chinese-Americans in the New York area and beyond, reeling in a coveted new fan base. And like Yao, the Houston Rockets center, Yi carries global appeal in hailing from the world’s most populous nation. . . .

“He has to build a relationship with the community,” said Sunny Moy, president of the Asian American Youth Center. “Right now, everybody is more into Yao because Yi is still nearly a rookie. Yi is a good player, I’ve seen him play, but he has to donate tickets, connect with the kids in order to have an effect.” . . .

The Nets are offering a four-game package aimed at the Chinese-American community for games against the Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets and the Lakers feature the league’s two other Chinese players in Yao and the rookie Sun Yue.

The Nets hired a multicultural marketing agency and are planning game-night promotions that include a night serving as Yi’s interpreter and a celebration of the Chinese New Year.

As I’ve said before, whether Americans like/want it or not, the world is getting smaller and the many manifestations of globalization will only continue to become more prominent in American society. In this case, it comes in the form of the Nets trying to market Yi to the Chinese Americans in the NYC metro area and the 1.3 billion Chinese back in China.

It’s also nice to see Asian athletes continue to become more popular in professional sports. At the same time, as I’ve also said in the past, it would also be nice if Asian American (as opposed to international Asian) athletes get to enjoy the same kind of popularity.

Fortunately, with the recent rise and fame of athletes like professional golfer Anthony Kim, to name the most recent example, we (hopefully) seem to be moving slowly in that direction.

I’m not a huge golf fan, but I have to admit that I sat glued to my TV yesterday as I watched the final round of the biennial Ryder Cup tournament between the U.S. and Europe. As you probably know already, the U.S. team shocked the Europeans by recapturing the Ryder Cup, only the second time they’ve won it in the past 13 years.

One of the big reasons for their success was the play of 23 year old Korean American Anthony Kim. I have to admit that I had never heard of Anthony Kim before, let alone knew that he’s currently #6 on the PGA’s money list this season, but as as ESPN reports, Kim made a huge contribution to the U.S. team’s success:

Anthony Kim celebrates his win over Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup © John Sommers II/Reuters

“We had a lot of fun today,” Mickelson said after twice coming from 3 down with Kim, earning a half point in their morning foursomes match and a full point in their afternoon four-ball. “I love playing with this guy. He has a lot of talent, a lot of game. It was fun for me to be with that youthful exuberance today. It’s infectious.

We played with a lot of heart and emotion. We were down in both matches and came back to win one and tied the other. It was a hard, fun day.” “This day, by far, was the best he’s ever played in the Ryder Cup,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie.

So that’s what it takes? Some youthful exuberance? Mickelson truly is the grizzled veteran to Kim’s wide-eyed rookie. They are 15 years apart in age, and when Mickelson played in his first Ryder Cup in 1995 (and went 3-0, by the way), Kim was a mere 10 years old.

“He’s always been an idol of mine, someone I wanted to emulate,” Kim said. Who’d have thought it would take a 23-year-old to bring out the best in Mickelson?

In the final sets of individual matches on Sunday, it was truly impressive to see Kim completely dominate Sergio Garcia, one of the top PGA players in the world. (May I also add that Kim was riding around the course with a rather attractive blond woman sitting next to him, who frequently patted him on the back — his girlfriend?).

At any rate, I already knew that there are many Asian and Asian American women professional golfers, but aside from Tiger Woods who’s half Asian American, I did not know of any other high-profile Asian American male professional golfer. I am delighted to finally hear about Anthony Kim and as one of his new fans, I look forward to following his career for a long time.

I presume that most of you have heard about various campaigns aimed at making English the official language of the U.S., or a particular state, or some other entity or institution. In recent decades, such campaigns have had some successes. But as ESPN reports, the latest high-profile attempt at instituting English as the official language comes from the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA):

Players were told by LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens that by the end of 2009, all players who have been on the tour for two years must pass an oral evaluation of their English skills or face a membership suspension. A written explanation of the policy was not given to players, according to the report. . . .

Every Korean player who spoke with Golfweek about the meeting came away with the understanding she would lose her tour card if she failed the test rather than face suspension, according to the report. But Korean players who spoke about the policy supported the tour’s position, though some, including Se Ri Pak, felt fines would be better than suspensions. . . .

Players must be able to conduct interviews and give acceptance speeches without the help of a translator, [an LPGA official] said, according to the report. Galloway said the policy takes effect immediately, but that players’ English proficiency would not be measured until the end of 2009, according to the report. The LPGA’s membership includes 121 international players from 26 countries; 45 are South Koreans.

Those who follow professional women’s golf should know that in recent years, a large number of South Korean and Korean American players have become quite prominent and successful. For example, 14 of the top 24 LPGA money earners so far in the 2008 season are Asian or Asian American.

Based on the disproportionate presence and success of these Asian players, the question becomes, is the LPGA singling them out with this new “English only” rule? Is this the 21st century version of the Foreign Miner’s Tax that was levied only at Chinese immigrants back in the 1800s once they became “too successful?”

The ESPN article seems to suggest that many, perhaps even most, of these Asian and Asian American LPGA players do not object to the rule, presumably because they agree with the LPGA’s stated rationale that it is to attract more corporate sponsors who would be more apt to support the sport if its best players are able to converse in English on television.

I can’t speak for how these Asian and Asian American women golfers honestly feel about this new rule, but I can speak for myself in saying that it sounds discriminatory to me. Before I talk specifically about how this applies to the LPGA, I want to first relate it to the larger “Official English” efforts throughout American society.

I want to make it clear that I support LPGA players and all immigrants to the U.S. in general learning English and trying to integrate into the “mainstream.” I do not support immigrants — Asian or otherwise — isolating themselves into their own ethnic enclaves and not making any effort to assimilate to some degree into American society.

At the same time, we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of immigrants already know that for them to achieve meaningful mobility in American society, they need to learn English. With that in mind, English is already the de facto official language of the U.S.

Campaigns to mandate English as the official language only serve to cause more divisions, resentment on both sides, and will actually hurt immigrants’ attempts to learn English because they eliminate much-needed bilingual programs and resources, leading immigrants to give up on their efforts to learn English.

As applied to the LPGA, the fact that so many players from Asia are participating and doing well in their sport suggests to me that golf’s popularity is spreading all around the world and is becoming less U.S.-centric. This actually corresponds to the larger trends of globalization, as the world becomes more interconnected and American society becomes more culturally diverse.

With that in mind, I see the LPGA’s “English Only” mandate as a reactionary effort to keep the sport as “American” (i.e. White) as possible. Instead of embracing golf’s growing global appeal and perhaps attract more international sponsors, the LPGA apparently wants to stick its head in the sand and pretend that it’s 1958, rather than 2008.

My guess is that most if not all Asian LPGA players are trying to learn as much English as possible, just like the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the U.S. in general. But mandating that they do so is basically an ethnocentric slap in their face.

It also stands in opposition to what’s going on in the rest of the world and American society, as many Americans rush to learn languages such as Chinese. To me, it’s an example of a White-dominated institution desperately clinging to their old identity in the face of change all around them.

Now that the Olympics have concluded, I just wanted to add my sincere congratulations to some of the Asian American athletes and coaches who achieved success in the games. They include:

  • Brian Clay: Gold medal in the decathlon. He is half African American and half Japanese American and was raised in Hawai’i
  • Jenny Lang Ping: coach of the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team who won the silver medal
  • Liang Chow: coach of Shawn Johnson (women’s gymnastics), who won the gold medal in the balance beam and silver in the individual all-around, team competition, and floor exercise
  • Raj Bhavsar and Kai Wen (Kevin) Tan: male gymnasts who helped the U.S. team win the bronze medal in the team competition

There were other Asian American athletes who competed but did not medal and I also wanted to send my congratulations and thanks to them as well for representing their country and for competing at the highest level of their sports. In addition to the Olympics, another Asian American athlete also made the news recently:

Ultimately, they are all American athletes and should be recognized as such. Nonetheless, as Asian Americans, they also serve as role models and sources of pride for many of us as well.