Last Friday, Dat Winning sent me to see Ursula Liang’s documentary 9-Man — a film included in our list of Essential Viewing — at CAAMFest 2015 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As mentioned in the review, “9-Man” is a modified game of volleyball played among Chinese-Americans across the United States, strongly rooted in its ethnic identity. The premiere, however, was packed by people of not just Chinese descent but of all races. Even with this diversity, the whole theater laughed in unison at the Asian-centric humor caught on film— whether it be self-deprecating humor or plain slapstick comedy.
The documentary has been bouncing around in my mind for the past weekend. I grew up on the periphery of Koreatown in Los Angeles, and I would frequent K-town on a near-daily basis. I don’t recall anything remotely similar to “9-Man” in the Korean-American community or other Asian-American communities I have visited. It personally startled me that a sport so Asian-American in essence seemed so foreign.
Perhaps the closest sports I have seen to “9-Man” when growing up was jokgu (also featured yesterday in Better Know A Sport by Serenity Joo). But it was never that popular to begin with in Koreatown. I saw middle-aged and elderly men playing in asphalt basketball courts or parking lots of their church — similar to that in 9-Man. But there was never any outreach or concern of the sport’s future to the younger generations. Jokgu, unlike “9-Man,” is a popular sport throughout Korea, and with that native popularity came perhaps a disinterest in preserving the legacy of the sport or intertwining Korean-Americanness with jokgu.
Then again, Korean-American history is wholly different than Chinese-American history. The first Korean-American settled in American soil 60-odd years after the first Chinese-American. The first generation of Korean-Americans who arrived en masse since the 1960s bolted toward the suburbs at their first given opportunity. The geographical concentration of community never existed and flourished in Korean-American history. And as the documentary points out, the confinement of Chinese-Americans in a single Chinatown for decades was the base ingredient in the birth of “9-Man.”
The documentary made me sort through my mental cabinets, searching for any personal experience similar to “9-Man.” Soccer? No, I played mainly with my Mexican neighbors. Basketball? With a hodgepodge of races, from Iranian to Salvadoran to Nigerian. After watching 9-Man, I felt the fact I had no connection to a distinctly Asian-American sport was a letdown I committed on my Asian-American self even if I was perfectly content with my athletic C.V. before last Friday. Now after last Friday, I felt participating in sports like “9-Man” was the normative thing to do, and playing mainstream sports like soccer and basketball was the aberration.
Even at the all-too-premature age of 22, I think about my future children a lot. What it would be like for the next generation of Asian-Americans? What, as their father, could I provide to keep the Asian part of their Asian-American identity healthy and proud?
Although I am a West Coast liberal (I’m in Berkeley) hellbent on equal opportunity and diversity in as many political issues as possible, I felt sympathy for “9-Man”’s race-exclusivity rule, where six of nine players on court have to be “100% ethnic Chinese” and the other three are “of Asian descent.”
“9-Man” is more a community heirloom than a sport to the Chinese-American community. Even at the cost of political correctness, heirlooms are meant for family only.
Cover photo courtesy of @9mandoc.