Monday, April 19, 2010

Cultural Crossover - Basketball in China

My younger brother, David, is currently teaching English in Jinan, China. He's enjoying the life that all English teachers in China do: he's learning tons about a unique and constantly changing country, he's working at a largely pressure-free job, and he has plenty of days off to travel and do whatever he wants.

During some of that free time, David is undertaking an ambitious goal. As an outsider to Chinese culture and as a self-admitted sports nut, he is investing time in understanding the ethos of the Chinese basketball player and, on a larger scale, basketball's popularity in China. He is documenting his experiences on his new blog, the aptly named - Cultural Crossover.

Here's how David summarized his blog and his anthropologically-fueled pickup games on the courts of Jinan:
It’s a basketball nut/freelance journalist from Kansas spending months on end on the basketball courts of Jinan, China. I will play with Chinese basketball players who seem to have much of the same passion about the game that millions of Americans, myself included, have as well. I will use certain areas of expertise – namely basketball, writing and journalism – as tools to better understand what I feel is an underappreciated (or at least under-understood) phenomenon of basketball in China.
David graduated from college a couple years ago. He is an aspiring sports journalist. Given the economy, and especially the state of the journalism job market, David last year decided to side-step under-employment for a few months to see what he could find in China.

I've enjoyed reading his first few posts over at "Cultural Crossover." David isn't a "China hand" and doesn't claim to be. His perspective, a young guy from the mid-western United States where basketball is a pseudo-religion going to an unfamiliar basketball-crazy land on the other side of the world, is a unique one.

I'm going to highlight a lengthy selection from one of his first posts:

I hop on my bike at about 12:30 and make the 20-minute trek to Shandong Normal University. I make the left turn through the gates of the campus and I am greeted, as always, by a towering gold-colored statue of Mao Zedong, the former leader of China’s Communist Party who died in 1976. (Lest this site gets banned, that’s all I’ll say about him.) This statue, like so many others, shows Mao striking a waving-to-the-crowd pose that can easily be mistaken for a waving-down-a-taxi pose. His right arm is fully extended, his fingers outstretched. In front of Mao is a common area where, presumably, people can gather and hang out. But even though today will boast the best weather for the next week, it’s still kind of crummy outside. No one is gathered in front of Mao, and I cruise on past.

A minute later the basketball courts appear on my right, encased by an ugly-green iron fence with thin poles standing vertical every five inches. There is no one on the near courts behind the fence save one guy who is shooting by his lonesome. I ride another 50 yards until I reach the main entrance where, sure enough, I see some people playing. On one court there is a five-on-five half-court game, and on another there are five dudes just shooting around. There is only action of two of the 22 courts, but at least there is action. Actually, three courts are occupied: off in the distance, that lone guy is shooting by himself, over and over. I’m intrigued by his routine because it is one that I’ve done a million times. While I am gazing around, one of 20-somethings in the five-man cluster extends his right arm and waves me over, slightly reminiscent of the Mao statue. That settles it. I’m playing with them.


Playing conditions are spotty. The ball is overinflated and coated with dust; the court is pockmarked and dimpled: there is an obstacle course of small potholes and cancerous swells. I notice a few times that my foot hits the ground before it was supposed to, and look down to see a mound of concrete growing out of the pavement like a cyst. Other times the ground is a fraction of an inch lower than I anticipated, throwing me off-balance when my foot touches down. I feel my away around and learn to avoid the minefield that is the left baseline corner.

As one o’clock turns into 1:30, people start trickling onto the courts. Some more players – particularly tall ones, at that – conglomerate on the opposite baseline, watching the proceedings. Our game is interrupted when one of the players scurries to the sidelines to answer his cell phone. After a momentary pause – like he was being given a chance to end the call quickly – the guy who gave me the Mao wave does the same to the hoard of giants at the other end of the court. Six guys stroll over; four of them are taller than 6-foot-1, and three of them must be at least 6-4. If readers out there subscribe to the “All Chinese people are short” myth, I assure you that these guys dispel it. (OK, Chinese people do indeed tend to be shorter. But for the most part that is an exaggerated stereotype. Not everyone is Yao Ming, but it’s not a land of midgets.)

The spin-the-ball ritual is foregone, and the guy who keeps inviting people over drafts himself a team. He seems to be a leader of sorts, at least today. He selects himself, two of the best players from our three-on-three game and me. He either thinks I am good or thinks I am a novelty, and I don’t really care which; I just want to play.

Now, for as goofy as I may have looked with my shorts and cap, this “leader” takes the cake in my mind. He is wearing a tight long-sleeved purple shirt and tight dark-blue jeans, and his hair looks like a pinecone. The hair wrapping around the lower part of his scalp is resting at ease, but the hair on his crown is gelled to all hell. It is increasingly vertical as it nears the top of his head, propped up by some sort of hair product. I don’t know how much gel or spray he used, but I know that the hair atop his dome didn’t move an inch the whole day and that he was emanating the artificial, perfumey aroma of product from the opening tip. But whatever, dude could play.

After the tall guys stroll over there is an unstated sense that games are about to become more serious. Now it’s four-on-four, and now there are enough people on this end of the court to field three teams. Thus, if you’re team loses, you sit out. We start keeping score.

The first matchup is my team versus a squad that boasts two of the three tallest guys here, each of whom is better than 6-2. At 5-11, I am one of the taller people on my team. No matter, though, because we quickly race out to five points, which is the magic number. Each one of us notches at least one basket, and I can the winning shot on a turn-around fadeaway in the lane, a shot I practiced a million times by my lonesome during college.

The next group that comes out is totally overmatched. I hit jump shots on my first two touches and notice a palpable difference in my play. The moment we start keeping score, I am suddenly competitive: I am pissed when I miss and pretty stoked when I make it. My defense is better, my passes crisper. Keeping score is basically like two cups of coffee for my game: it sharpened me and got all hyped up.

We lose our third game against the giants who, now that they’re warmed up, start to assert themselves as the best team playing. Our team assumes a spot along baseline where all the losers wait for their chance to get back out there. I walk over to my backpack, which is about 15 feet away, to jot down a note in my Official Chinese Basketball Reporter Notebook. When I come back I am greeted by a teammate who is extending a pack of cigarettes, one of them invitingly jutting out of the pack. He is probably an inch shorter than me with – you won’t believe this – black hair and yellowish skin. He seems pretty fit, a fact revealed by his skin-tight t-shirt. Across the chest of the shirt it says “Calvin Klein” in glinty, diamond-sized studs. It’s the type of shirt that you would never see on a basketball court in the States because it might come off as, oh, a little fruity. What’s interesting, though, is that his below-waist attire is quintessential basketball: black mesh adidas sweats and some really slick black and red adidas basketball shoes. (My shoes, by the way, are black and red adidas basketball kicks. They’re sweet.)

He and his cig are staring at me, so I nod, say thank you and he lights me up. It’s not unusual to have someone offer me a cigarette and that is the climax of our interaction, the only thing we’re able to communicate. But it turns out this guy speaks a bit of English. He is 27 years-old, his name is Wang (with a short A sound) and he works for whoever it is that controls the city’s buses.

“Are you a driver?” I ask, guiding a fake steering wheel with my hands, one of which is holding a burning cigarette.

“No, no,” he says, taking a drag. “I work in office. I do the paper.”

I tell him that I’m a teacher and continue to probe just how well he knows English. I ask him how long he’s been playing basketball, and he tells me that he started in middle school but had to quit in high school because he “hurt this,” pointing to his lower-back. I ask about the NBA and which players he likes.

“The Chinese players – Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian,” he says with a smile, like he’s embarrassed at the predictability of this answer. “And James,” he adds, referring to LeBron James. “Superman!”

I laugh and agree. Indeed, LeBron is Superman.

Read this full article

You can read more of of David's writing over at his blog. It'll be fun to see what David learns on the courts in the coming months.


Ramesh said...

Mmmmm. David writes well and the perspectives are interesting. I suppose he's facing the settling in pangs - the hallooos bugged me too initially.

Btw, something in his blog setting makes posting a comment difficult. Would you mind asking him to change his settings so that people like me reaching Blogger through proxies and such other contortions can comment. I know how encouraging comments are for a new blogger.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. Definitely gonna keep tabs on that blog. My wife is from Jinan and we spent a week there last time.

Anonymous said...

this was an interesting post! i enjoyed reading it. the essence of basketball in a chinese flavour sounds good indeed. i think you will also find this interesting

Dan said...

Tried to leave this on the Crossover blog, but comments do not seem to be working there. He really needs to clean up the posts and remove all the " " which are everywhere. Those things in there make it just too difficult to read. Great idea for a blog though.

Mark said...

@Ramesh and @Dan- I'll mention to David that people are having trouble commenting on his site.

@Hopfrog - I've heard you say that your wife is from Shandong. I didn't realize that she is from Jinan though. Small world!

SONNET said...

Your brother is using proper punctuation. " " ummmmmmmm doesn't bother me to read it. He's right about the CHINESE boys and their zeal for basketball. I quickly learned from my son's private students who their American Idols were. James was number 1. Michael Jackson was of course their favorite pop artist. "But he die," they said. (each time he was mentioned) like what did that mean exactly? Sort of an opened ended statement. And they adore Karaoke. My son's coffee table displayed a copy of a Chinese magazine with Obama on the cover. They said,"He very interesting person." Two of my son's students were kind enough to be my translators when my son was absent for whatever reason. The one boy said his mother had never attended school. You're also right about the real estate investment and or the stock market. Parents of a friend to my son were very limited on how they could travel outside the home because one had to always keep watch on the stock market via the internet. I understand that 85% of the United States concrete is being shipped to CHINA. I see from your blog that most of it is to make empty cities. But I'm sure as resourceful as the CHINESE government has been in the past there is a Method to the Madness.