Pop Culture

Yao Ming memoir reveals a life lived between two cultures

Yao Ming is one of the tallest players in the NBA today, but not much is known about the 7-foot-6 Chinese center for the Houston Rockets. With his memoir, "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds," Ming reveals himself as a thoughtful, opinionated young man who has bridged the gap between two very different cultures while living the American dream. He was invited on the "Today" show to discuss the book. Here's an excerpt.

My name is Yao Ming. That’s what everybody calls me, but in America the right way would be to say Ming Yao, because Yao is my family name. My dad is also a Yao — Yao Zhi Yuan — but not my mom. Usually in the United States, when two people get married, the woman takes her husband’s last name. They did that in China many years ago, but now they don’t because the government has said that women should be equal to men. My mom’s name is Fang Feng Di.

This is only one of many things that are different in China today compared to long ago. In some ways China is becoming more like America, but I don’t think they will ever be the same. That means I live in two places — one that is very new and different to me, and one that is very old and very different now, too.

It’s hard for me to see all the changes in China, maybe because when I go back, I’m not trying to see them. I’m more interested in the things that I know will not have changed —the food and my friends. Or maybe I’m changing, too, and that’s why I can’t see what is different. It’s hard for me to know. I feel the same on the inside, but maybe on the outside I’m different. As long as I change for the better, that’s OK.

If you’re reading this book, I would guess it’s because you want to learn more about me. But I hope you can learn a lot more from it than that. Not many people have tried to do what I am doing, to be part of America and China at the same time. At least not many have tried to do it with so many people watching. One reason is that nobody was allowed to try before. Maybe that’s the biggest change of all. Maybe that’s an important lesson, too — that, with time, everything is possible.

I don’t know if you’ll learn everything about me and my life in this book, but I will give you as much as I can.

In English, a name can mean something else — for example, first names like “Summer” or “Jack” or last names like “Rice” or “Bell.” It’s the same in Chinese. My first name, Ming, means “light.” To write it, you use two Chinese characters. The first character means “the sun,” and the second one means “the moon.” The two names together mean light all the time, day and night.

My last name, Yao, doesn’t mean anything in itself. It’s just a last name, like Jones. But the two characters that are used to write it, when looked at separately, do mean something. The first character means “woman.” The second character means many, many, many — like a billion, only more. So that means more than Wilt Chamberlain, right?

If you know me, you know that’s a joke. First, because I like to make jokes. Second, because I have been interested in only one girl since I was seventeen. When I tell people that, they don’t believe me. Maybe I’m the only NBA player like that, but it’s true.

There is another important difference between English and Chinese. With all Chinese words, the way you say them changes their meaning. If you say the word “shui” — it sounds like “shway” — it can mean “water,” “sleep,” or “who,” depending on whether your voice rises, falls, or falls and then rises again.

Names are the same. If you say my full name the wrong way, it can mean “killer,” or that I am a person who wants to take your life. That’s the way a lot of Americans say it. To say it correctly, your voice must rise when you say “Yao” and again when you say “Ming.” If you say it still another way, it means “incredible life.”  But translate “incredible life” into Chinese and you don’t get Yao Ming; you get something different.

Maybe that’s what this book is all about. You should know that, at first, I said no to anyone who said I should write a book. There are many reasons. One is that I am a private person; that is my personality. Another is that I’ve always thought only heroes write books or have books written about them. It’s important to understand the difference between heroes in the U.S. and in China. In the U.S., the heroes in movies and books almost always live. They face danger and they have the chance to die, but they don’t. In China, the biggest heroes are those who have died for their country — not always (the first Chinese astronaut will be a hero no matter what happens), but usually.

I’m not a hero. I don’t think what I’m doing makes me a big hero. I’m just doing my job.

I also didn’t think I’d lived long enough to have something important to say, and playing basketball in China, no matter how good you are, is not considered as important as I think it is in the United States. That’s why I like to read books about history and biographies of important people in history. There are people who have faced more pressure than I will ever face. In Chinese history, the peasants revolted many, many times, but the dynasties changed only about ten times. If the leader of the peasants won, he would become the emperor, but there was little chance of winning, and he paid a big price for failing. His family would have a terrible reputation forever, and anyone directly related to him would be killed. That was the law.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see coming to the National Basketball Association as something revolutionary or see myself as a rebel. I am proud to be Chinese and proud that I learned to play basketball in China. I never want to lose my citizenship, and I will go back to live in China when my NBA career is over. I went through a lot to play in the NBA, but if I had to choose between playing in the NBA and playing for the Chinese national team, I would choose the national team.

Still, I like to read about people who have tried to make important changes because it makes what I face seem easier. I’ve never had to worry about what would happen to my family if I were to fail. And even though books of history and biography describe times that are very different from ours, reading about how someone under great pressure makes a decision can help me make my decisions. And sometimes reading about someone else just helps me not to think about the challenge I face for a little while.

I know this, too: just because I’m in the NBA doesn’t mean I can’t still fail. People in China expect much more from me than just being able to say I played in the NBA. I expect more from myself than that, too.

At first, I didn’t believe writing about my experience could help other people. Many Chinese are coming to the United States for the first time and trying to live in a new culture, but I had many advantages as a number-one draft pick that they will not. I wondered if my experience was too different for it to help anybody.

But I have learned something from people who lived a long time ago, people whose lives were much different from mine, so I could be wrong about that. I also wondered what people still living in China would think of me if I wrote a book. It is bad for someone Chinese to act more important than he really is. Chinese people have no respect for someone like that. They won’t show it, but that’s how they feel. A few Chinese athletes have written books, but they wrote them at the end of their careers, not at the beginning. Most Chinese people who have written books about themselves were great leaders in government who had retired. Or someone else may have written about them after they died. One exception would be a very important man, like the former general secretary of the Communist Party, Jiang Zemin. I don’t think of myself as that kind of exception.

I don’t think of myself as a superstar yet, either, though maybe some day I will be. I am not planning to retire, either, although maybe I will have to after this book comes out. That’s also a joke. I hope.

I finally decided to write this book because I saw the importance of my telling my story rather than having others tell it. You should know that not everybody helped me. Some people wanted to help only because of what they could get from doing so, and when they couldn’t get anything, they tried to stop me. I don’t know everything about those situations — some things I didn’t want to know — so the people who helped me will tell you those parts of the story. I say “the” story, not “my” story. This is why, I think, it’s OK for me to write a book. I don’t think of it as being just about me. It’s really about the people who helped me and how the world has changed to allow a player from China to be a number-one draft pick in the NBA. It’s also a chance to tell the rest of the world something about my country and its people. Collective honor, the honor of the entire country, is very important in China.

That’s what I hope people will see in my work in the NBA. I also can send a message home about how a person can think of his country and still act as an individual out in the world.

I also wrote this book because other people were writing books about me. For a while a new one came out every six weeks in China. I had nothing to do with those books, and at first I thought, “OK, no problem, I can’t stop them.” But then I read one. It talked about me as though I’ve never made a mistake and made me sound like Mao Tse-tung. The truth? I have failed many, many times. You probably will learn more about those times in this book than the things I have done right. Everybody likes to talk about success, and the media has said many nice things about me, maybe more than are really true. But I think there’s just as much to be learned from things that went wrong. I wasn’t worried about failing in my first year in the NBA. I just wanted to try. I didn’t want to fail, and I tried my best not to fail, but the most important thing was that I tried. That has changed now, because I know I can play in the NBA. The summer after my first year I thought more about failing because the goal had changed. My rookie year was good, not great, but I did enough to push my goals higher. I became a starter, and I played in the All-Star Game, so doing less than that at any time in the future will feel like failure. I don’t know how American fans think, but in China if you score 30, the fans want you to score 40. If you score 40, they want 50. After my first NBA season, the Chinese newspapers were talking about how many years it will be before I win a championship, how many years before I am the league MVP.

This is what makes me think about failing. These are very big goals, but I will be looked on as a failure if I don’t reach them. I could tell you that what other people think is not important to me, but that’s not true. I have this chance to play in the NBA because of a lot of people. I don’t want to disappoint them. It would be easier if I didn’t care about them, but that’s not how I am.

I think differently about failure than a lot of Chinese. In China, many people won’t try to do something if there’s not a high chance of success. Whether I win or lose, I think I can get a lot from the process of doing something. I can be afraid to fail or lose, but I can’t let my fear stop me from trying. But it’s very hard for Chinese people to risk defeat. There’s a very well known saying from 2,000 years ago. The translation is “The successful are the kings and royalty; those who have failed are bandits and villains.” Every Chinese person knows this expression, and too many live by it.

To me, this means that Chinese people can be too concerned about the result of what they do. There’s another expression: “The winners always write the history books.” Or you could just say that if you don’t win, nobody will remember you. In the U.S., both Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are famous, even though Barkley never won a championship. Charles still works, even if it’s only on TV. I respect that he’s still working. But he talks a lot and says many things I don’t think he really believes; he just wants people to say, “Did you hear what Charles Barkley said?” Anyway, he is why I say that in America, if you work hard and don’t make it, you can still be famous. But China has a long history, much longer than America’s. In China, you’re famous only if you win — or die trying. Otherwise, people will forget you.

Excerpted from "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds" by Yao Ming. Copyright © 2004 by Yao Ming. Published by Miramax, a divison of Hyperion books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.

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