Jay Caspian Kang: Why Sports Matter
Sport stretches across politics, sport stretches across borders, and for Mash-Ups, sports fandom stretches across the whole of our Mash-Up story. Nothing brings out our most primal, tribal loyalties more than sports, particularly on a global stage like the Olympics. Who do you root for? Where is home? Who is your family? Who are YOU?
We sat down with Jay Caspian Kang, a sports columnist at the New York Times magazine and correspondent at Vice HBO, to talk about sports and identity, attempts at assimilation, and why we always root for the underdog.
You were born in Korea, and then immigrated here. Tell us about your family.
My parents came to the U.S. for school. They were actually living here in the United States before I was born, and had me in Korea, so that if they wanted to go back that I would have Korean citizenship. They decided to stay in the U.S. We lived in Oregon for a bit, and then we lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and we moved down, when I was about ten, to North Carolina. Now my parents have a lavender farm in coastal Washington.
Do you think about what your life would have been like if they had decided to go back?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. I have a lot of opportunity here, but I find myself getting very frustrated about certain things. Like, am I going to be dealing with certain race and identity issues my entire life? It’s never going to end, but somehow I just thought I would grow up and it would. It would be different if I’d grown up in Korea. But then I think of my cousins there, and I probably have a more interesting life here than I could have had there. I have no idea. Maybe I would be like an aging Korean rapper if I had stayed. That would be good.
You’d also be so stylish.
I cannot find any clothes in Korea. It’s like literally I couldn’t find one thing that would fit me in Seoul. Everyone is so skinny! I’m a behemoth in Korea.
Do you remember the first sports team you ever loved?
As far as my dad was concerned, sports was an effort at assimilation.
It was the Boston Red Sox. My dad took me to a lot of games. Baseball is pretty big in Korea, but as far as my dad was concerned, I think it was an effort at assimilation. They were very, very aggressive about that when my sister and I were growing up. Sometimes I think that it was probably almost overboard, but they wanted us to have very typical American lives. So from a very young age, I was playing Little League and going to Red Sox games. It helped me, socially. It’s not like I grew up in Flushing, or Koreatown. I think it was strategic on their part. But I haven’t really asked them, and he likes sports, too, so maybe it was just that he wanted to go to the baseball game and watch the Red Sox.
There are a lot of deep loyalties among immigrant communities to their entry point team. Amy always remembers watching the Bears with her dad growing up, how that was a way to connect to American culture together.
Yeah. It’s an easy civic thing that they can glom onto and learn about especially if they come from countries where that sport exists, like Koreans with baseball. Every Korean knows what baseball is, and has watched baseball on TV growing up, or gone to a lot of games. And if that team brings on a player from your country, it elevates even further. Koreans went to Dodger Stadium before Chan Ho Park started playing. But now every single restaurant in Koreatown in L.A. has a Hite beer ad with the Korean players. And there’s signs above the dugout in different languages. That’s the sort of outreach that really welcomes different communities in, and it really helps a team flourish and become a bigger symbol of the city.
Are you still a Red Sox fan?
I don’t really have any rooting interests in American sports, anymore, except for Lebron James. And Jeremy Lin.
The U.S. isn’t enough of an underdog.
Who do you root for in the Olympics?
I generally root for Mexico and Korea. I have a hard time rooting for the United States. But I cheer for the U.S. gymnasts.
I think because the U.S. isn’t enough of an underdog. I tend to root for teams that lose horribly and tragically. I’m one of the terrible Red Sox fans who just stopped watching after 2004 when they won. It needs to be embattled.
You basically want everything to be Remember the Titans.
Yeah exactly. It’s the most powerful narrative in sports. It’s why every movie is like that. I just want the scrappy underdogs to win. I guess it’s still very powerful for me.
Do you feel like U.S. gymnasts are an underdog?
No, I don’t know why I cheer for them. It’s totally irrational. Probably has to do with a childhood obsession. But I do root for the U.S. table tennis team. It’s so fun.
Who do you cheer for? Tell us.
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