Kirk Semple of The New York Times had a tough assignment: wake up at 5 a.m., and watch a bunch of South Asians enjoy the India-Pakistan semifinal. The result isn’t pretty — the lede made me cringe:
If there seemed to be a shortage of taxis at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, one possible reason was apparent on the streets of Jackson Heights in Queens.
Ugh. The rest of the article is better, but still mildly annoying. The fans come across as almost insane (“he…excitedly rocked back and forth…”), and Semple treats the exercise like an anthropologist venturing into Papua New Guinea (no one “expected any trouble among the customers”). There’s also the usual question any Western reporter must ask a cricket fan: how do you deal with the game’s duration?
The trouble with the India-Pakistan storyline, compelling as it may seem to Western editors, was that it completely overpowered any real discussion of the game itself. If you read comparable coverage of soccer World Cup fans, articles tended to note their passion, but also their reactions to the actual sporting event (e.g., I don’t like X player; I don’t think this team will do well; I’m frustrated by Y move…). But most Western reports of the semifinal have tended to emphasize the cultural element of the game — as if people enjoying a sport is not a universal human trait.
Cricket fans, a couple of tips when talking to reporters: a) Do not say the words “cricket is a religion.” Just don’t. It’s a cliche, it’s not true and it confuses the hell out of Westerners and b) Try slipping in snide comments about American football or baseball.
Calling Usman Khawaja an ‘Asian’ Batsman
I discussed this problem on Twitter already, but I wanted to flesh out my thoughts a bit more. Yesterday, during the first day of the Test between Aus. and N.Z., Mark Nicholas said a shot by Usman Khawaja was almost “Asian looking.” Cricinfo immediately ridiculed the comment as insensitive, as did some of my Twitter friends — but the issue is a little more delicate.
Here’s why it makes us cringe: 1) Any mention of racial essentialism is not cool. Saying a practice is inherent to a race/culture takes you to tricky areas (“You are Indian, therefore you must like X.”). 2) Khawaja is Asian (of Pakistani descent, specifically), but he plays for Australia. To say he is an ‘Asian’ batsman implies he’s not fully Australian; he’s a foreigner in our midst. (I’ve addressed Khawaja’s heritage in another post.)
A related example: A few years ago, I went with my family on vacation to South Africa. At one stop, my father met a South African shopkeeper of Indian descent; naturally (because all Indians rejoice inside when they see a member of the diaspora), my father asked him where he was from. My brother later berated him for doing so; it’s probable that this particular South African had lived in the country for generations; to ask where he was from implies he wasn’t from South Africa. (Similarly, I have friends of Indian descent here in America who absolutely hate answering the “where are you really from” question because white people never have to answer it, and it sort of emphasizes their difference and exclusion. “Oh, you’re not really American; you’re a foreigner.”)
OK. But here’s why it’s a difficult issue: 1) To call a batsman ‘Asian’ in cricket means they have deft wrists. It’s as style of play that apparently was once associated with Asian players (Ranji, I’m told, in particular). It’s sort of why we call left-handed leg-spinners Chinamen. In other words, it’s nothing about a person’s culture or heritage; it’s simply cricketing shorthand. (Dissent: But when was the last time you heard a white batsman called ‘Asian’? Surely there are wristy players outside the subcontinent, right? And isn’t ‘cricket shorthand’ derivative of colonial/racist discourse? I mean, come on — Chinaman?)
2) Then again, we know that the diversity of cricket (and how it is played) is its chief attraction. Pitches are different around the world, as are sporting cultures; this leads to different types of players and techniques. How can we talk about this diversity without referring to different cultures? (Dissent: But is it true that Asians are now more “wristy” than other batsmen? And what exactly is the “West Indian style” of cricket? If you find yourself using words like exuberant and Calypso — well, that’s taking us back to colonialist discourse, right?)
Perhaps Nicholas should have just named famous players who did in fact play with their wrists. “Khawaja almost looked like X there.” I don’t know — am I just indulging the worst kind of political correctness here?