But to many, Yao is more than that. He's a symbol of China's emergence on the international stage, a commercial powerhouse with the second largest economy in the world.
Same Planet, Different Worlds
Yao is also a source of unabashed pride. "For China, he encompasses everything that [people] want to be," Ling said. "He's larger than life, strong, intelligent, an international star, a family man, and a team player. He embodies much of what China is becoming," she said.
Lost in the hype is the fact that Yao is a 22-year-old experiencing a dramatic lifestyle change. Both of Yao's parents played for China's national teams. From a young age, he lived and played basketball at state-run facilities for elite athletes.
That prestigious but insular world could not have prepared him for the culture shock of superstardom that followed the Chinese government's decision to allow him to jump to the NBA. (The Chinese government collects half of his U.S. $18 million dollar annual salary, and Yao remains obligated to play on China's national team.)
Now in the U.S., Yao lives inside a media crucible few others experience. "He's probably one of the most swamped people in the world," said Ling. "The press follows him everywhere. I've been out with Brittany Spears and other huge celebrities, but no one has gotten the kind of attention that Yao has. It's incredible. He can't exactly put on a hat and glasses and sort of blend into the crowd."
While Yao's career in the NBA is just beginning, his stardom is already realized on two continents. It's a lot to ask, but this 22-year-old basketball player might just become a symbol of how the two worlds can grow together.
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