Monday, March 8, 2010

Good Asian American, Bad Asian; or, What Do Responses to the LPGA Reveal about Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in America Today?

Consider for a moment the following thought experiment: what if Michelle Wie had been the player to kick off the LPGA season with back-to-back wins for the 1st time in 44 years, instead of Ai Miyazato? Wouldn't we have been treated to breathless speculation on Golf Channel (including on-line streaming video from Golf Central) on her odds of doing it, expanded tv coverage of the HSBC two weekends ago, endless arguments over the significance of her feat, and top billing for her on every sports highlight show, sports page, and sports site for a couple of days, at least, all as a prelude to the media rush to Okinawa to follow her every move in this past week's attempt to make the JLPGA opener her 3rd worldwide win in a row?

So why not for Miyazato? She's at least as big a global star in women's golf as Wie, plus she already has 18 wins on major tours to her credit. After her HSBC win, she moved up to #3 in the world, only .01 points behind Ji-Yai Shin and within striking range of Lorena Ochoa. Plus, she was competing against Shin, Momoko Ueda, Sakura Yokomine, and other top 50 players in the JLPGA's debut this week, so even though she had trouble getting the ball in the hole and finished T7, behind Sun Ju Ahn, Shinobu Moromizato, and Chie Arimura, she's likely to make up even more ground on Ochoa when the new Rolex Rankings are released today. I'm certainly not the only one to have predicted this level of success. Of those participating in the 2010 LPGA Prognostication Derby, Ron Sirak anticipated the worst finish for her (10th), I of course foresaw the best (1st), while there was a 4th, 2 5ths, a 7th, and a 9th from everyone in between. While two wins in a row from her is a hotter start than even I expected, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that Miyazato has joined the LPGA's elite. So why is she being concern-trolled for being unable to win in North America thus far in her career? Why are Hound Dog and Jason Sobel the only golf writers or bloggers I know of to really take her devote a paragraph or more in the last week or two to her 3 LPGA wins in the last 8 months? seriously? [Update (3/9/10, 5:12 am): Little rewrite there to acknowledge that of course the usual suspects are taking her accomplishments seriously! Bill Jempty wrote, "Miyazato has come out blazing. Can she challenge for #1? I think so." Tim Maitland, who predicted her 2009 breakthrough, has been following her closely ever since. But why so few outside the usual suspects? And why so many mistakes in what they produced?] And how in the world did Hunter Mahan getting his 2nd career win get pitched as a bigger story anywhere in the world than what Miyazato accomplished two Sundays ago in Singapore?

Yes, I said "anywhere"--even in the U.S. Of course in Japan Miyazato is neck-and-neck with Ryo Ishikawa, Daisuke Takahashi, and Mao Asada, among others, for most popular athlete in the country. Where does she stand in the U.S.? Let's see: every major golf site relied on wire reports of her HSBC victory and in the week after it there was a grand total of three hastily-put-together career overviews (by Sal Johnson of Golf Observer and Beth Ann Baldry of Golfweek--scroll down in my Ai-sama victory post to updates 34 and 35 for my assessment of them--as well as a halfway decent one by Larry Bohannan). Even an online golf magazine you might expect better of, Global Golf Post, had Miyazato sharing a page with Laura Davies (good company, but Davies was playing in the minor leagues that week, even if she did get worldwide win #73), in the back half of this week's issue--behind a nice full-page profile of Shin by Lewine Mair. Seems like there's a "no woman allowed in the 1st 10 pages" rule at Global Golf Post.

This despite the fact that the LPGA's tournament previews, notes, and interviews have gotten sharper in the Mike Whan era, that there's been a concerted effort to take advantage of opportunities in Asia and to promote Asian stars, and that even the golf industry seems to be waking up, as evidenced by Titleist's new LPGA ad that was getting serious air time during the HSBC (but has not yet made it onto teh youtubes). So why is the U.S. golfy media so far behind the curve, particularly when it comes to coverage of the new generations on tour? Why do we see more profiles of and promotion of the LPGA's Asian-American stars like Michelle Wie, Christina Kim, Vicky Hurst, and Jane Park--and even of Futures Tour prospects like Tiffany Joh and Hannah Yun--than of Asian stars like Miyazato, Shin, Ya Ni Tseng, In-Kyung Kim, Na Yeon Choi, Eun-Hee Ji, and Momoko Ueda? Consider the golfy media's relatively equal embrace of both Asian-Americans like Anthony Kim, Tadd Fujikawa, and Rickie Fowler and of Asians like Ryo Ishikawa and Danny Lee. As I asked over at Citizen of Somewhere Else yesterday on a very different topic last week, "what's going on?" Is it that hard to talk to English-speaking caddies or agents? To hire translators for interviews with players or to get background from Asian reporters? To read reporting from Asia in translation?

I don't think this is an individual failing, a breakdown in journalistic integrity, or the natural outcome of nationalism or impersonal market forces. It's not often that I get to cite books by academics here, but Colleen Lye's 2005 study America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 is remarkably relevant to any analysis of what responses to the LPGA reveal about race, ethnicity, gender, and class in America today. Even though Lye focuses on a very different time period than our own, she shows how relevant anxieties from even progressive and liberal leaders and writers from then are to us now. Consider the following passage:

Through observations of shifts in naturalism's representation of Asiatic figures to exemplify the promise and the peril of free market expansion, my study seeks to reveal one systematic way in which the critical potential for revealing the damages wrought by globalization in the American context has been short-circuited....

The remedy and exacerbation posed by America's Asia to the crisis of the closing of the frontier entwined the emergence of Asiatic racial form with the intensification of commodity relations and capital's global expansion. The legal designation of Asian immigrants as "aliens ineligible to citizenship" reflected the freighting of Asiatic racial form with an abiding tension between U.S. national interests and capital's transnational movement, between the exceptionalist dream of the identity of nation and capital logic and the nightmare of their nonidentity. (8, 9)

Lye's focus on the "initial textual presence of Asiatic racial form as an economic trope" (11) and argument that late-19th- and early-20th-century Americans displaced their anxieties over capitalism and globalization onto Asians of their own imagining is entirely relevant to our own time, when the LPGA has been featured more in the business section than the sports section, when Americans and Europeans on tour are individualized and "the Koreans" are generally treated en masse and as a mass, and when the presence of Asians on the LPGA is sensationalized either as nightmare or dream. Lye again:

To the extent that American universality depends upon the possibility of assimilation, there is always the danger of finding aliens in our midst, or the wholesale possibility of American takeover by aliens....

In a fifty-year period, a vision of California as a post-frontier about to be engulfed by coolie hordes and Oriental despotism is succeeded by visions of a Pacific Rim utopia, where the local and the global could be made happily coextensive. (8, 11)

The Bivens regime spent too much time worrying about the former, while the Whan regime is working to make the latter a reality. Here's a suggestion: helping American media and fans get to know Asian players as individuals is only part of the solution. (A big part, to be sure, as the closest the lazy American media has come up with anything interesting thus for for Miyazato is that she's a "rock star" in Japan who at first "lost her confidence" on coming to America.) Encouraging American fans and media to embrace globalization is also only part of the solution. (Although highlighting more cross-continent friendships among the players as well as the economic benefits to the tour and its sponsors of exposure in Asia, as well as in Europe and America, wouldn't be a bad idea.) The task is much larger than that: defusing American anxieties that capitalism may be passing them by and that Americans can no longer succeed against global competition and trying to interrupt the historical short-circuit that makes American images of Asia and Asians a symbol for economic transformation. They already realize this can't be done simply by massively promoting American stars (and thus adding to the media and fan pressure on them).

One small start might be pairing Americans of Asian descent with their lesser-known counterparts who were born in Asia--and this could extend more generally between Asian and non-Asian players. The Lorena Ochoa-Ai Miyazato connection has already been established; Suzann Pettersen and Ya Ni Tseng could become a regular pairing, as could Cristie Kerr and Song-Hee Kim, Angela Stanford and Sun Young Yoo, Michelle Wie and Ji-Yai Shin, Paula Creamer (when she's healthy) and In-Kyung Kim, Karrie Webb and Amy Yang, Vicky Hurst and Momoko Ueda, Christina Kim and Jee Young Lee, Jane Park and Na Yeon Choi, Morgan Pressel and Eun-Hee Ji, Mina Harigae and Mika Miyazato, and so on. The point is to put players who combine in interesting ways together on a fairly regular basis, either by game, level of accomplishment or promise, or personality/style. Having tv commentators, golf journalists, and everyday fans on the course and in front of their tv sets getting used to seeing Asians and non-Asians showcasing their games and interacting without the world coming to an end could add up to one giant leap for America.

[Update 1 (3/9/10, 5:21 am): The new Titleist commercial is up on, wait, wrong one....]

[Update 2 (5:33 am): This is not the one I saw during the HSBC--a lot more Asians on that one!

Anyone know where I can find the one aired during the Asian swing?]

[Update 3 (3/10/10, 3:00 am): Here's Stephanie Wei on Momoko Ueda--it's the latest installment in her Know Your Asians feature.]


Unknown said...

Bruce, I think you immediately got off on the wrong foot using Michelle Wie as the barometer for comparison purposes. You are 100% right, of course, but the golf media would have had a feeding frenzy if Wie came in 3rd in both of those tournaments. Michelle Wie has had more ink spilled on her since she signed with Nike than the next five lady professional golfers combined. And, again you are right, her record does not approach 20-25 lady golfers during that era.

This is not an opinion or a fact, but I surmise many Americans feel that the 40-50 Asians on tour have names that all sound similar to them. Therefore, they are hard to remember and it is not easy to get a favorite player. Correct me if I am wrong, but I bet Se Ri received a good amount of press when she started out, because everyone could remember that name.

Americans are going to look for an American hero first. Brits look for Brits. Asians look for Asians.

I think editors in every country know this and just refuse to budget space for something they do feel only a very small percentage of their readership has any interest at all.

courtgolf said...

Have to mostly agree with Vince on this one - with the exception that the tournaments were played halfway around the world with no coverage in the US. They barely got mentioned on xxx Golf Channel.

If Miyazato was ignored in the Asian media, that would be a telling point.

If someone like Cristie Kerr had won both of those tournaments, she wouldn't have gotten the same attention as Miyazato in Asia.

Women's golf is still a side story in American golf. And nationalism isn't necessarily a bad thing...except when viewed by a load of left-wing Americans who see it as a bad thing...yet they celebrate nationalism from other countries.

Con - if you make up your mind to look for racial or gender or basically any other kind of "discrimination" - you'll find it - whether it's actually there or not.

The Constructivist said...

Yes, MW was a tendentious example, Vince. But take any prominent Asian American golfer and you'll notice the golfy media has figured out how to package them, the fans know how to argue about them, and so on. All I'm asking for is the slightest bit of cultural literacy. We can get into the Olympics, World Cup, Ryder Cup, and Solheim Cup, but why does it take a special occasion for it to happen?

This is not an argument about discrimination, CG. It's about long-standing patterns in American culture that we'll continue to live out until we identify and think about them.

And it's not that I'm against nationalism. It's just that nationalism changes as our world changes. Why are we unsurprised when Tiger Woods inspires female golfers across Asia but act as if it's unthinkable that Ai Miyazato might inspire a kid in Topeka? In any case, I doubt Korean and Chinese golf fans feel quite the same way about Miyazato's accomplishments as Japanese or Okinawan fans do.

Speaking of which, Se Ri Pak followed in the footsteps of Ayako Okamoto. While it's true that the larger number of quality Asian golfers in the past decade means that it's harder for any single player from Asia to stand out, isn't it a sign of troubling cultural illiteracy when Americans tend to racialize Asians and fail to recognize the 3 regular Japanese and 4 regular Taiwanese golfers on the LPGA as distinct from Koreans? Where else in the world would this illiteracy be taken as normal and the norm?

Mike said...

I suspect it's actually a combination of factors. Unusual names do make it difficult; I don't know how many times I had to look up the name of the young Korean who beat K.J. Choi yesterday when writing my Monday post -- but I had no trouble remembering K.J.

Coverage matters too. I was able to find out the winners of the LPGA events hours before they were televised here, so if I hadn't already been familiar with Ai, her wins probably wouldn't have registered with me. (By comparison, Laura Davies's 73rd win registered simply because I've followed her career for a long time.)

But there is an aspect of fear as well, guys. It always amazes me how often I hear about Hispanics "taking American jobs"... and yet the jobs I see most of them working are jobs most Americans don't want. I suspect every nation has a sense that their people should be the superior performers in any arena (think about the Russian response to an uncharacteristically small Olympic medal count in Vancouver), and they see a threat anytime it doesn't play out that way.

It's all of these things together, combined with the ladies' struggle to get noticed, period, that makes it harder for the Asian players to develop a presence here. One last thought: although Bivens took a lot of heat for it, she was probably right in one respect when she tried to start the "speak English" plan. No matter which country you're in, the people respond to you more positively if you at least try to speak their language. Players like Ai and Jiyai can both handle their own interviews in English, even if they struggle a bit at times, and most Americans appreciate that effort.

The Constructivist said...

I agree Bivens was doing a lot of positive things on the carrot side of her English initiatives. It was the stick part that got me (and many others) so riled up. The way you put it at the end there, Mike, I think is the way Whan will be approaching it. (Michelle Wie is learning Japanese, after all, and early in her career Paula Creamer made a point to play--and win--on the JLPGA....)

The Florida Masochist said...

I don't take Miyazato's 3 wins in the last months seriously?(You only mentioned Jason and HD) Look what I wrote in my last post on her.

"Miyazato has come out blazing. Can she challenge for #1? I think so."

I picked her #4 for 2010

As for GW who put Mahan on the cover along with the Molinari brothers but not a mention of Miyazato, do I need to dig up the stacks of proof in my archives that show that golf publication is a joke? We both know it.

Mike- Miyazato hasn't always done her press interviews in English. She's used a translator(2007 ADT) in her career but I don't think recently.


Unknown said...

Why are Hound Dog and Jason Sobel the only golf writers or bloggers I know of to really take her 3 LPGA wins in the last 8 months seriously?

Bruce... I'm wounded. And you didn't repost my article from early 2009! I thought you were contractually obliged to do that everytime you mentioned Ai-chan!!!

LPGA Fan said...

Bruce, I give you a standing ovation for your article. If only we could influence the media for impartial, nonbiased, & global equality reporting that would be a good thing.
As much as I enjoy women’s golf and all the great talent I see on the LPGA, it is a second-class commodity to offer to the American viewing public.
And all to often I hear the announcers wondering WHEN and WHY the “American” ladies aren’t at the top of the list. Yes it is an American tour but open to all who can quality.
American attitudes are difficult if not impossible to change. All my top favorite women golfers are foreign players. On Friday Feb. 13, 2009, SBS Open, the Golf Channel had Ai-sama as a global golfer and I remember Ai saying, “Ever since I was a little girl growing up I dreamed of coming to the U.S. to play golf”. I seem to remember a story that someone commented to Kristi Yamaguchi that she spoke “perfect English”. Perceptions and attitudes. While we don’t see them often we do have some Philippine ladies; Jennifer Rosales, Dorothy Delasin, and Dottie Ardina. It’s cool to like Annika, Karrie, Suzann, and Laura. Maybe in my life time, but I’m not counting on it, it will be cool for the masses to like Ai, Momoko, In-Kynug, and Na Yeon but I’m not counting on it.

The Constructivist said...

Bill and Tim, my apologies! My criterion was "a paragraph or more in the last two weeks specifically on the implications of Ai-sama's winning streak." In my defense, I referred to Bill's prediction (but not to Bill by name).... ;) So, yeah, correction coming (I believe Brent Kelley had something good, as well, now that I think of it). Still, even with that expansion, you gotta admit it's the usual suspects paying attention. You'd think more golf writers would be in the last 3 weeks, wouldn't you?

LPGA Fan, thanks for the comment. I'd love to see J-Ro make a comeback, but it seems like chronic injuries have taken their toll. I'm thinking we're more likely to see breakthroughs from the young Thai golfers playing internationally.

I don't know, maybe things will improve as we approach the 2016 Olympic, media-wise....

Mike said...

Bill -- You're right, Ai hasn't always done her interviews in English. (I don't know about Jiyai, but I remember her being kinda bashful about her English early on.) But as you pointed out, that's changed recently... and that's what I mean. Players like Ai are trying to learn English -- unlike, say, Angel Cabrera on the PGA -- and I think that helps their profile in the US.