Hyun-Jin Ryu, Racial Identity And Being True To Oneself


Between the eight and ninth inning in an otherwise meaningless baseball game, Hyun-Jin Ryu stepped back onto the field and walked toward the mound with South Korean pop sensation Psy’s "Gangnam Style" blaring through the speakers at Chavez Ravine.

The Dodgers and the Angels, who are collectively paying over $350 million in salaries this season, have a combined .411 winning percentage on May 29. There was nothing compelling about this match-up going into the night’s contest. It featured a pair of underachieving baseball teams in an interleague battle for Southern California — yet I was blessed to witness something that was worth the cost of watching my least favorite professional sports franchise win against a team that played pretty much in my backyard.

As Ryu made his trek toward the mound, a family of (whom I’m assuming are) Korean baseball fans stood up and started dancing, clapping and howling for a Los Angeles star to call their own. I had seen this kind of phenomena on television, and I had read about this kind of thing, but I had never actually seen an international sports star cheered so vehemently. It was heartwarming, because the enthusiasm was so unbridled and revealed with so much pride that I wouldn’t help but enjoy the happiness of these people.

Racial or national pride isn’t something new to this country. What is new, however, is finding one’s identity through an internationally known athlete. This country, for the most part, was made of folks of immigrated here from somewhere else. While the details of who moved here, when they moved here and why they moved here can be saved for another conversation, chances are if you’re American, your ancestors probably aren’t.

And because we’re a country delineated as a melting pot, we sometimes fail to recognize the importance our contrasting nationalities and colors of our skin play into developing our individual identities. While political and cultural ideologies about race have developed some stereotypes, a lot of times it is those very stereotypes that we’re raised to realize. There are racial roles that, whether or not we choose to believe exist, are played out in each of our everyday lives. And in myriad occasions, those very stereotypes are what we try to escape — or at least have the belief that they can be escaped. And that’s seemingly where Ryu comes in.


During the 2011-12 NBA season, Knicks (now Rockets) point guard Jeremy Lin went on a captivating run of unimaginable performances. It was covered ad nauseam by the national media, but a passage in Danny Chau’s editorial about Linsanity has sat in the back of my mind since reading it.

“Jeremy Lin is humble, spiritual, and disciplined. He is also fearless, aggressive, and creative. He’s found his mode of expression and his definition of success. Whether he blossoms into a legitimate NBA star or shatters his glass slipper sitting at the end of the bench is of little importance to me. Ethan Sherwood Strauss may be right. He may never exist as anything other than Jeremy Lin, the symbol — but only because the symbol does not stray far (if at all) from Jeremy Lin, the individual. Beyond the ability to galvanize an entire population of Asian-Americans or the ability to spin the narrative of the stereotypical Asian overachiever, what inspires me most is how comfortable he is with his abilities and his place among the best basketball players in the world; how comfortable he is with himself. While I was raised to believe in a culturally-assigned definition of success, more than ever, I have faith in my ability to form my own definition. If Jeremy Lin has proven anything, it’s just how vital being true to oneself is.”

Race is both a social structure and a cultural representation. It’s a social structure in the sense that we’re often classified by our racial backgrounds. Legislation has been passed, city limits have been drawn and schools have been constructed because and for racial reasons. It’s a cultural representation in the sense that much of the foundation of our identities revolves us being around people who look similar — and because of that, we often enjoy when those who look, speak or act like us succeed.

But oftentimes, we enjoy that success because it breaks cultural boundaries, shatters stereotypes and gives credence to the ideology that we can become more than whatever societal pigeonhole we were conjecturally placed in at birth.

In Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s "Racial Formation in the United States," they suggest that “we should think of race as an element of social structure rather than as an irregularity in it; we should see race as a dimension of human representation rather than an illusion.” Race is a part of our identity, a huge part of it even, but it isn’t our whole identity. There are no stereotypes that suggest that a boy from South Korea should grow up to be a starting pitcher for the Dodgers, but it’s a reality of today’s society and one that I got to witness being celebrated.

I first noticed the South Korean family in the second inning when Ryu hit a double off Joe [bleeping] Blanton. It wasn’t particularly a double that you’d write home to mom about, but it got huge ovation from the family and a few other fans of Asian decent on their feet cheering for Ryu. At the moment, I didn’t realize that I’d be spending as much time watching them as I’d be watching the game.

They were an elderly group with one small boy, and at one point, they got their hands on a neighboring couple’s baby and played with it for a full half inning. They drank a whole lot of beer, and the more they drank, the more entertaining they became. They cheered. They screamed. They clapped. They danced and laughed.

And after Ryu finished warming up and began the ninth, it was all about the game and their star. They howled after the first out. They howled some more after the second. And for the whole last at-bat, they stood on their collective feet and waited patiently until Mike Trout grounded out to second.


Hyun-Jin Ryu’s two-hit, complete game with seven strikeouts wasn’t special in the sense that it’s a game that will be talked about a week from the time you read this, but it was special for this author of this post who rarely writes about the human element of the game. The performance from Ryu was cool, and sociologically significant, and uplifting — or at least as uplifting a win from a last place team can be. The Dodgers still suck, and they always will, but they sucked a little less last night, and I’m okay with that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *