Why Is Klinsmann So Un-American? Why Aren’t We?

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When Jurgen Klinsmann got the job as coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team we knew what we were getting. A World Cup winner as a player and former coach of an overachieving German World Cup team, he was expected to bring something refreshing and different to the national team. Boy did he.

I’m not talking about his attacking philosophy, the diamond midfield, or favoring youth over aging stars going to far as dumping the best American soccer player ever out of the WC squad.

Nope, when Klinsmann said the U.S. can’t win this World Cup, he violated a bedrock American trait: blinding optimism.

You never, ever tell a (real) American they can’t win. Red coats and the greatest empire this world’s ever seen? We put our money on a ragtag bunch of farmers and merchants with muskets. A wild West full of Indians, killer weather, unforgiving terrain, and utter isolation? Give us a covered wagon and we’re good. Afghanistan, a region where no forced in human history has ever tamed? Pssshhh. . .we’ll be in and out in 3 weeks after we show them the wonders of democracy. 

Not win the World Cup? We don’t want to hear it. We’re a country of swashbuckling Han Solos: Never tell us the odds. Can you blame us? Our history tells us we shall overcome. That’s why Vietnam felt so earth shattering back in the day. Lose? How is that possible. 

But even that didn’t dampen our optimism. The story now is that if we’d just committed more money or troops we’d have won. Or if the hippies hadn’t undermined the war effort. Or if the South Vietnamese had been more committed. 

Sounds a lot like talk around soccer in America. “If our best athletes focused on soccer we’d rule.” “If we cared we’d win.” “If Americans cared more about soccer we’d be top 10 every year.”

Can you blame us, though? The U.S. is the richest country on earth, so if money helps win soccer, we can do that. We also have the third most populous nation on earth, so our talent pool is deep. We have so much money and free time that we might actually be able to support a fifth major sports league (most countries can only manage one).

But our optimism goes deeper than that. Now, when we turn on the tap clean, drinking water comes out every time. Crime is down. We aren’t surrounded by shanty towns and poor street beggars. Heck, our streets our clean, our roads are safe and fast, and we actually believe if you work hard you can succeed. Everyone here that matters thinks they can get rich (which might go some way to explaining why middle people still vote for lower taxes for the rich—they actually think might make more than $250k a year someday). Perhaps, most importantly, we’re a nation of self-selected immigrants who believed things would get better even if we left behind family, culture, and (sometimes) language and made this (foreign) country our home. It may be a hard knock life for us (sometimes), but the sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar!

That’s not the way most the rest of the world sees it. It’s a lot harder to be so rosy if you know a sweatshop worker, chat with a subsistence farmer, don’t go out after dark because you’re afraid of getting robbed, or your country has lost an empire (e.g. England) or been overwhelmed by invading neighbors (nearly all of Europe). No wonder we seem kind of naive to the rest of the world. 

While optimism can help make you daring and great, it can also mask some pretty serious problems. Our kids are overly optimistic about their math skills, for example. How much of their deficiency might be cured by a little dose of reality? 

What’s amazing is this optimistic vein runs so deep that Klinsmann got in trouble for saying out loud something everyone already knows (“For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic.”) was seen as a controversy. Sure, we know winning is unrealistic, just don’t verbalize it.

Coward? Lack of leadership? Fearful? Those were all judgment words that came from a deep, cultural place. Look at the Landon Donovan’s more delusional statement and then contemplate the non-reaction:

“This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen,” said Donovan. . . “As someone who’s been in that locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.” 

There’s no backlash to Donavan because (real) Americans think they can win. Even if they don’t, they keep it to themselves because, you know, if you ignore it it might not be true. 

Kilnsmann is an immigrant. The fact that he married an American, has an American son, and lives in it-never-rains Southern California couldn’t mold him into an American Pollyanna. He just can’t shake his realistic German cultural roots. Likewise, the fact that America still lacks the players, skill, and the know-how to realistically win a World Cup also won’t free us from our optimism. That’d be un-American. 


Questlove, Black America, and No Such Thing as Asian American Cool

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The Root’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is 43 years-old (!), has been making music for three decades (!!), and has the privilege and perspective of years. He’s also willing to share it. In this case it’s in an ongoing series of six essays entitled “Questlove’s How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” for Vulture.  It is one of the smartest things I’ve read on pop culture.

In particular, “Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?” hit home because it suggests that, as it stands, Asian America will struggle to ever generate anything close to the kind of “cool” that’s come from black America. We’ll get to that in a sec, but first let’s let Questlove explain America’s black cool. Continue reading

Who the Heck Needs a Same-race Hero?

Should Filipinos really care that Barcelona's previous record goal scorer was Filipino?

Should Filipinos really care that Barcelona’s previous record goal scorer was Filipino?

Lionel Messi just broke the all-time scoring record for Barcelona, arguably the world’s most famous team in the world’s most watched sport. It’s quite an achievement. I was surprised to discover, though, that the man who previously held the record was Filipino.

Luckily, I came across two recent articles profiling Paulino Alcántara, the man who held the previous record of 371 goals. As one essay points out, besides Manny Pacquiao, Alcántara is the most successful Filipino athlete ever.

The Philippines is composed of over 7,000 islands, hundreds of ethnic groups, 120 separate languages, and was the conquest of a multitude of colonizers including the Spanish and us Americans. To call the country a jumble is an understatement. It’s fitting, then, that Alcántara’s Filipino heritage is mixed—his father was a Spanish soldier and his mother a Filiipina. Many Filipinos trace their origins to a variety of sources, whether Chinese, Spanish, or (white/black) American. I myself am, according to my relatives, a bit of Spanish, Chinese, and German. Ja, ich bin ein Deutsch. It’s why I’m so tall.[1]

Alcántara’s background reminds me a lot of Jeremy Lin, a guard for the Houston Rockets. Lin achieved academically (Harvard grad) and played pro sports at the highest level (the NBA).

Paulino Alcántara not only played elite sport, he became a successful medical doctor.[2] Besides a successful medical career, Alcántara also became one of soccer’s most prolific scorers earning the nickname “Romperredes,” Spanish for “Net Buster” because one of his shots literally broke the goal net.[3]

When I think about Alcántara I feel proud even though, in many ways, he’s totally unrelatable—he’s a Euro-based, Spanish-speaking Filipino who lived a century ago, rose to the top of two professions, and who in no way disappointed his parents.

On another level, though, Alcántara’s just like me because, dude, he was Flip!

But should I feel pride just because he shares my race? Continue reading

Why Christmas is a Bigger Deal to Filipinos Than It is to Me or You

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I am watching a Christmas light show. The Makati district of Manila has troubled itself to string up a bunch of LEDs in an Ayala plaza. After dark at every half-hour music comes on and the lights dance and blink in time to Christmas standards. It’s a major hit. The place is full of people. On a muggy weeknight like tonight, weeks before Christmas, there’s a new crowd for every showing. On weekends the plaza is so packed that it’s impossible to move.

Back home I have friends who would sneer at this kind of thing. It’s too simple, too sincere, too kitsch. It would deserve an eye roll. It certainly wouldn’t be worth a hour-and-a-half commute by jeepney, FX, light rail, and a long, sticky walk.

There was a time I might have agreed with them. But here, now, I can’t. The the crowd oohs, ahhhs, and takes pictures. And I join them.

Christmas is different here in the Philippines. It’s not just the palm trees, balmy weather, and the fiction of ever seeing a white Christmas. Christmas means more here than it could ever mean back home in the U.S. Continue reading

Philippine Signs (pt 2)

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Tagalog is one of the official languages of the Philippines. The other is English. This means there’s a lot of fun crossover between the two. English words get Tagalog-ized and Tagalog words get English-ized. One example is above.

In Tagalog it’s easy to change a noun into a verb, a verb into a noun, and an adjective into whatever you want. All you have to do is change the prefix. This Tagalog convention is often applied to English words. Here, the adjective “checkout” (as in “checkout stand” or “checkout counter”) has been transmogrified into a noun. And we all know that when a noun refers to more than one of the same object it needs to be plural.

So next time you’re in the Philippines avoid confusion and tell your friends that when you’re done shopping you’ll meet them at the “checkouts.”

Seismic Events (The Origin of Cultural Shifts)



When a Filipino hears I haven’t visited my mother’s family in the Philippines for almost 20 years they are aghast. Neglecting one’s blood for so long–to not even visit—is at best as puzzling as man nipples and at worst the equivalent of shoving your grandparents out of a plane. One does not neglect blood lightly.

My absence is even more surprising when you consider that the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines, are gorgeous. Unlike metro Manila, my father’s home, the central Philippines is lush, green, and agricultural. The setting is expansive and outside the cities the countryside feels like a picture postcard of Asian agricultural scenes; it’s all rice fields, sugar cane, rolling hills, with the added twist of the occasional towering volcano. In other words, if you visit the Philippines, it’s easy to find an excuse to leave Manila for the mellower Visayas even if you family don’t live there.

But there’s a reason I haven’t been to this part of the Philippines in nearly two decades. Continue reading

Farm Living (Land of My Mother)


A school on a farm on a hill

Outside a small town south of Bacolod is a dirt road near a dormant volcano. It winds out of a small town and across a tiny stream. It weaves through sugar cane fields taller than the van and past a tree my uncle and aunt remember as reportedly being the home of an aswang. Is an aswang a demon? A fairy? My uncle and and conflict on the translation. I do, however, remember that my mom called me an aswang when I was a kid when I was being a brat. Regardless the translation, aswang ain’t good. Continue reading

Seeing Family (Hellos and Farewells in Pangasinan)

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Facebook and other social networks have changed the game for Filipinos. It allows far flung families to keep up like never before. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Singapore, or  back in the homeland, Filipino families can be present in each others’ lives so long as there’s an internet connection.

That doesn’t negate the importance of meeting face-to-face, though. That’s why, despite having made internet connections, my cousins have come to a small barangay in Pangasinan, the province north of Manila. They’re here to visit their cousins for the first and, perhaps, last time. This is an out-of-the-way place. The barangay isn’t a vacation spot so it won’t be easy convincing spouses and kids to make this trip. For many of the cousins there’s also a language barrier, so that makes a trip that much more difficult. Without the help and urging of first generation family, it’s hard to see how this meet up will happen again. Continue reading