By Manita Rawat
It means basketball! Many might wonder why anyone would associate basketball with being Asian American. It wasn’t even until “Linsanity” that the world finally saw that one of us could hold their own on the court. We were supposed to be winning spelling bees and getting into Harvard, not driving the lane for a lay-up. Basketball, however, is exactly what I needed to help me fit into a world that was new to me while also embracing my cultural past.
I grew up in small town USA. I was three years old when my parents brought my brother and me from north India to Grand Forks, North Dakota in the 1980s. When I was 9 years old, we moved to Reno, Nevada. I knew we were novelties because people would stare at us at restaurants and stores and wherever else we went. I was embarrassed when my friends came over and commented on the smell of our house, which was fragrant with scents of Indian spices and basmati rice. I avoided inquiries about my ethnic background, like why my mom wore a “dot” (called a bindi) on her forehead. I detested the stares and the questions. I wanted people to treat me like I was no different from the blond, blue-eyed kids at school.
My parents, in their own way, felt the same. My mom quickly changed her wardrobe from silk sarees to dresses and slacks. My father, on the other hand, encouraged us to adopt the American way of life as a way of surviving in our new country. He cautioned that most people here viewed us as strangers and may even be hostile, and that we needed to immerse ourselves into our new environment. Like most immigrant parents, he also told us that we would need to work harder than others and excel in anything we do. Finally, he told us to embrace and love sports—because there is nothing more American. He made sure my brother and I excelled in any sport we chose to play. Looking back, this was the best advice he could give.
As I watched Michael Jordan play with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, I knew exactly what sport I wanted to play. Being able to fly like Michael Jordan was every kid’s dream, and it became my virtue. My dad would take me to the YMCA and work with me to perfect my shot. Then came years of basketball camps, leagues, and school teams. The better I got, the more friends I made. My father was right—playing sports helped me feel American.
Basketball taught me to embrace my multi-cultural identity and to not fear sharing my family’s heritage with others. On the court, I was a starting point guard with a decent outside shot and defense hustle. Our ethnic differences no longer mattered. We simply needed to work together on the court to win games. My strong bond with my teammates enabled me to share my whole self with them. They loved coming to my house after practice for Indian food. They asked my mom to make samosas as game snacks. During Diwali, my teammates even wore bindis to celebrate this important holiday with me.
Basketball not only helped me embrace my new country and American life, but it also enabled me to proudly share my past. Basketball can teach us many things about life, but for me, it taught me to love being Asian American
*This is the first of several blog posts that will be published by Duane Morris attorneys during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.