February 19, 2011

And One:

This post will bump the last post off the top of the blog. But that is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with this site, so check it out. 

Li Ball

Li Ball was a main character on this blog, featured here, among other places. We have emailed a little bit since I left China, and I sent him an email around Christmas time. The note I wrote to him was nothing special. Just a bunch of simple sentences saying something along the lines of, “Hey Li. I was playing basketball and thought about you and everyone else from the basketball courts. I hope you’re good….”

I did not expect much in response. Despite the fact that he was an email pin-pal, my relationship with Li did not feel all that substantial. Indeed, I had always lamented the fact that I wasn’t able to foster  any truly meaningful relationships with basketball-playing Chinese people. Sure, there were guys who I played with regularly, guys who I was familiar with, even guys to whom I would later send emails. But no real friends.

This letter suggests otherwise: 

Hello. It is my pleasure to have received your letter and I really share happiness with you when I knew you had returned to the U.S. and had celebrated Christmas with your family.
The period when we played basketball together is very nice. Your skill and attitude to basketball left us deep impression. We also feel proud that we have such a good friend as you.
Now we keep playing basketball every week. Sometimes we miss you and talk about you. We sincerely look forward to you coming back to China again, playing basketball together and being good friends.
I am busier in working than before and my office has been moved into a new building. There is a standard indoor basketball gym. If you come back to China, I will invite you to the new gym to play basketball. Every friend is fine, don’t worry about them. The biggest Chinese festival-Spring Festival is around the corner. Here I pay a New Year call and wish you a happy New Year.
Yours sincerely
Pretty cool, I think.

November 13, 2010

Cultural Crossover: With a New Afterword

Thanks to Google searches about Jinan, Shandong Normal University and other similarly obscure topics, this blog continues to get seen. Some guy recently asked me to review his book about basketball’s different forms around the world; another asked me if I had any other blogs he could check out; another wanted to collaborate with me on a marketing campaign for basketball in China (he must have glazed over the part where I moved to Denmark...but still).

I have no disillusions about the traffic – it’s still paltry, even more so than it was when I was churning out 1,500-word treatises about hot water and stretching and the Chinese’s affinity for cigarettes. But one way or another, people continue to stumble across the site. And with that in mind, I want to have a proper epilogue, or at least something more substantial than the defeatist post that hitherto acted as the blog’s climax.

I don’t have any groundbreaking cultural or anthropological pronouncements that I didn’t already detail in the blog’s heyday. But now that I’m in Denmark and have unfettered access to the Internet – including blogspot, which was blocked in China – I have been able to fix up and polish this summer’s posts. 

The biggest amendment: I have added a ton of pictures. The dearth of pictures on the site was a common grievance among readers. But in my defense, there are reasons besides laziness that forbade me from including photographic elements. You see, whenever I would publish a post from China, I had a three-minute window during which I could do the deed. The proxy that I used to get into blogspot, YouTubeProxy.org, allowed a frustratingly finite amount of time to play around before asking me to fork over my credit card into. So I couldn’t sit at my computer and tinker with photos, deciding where they should be placed, which ones to use, etc. I was on the clock from the moment I logged on. Besides that, the proxy had an inability to upload photos. YouTubeProxy allowed me to get in and publish text, but it wasn’t capable of handling photo uploads. These factors conspired to keep the layout barren, and this is something that (rightly) cropped up as a common criticism.

Me at my favorite court. Along the baseline are a few basketball buddies, a baffled Chinese lady and my motor bike.

Now, though, there are photos, and there are a few posts that, not surprisingly, are duly enhanced with the addition of visual elements. In particular:
  • This post, which details the popularity of basketball in China (evidenced by courts that sprout up in a series of bizarre places).
  • This post about Tracy McGrady’s sustained popularity in China, which – still going strong – has now officially outlasted McGrady’s knees and back.
  • This post, which looks at China’s booming fake NBA merchandise market.
  • This post, which looks at some of the basketball slang that echoes throughout Jinanese courts.
  • This post, which chronicles the bizarre basketball experience I had while on vacation in Beijing.
  • And this post, which holds a special place in my heart for it is the one that rehashes how I first stumbled across Li Ball’s Court and, unknowingly, stumbled into an interesting relationship with the dudes who played there – a relationship that, despite nagging language issues, ended up meaning quite a lot to me
So yeah, these posts are all a lot cooler now that they aren’t merely diatribes, but diatribes with pictures to boot.

Also, instead of forcing people to blindly navigate this months-long China/basketball diary, I’d like to gently nudge you toward a handful of posts that – in addition to the ones just mentioned – stand apart, at least for me. If you like these, then you could probably derive some enjoyment, insight or at least time-killing entertainment from this blog.
  • This is quite possibly the best thing written on the blog – at least according to the feedback I got from my small cohort of faithful readers – even though it has nothing to do with basketball.
  • This is a post about how the political protest so beautifully executed last summer by the Phoenix Suns could never happen in China.
  • This is a look at some of the Americans who have landed in the CBA – the Crazy and/or Banished Association.
  • This is an look at how American basketball players have a rep in China as being total ball-hogs – and how my buddy and I unwittingly slipped right into that stereotype.
  • This one is near and dear: The popularity of hot water in China (and how it changed me life).
And finally, the coup de grâce: Some pics that didn’t fit cleanly into any other posts. So I’m just going to stick them here. With that, thank you for checking this out, and farewell!

This picture I took of a homeless guy wearing an NBA cap confirms two things: (1) The popularity of basketball in China, and (2) the eternal resting place of my soul.

This was a scene from close to where I worked. It had a not insignificant role in stoking my curiosity about basketball in China.

Dingy courts, crappy balls and unsightly landscapes. Yep, this was basketball in Jinan.

A photo taken in Beijing, this is apparently a tour for school-aged kids, who for some reason are all carrying basketballs.

Night ball during the summer.

Hitler, bin Laden, Einstein, Kobe and Iverson.

Like I discussed here and here, Kobe is a big deal in China.
I just think this is cool.

The side of a box of milk.

This will work as a closer...

July 26, 2010

How Do You Say "Reason" in Chinese?

For not having any sort of answer, I’ve thought an embarrassingly long time about the question, What’s the difference between and excuse and a reason? 

My best guess is that it comes down to the recipient of the excuse/reason. What smacks of excuse to one person may well strike the next person as a bona fide reason. Take, for instance, the lengthy treatise that kicked off this blog – the April 10 posts detailing my post-graduate tour of underemployment and my subsequent move to China.

Some people may read those posts and think…

Wow, this guy had some really tough luck. He graduated in the spring of 2008, about six months after the start of the recession. He had that internship right after he graduated, which seemed a good idea at the time, and then he hit the ground running in September ’08 looking for a job. Alas, September ’08 is when the stock market plummeted, and when things started looking bleak in every single sector of the economy, particularly in the journalism industry, which is where this guy – who was just a kid back then – wanted to work. On the heels of his past internships and his trio of journalistic awards, he damn near got a few jobs, but juuuust missed out. After more than a year of hitting his head against the job market wall, he decided that his best play was to move to China for a while, ride out the recession, and then hit the hump again in a year or two.

Some other people, though, might read those April 10 posts and think...

What’s this guy bitching about? First off, he majored in philosophy, which is notorious for funneling people into the unemployment line. What’s more, he never diversified his journalistic expertise. He was too gung-ho about sports journalism, which is oversaturated as it is, and didn’t have the portfolio of clips to bust into the news or education or entertainment arenas of journalism, which don’t have quite as many wannabes and bloggers cluttering the market. And not only did he not diversify himself as a journalist, but he didn’t diversify himself as a job candidate. Not everyone gets to be a journalist. It’s a select crew, and anyone can tell you that it’s not a meritocracy: you have to have both skill and luck. And even if this guy has some skill – which is debatable – he was still pinning his employment hopes on an industry that required more than a little serendipity. If he was smart, he would have been putting out feelers in a million different fields and would have come to the conclusion that in the post-Great Recession job market, you can’t let your ideals run roughshod over your brains. Bottom line, he dug his own grave. 

The thing is, both responses are totally justifiable; neither can be proven right or wrong. While I would certainly tend to agree with the former of these two analyses, my dad might side with No. 2, and he would have any number of reasons to do so. That’s the bitch of this reason/excuse dichotomy: it’s all about perspective, and one’s perspective depends on a million different things, things which the person delivering said reason/excuse can’t control. 

Because of this, I don’t know how these ensuing words will be treated – that is, if they will smack of excuse, or if, on the other hand, people will look at them and see logic. Either way, here goes:
The reason (or excuse) for the recent dearth of activity at Cultural Crossover is language, and the fact that I don’t speak a lick of Chinese. Because I don’t speak Chinese, and because the original bent of this blog was to analyze basketball in China – and the people who play basketball in China – I don’t have much to write about. 

I don’t know how that will resonate. To those who think that’s an excuse, it probably sounds like am any other blogger, not someone who really deserves to put the word “writer” in his bio.
This steady plunge in blog activity happens all the time. Someone starts a blog and tells all their friends and posts like a madman for a few weeks and is absolutely confident that they can build up a good following. Then, at about the two-month mark, as the good people at Google Analytics detail the ongoing lack of readership, the blogger gets discouraged and starts posting less…and less. Less posting, of course, isn’t good for readership, which sinks ever more, further dampening that once zealous zest that the blogger had about his or her cool new blog. (In the place of low readership, feel free to substitute old-fashioned laziness as the culprit for a cessation of posts.) 

This is the excuse perspective. 

To those reason people out there, let me explain a little further. When I started this, I didn’t want it to be another China blog. There are a million blogs out there – many of which are damn good – that wax poetic about Chinese culture and Chinese news. A lot of these blogs are written by people who have lived in China for years, and who know a great deal more about this country’s history, politics, economy and culture. I don’t know all that much (or care all that much) about these things, and as such, I have no interest in trying to write about them. 

What I do know and care about, and what I wanted to write about, is basketball. And a stroll around any Chinese city will reveal beyond doubt that basketball is important to innumerable Chinese people. And you can’t have a basketball-loving country of 1.3 billion without there being a bottomless well of good stories about basketball.

But while basketball’s importance in China is indisputable, I’ve still had a world of trouble writing about it. At the outset of the blog, I was writing a lot about the quirks I noticed in Chinese basketball – the score keeping, the clothes, the lingo, etc. These things were interesting to me, and they fueled some good posts. 

After a while, I felt like I had exhausted these different topics, and was forced to make an increasing number of forays into Chinese culture: I was mining basketball not to write about basketball, but instead using it as a springboard to write about other things. This method yielded what I felt to be a few solid posts as well, like this one about Yao Ming and adidas, this one about Los Suns and Chinese censorship, and this one about the CBA and the American burnouts who end up playing pro ball in China. 

Eventually, though, the blog devolved into an ongoing dialogue about Chinese culture. I started writing about smoking in China, the lack of left-handed people people in China, how people drink hot water in China, and so on. 

These topics were vaguely interesting to me, but after a little while I realized that I wasn’t writing a basketball blog anymore. And that’s what I wanted to do here. This blog, after all, was inspired by the book Heaven Is a Playground, a Rick Telander classic in which he spends a summer playing ball in the inner city and, in the process, unearths all these cool stories about the cultural significance of basketball and the people who play it. 

That is what I wanted to do, but for some reason I didn’t foresee language being as big of a problem as it has turned out to be. In hindsight, this seems extremely naïve of me: Of course not speaking the native language is going to be an issue. Maybe I thought that there would be more English speakers out there, or that my bilingual coworkers would be more willing to help me. I don’t know. But I know that I have never been able to have any sort of substantial interaction with the people I play basketball with, and as such, I’ve had very few substantial blog posts about my time on the courts of China.
I came over here holding out little hope of learning the language, and even less of a desire to pore over flashcards and recite tones into a dictaphone to gauge my progress. I’m not defending this philosophy; it’s just the mindset I had when I arrived and the mindset that, for better or worse – mostly worse – I have stuck with all the while. 

Still, it’s an easy stance to justify; Chinese is utterly inaccessible to Westerners. Unlike good old Spanish, which I studied a bit in high school and college, there is nothing akin to a cognate. Oh, how I miss words like enciclopedia. You can’t really mess up words like that. Here, though, nothing is so clear. In Spanish, for instance, the word for chimpanzee is chimpancé. In Chinese, the word for chimpanzee is 黑猩猩. Fat chance.

So that’s what happened to this blog. I know that I never had great readership, save on days when bigger and better China bloggers graciously shared some of their traffic with me and linked to posts that I had written. But this blog was never really about readership. It was about my quest too learn about basketball in China, even if I couldn’t speak the language. I fear now, though, that all I’ve learned is that you can’t learn much of anything if you can’t talk with the people you want to learn about. 

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

July 7, 2010

Wasted Possession: Alcohol and Hangovers in China

As a high school sophomore, we had basketball practices every Saturday morning, bright and early at 8 a.m. But just because we practiced early in the morn didn’t mean we were diligently tucked away the night before. Sophomore year, after all, was when fake IDs started floating around, when kids got their licenses to drive, when we started treating the sentence, “Her parents are out of town,” with the same reverence a priest might treat a passage from the Good Book. 

The 8 a.m. start time was likely intended, at least in part, to thwart any Friday night shenanigans. But it didn’t. We still went out, still got drunk, still made silly choices and then paid for it in the morning. A lot of us would go in there with headaches on account of the alcohol, and would then proceed to give our coaches headaches on account of our crappy play.

After one particularly sluggish practice, one of the assistant coaches had us circle up for a little heart-to-heart. Coach Smith, or Smitty, was more of a football coach than basketball coach. He was round through the trunk with buzzed blonde hair, the type of hair you’d see on a drill sergeant or offensive line coach (the latter was his gig in the fall).

“Guys,” he began, “I want to say something about drinking. I know what it’s like being in high school, alright? But you can’t drink on Friday nights and then come out here and think you can play, alright? And I know some of you are drinking. I can smell it out there the second you start running around.”

There was a lightheartedness to this warning, and after the “I can smell it” line we all gave a little chuckle. Despite the district’s militant policy on student athletes and alcohol, we could tell that Smitty wasn’t out to get us in trouble. 

But before he was finished, and before we could go home and crash, Smitty looked right at me and, in front of everyone, said, “Man, you just look like a drinker.” 

I don’t know how exactly a 16-year-old can look like a drinker. Maybe it was because my hair was a little shaggy. Or maybe my eyes were droopy. Or maybe I was a culprit of the sweaty-booze smell Smitty had identified on the court. I don’t know. But as people laughed at Smitty’s observations, I smiled sheepishly and nodded; I was in no position to deny it. (In a Costanzian moment, I realized on the way home that I should have shot back, “Yeah, well you look like a drinker too!” Or at least something about the Jerk Store.)

Anyway, the reason for this anecdote, beside the tenuous link it gives me to place the ensuing words on a basketball blog, is that I wanted to play basketball today. I really did. But it simply wasn’t going to happen. Yes, it was hot, but that’s not why I didn’t ball. And yes, with my pending move to Denmark, and the accompanying logistical headaches that go with it, I have a lot on my mind. But that’s not why I didn’t play, either. 

No, I didn’t play ball today because I got a little, uh, torn last night. And when you tie one on in China, you’re bound to be aching – bad – the next day. Hangovers are of course an international phenomenon. But hangovers in China are a different beast. This is the country that boasts the world’s biggest population, the world’s biggest mountain and, by my estimation, the world’s biggest hangovers. Hangovers that unequivocally prohibit you from playing basketball.

I have been drinking on-and-off since high school (just ask Smitty), which gives me about eight years of drinking experience. I had a Keystone Light phase as a youngster, a Colorado micro brew infatuation when I got to college, a Heineken thing when I studied in the Netherlands, and a longstanding love affair with Budweiser all the while. Oh, and in the months preceding my move to China, I had a little fling with whiskey. Throw in several boxes of Franzia, an ill-fated one-night stand with Long Island Ice Tea and a typically American 21st birthday, and I know what’s what with alcohol and alcohol’s side effects.

I’m not a drunk, but I’ve been drunk. As such, I have a well-honed understanding and appreciation for hangovers. And I’m telling you, there is no hangover like a Chinese hangover. 

One explanation for Chinese hangovers being in a league of their own is that the contents of a bottle of Chinese beer (or booze) are all second-rate: the water, the hops, the wheat, the malt, etc. The Chinese simply don’t seem to pay as much heed to the quality of beer as, say, Americans or the Dutch. Even when I was snatching up every $11.99 30-pack of Keystone I could find as a 16-year-old, there was never a day where I felt as poisoned as I do after drinking Chinese beer. It would require some in-depth investigative journalism (and the ability to speak a lick of Chinese) to really unearth the quality of ingredients that go into your average Chinese beer, but it ain’t high. It’s the same principle, more or less, behind the fact that foreigners who come to China often have bouts of food poisoning and diarrhea: the stuff the people put into their bodies here isn’t quite up to snuff compared with what we’re used to. 

Then there is a more disgusting (and troubling) explanation: the formaldehyde that is put in the beer. Yes, formaldehyde, the stuff they use to preserve dead bodies. Beer-faq.com tackled this issue back in 2007:

First of all, why on earth would breweries knowingly use formaldehyde? As it turns out it is a very inexpensive clarifying agent that lightens the color of the beer and extends its shelf life. Although some Chinese breweries claim that they have discontinued the practice, there are a number of beers sold in China that are very cheap and low quality (intended to be affordable to the masses), and it has been stated that these lower quality brews still use formaldehyde to keep costs down.

So how widespread is the use of formaldehyde in Chinese beer? I found a few articles dating back to 2005, where a representative of the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association (CADIA) is quoted as saying that 95% of the domestic beer in China has formaldehyde. What was that? Did you say 95% of domestic beers in China have a known cancer causing agent in them? Not really making me want to drink a Chinese beer.

One reason that Chinese beer is reputed to use formaldehyde is that the malt used in Chinese beer is of such low quality that it could rot otherwise. Or maybe the formaldehyde is used to help clean the bottles and disinfect the beer of any diseases. Either way, it speaks to my first point, that the ingredients in Chinese beer are second-rate: If you have to use formaldehyde as a preservative and cleaning agent, it’s probably an inferior product to begin with.

Another factor contributing to hangovers is the alcohol content of the beer. Chinese beer invariably has a lower alcohol content than in America. For instance, a big 600-ml bottle of Tsingtao – which is the most common medium for the nation’s most common beer – has an alcohol content of 3.1 percent. Other beers hover around that same number; some dip below three percent, none exceed five.

So, why would lower alcohol content make hangovers worse? Well, to achieve the same effect of, say, five 12-ounce American beers, you’d have to drink something like five 20-ounce Chinese beers. Indeed, a 20-ounce bottle at 3.1 percent alcohol has almost exactly as much alcohol as a 12-ounce bottle at five percent, so you have to suck down 100 ounces of Chinese beer to equal 60 ounces of real beer – er, American beer. Thus, when you drink Chinese beer, you’re simply going to ingest more ounces of beer, if not more alcohol. Thus, you’re ingesting more ounces of Chinese water, Chinese malt, Chinese formaldehyde. It’s not the next-day alcohol lingering in your system that causes the vaunted Chinese hangover; it’s all that other crap. But hey, at least if I were to die of a hangover my body would be relatively well-preserved.

Then there is fake alcohol – that is, alcohol that is sold as one thing but, after a swig, is revealed to be something else entirely. This happens with both beer and hard alcohol. One of my co-workers, a 24-year-old from Maryland, has a good story about seeing Pabst Blue Ribbon on a supermarket shelf in China. He was a PBR man in college, and seeing the quintessentially American brew lining a supermarket shelf in Jinan, China, of all places, infused him with a sense of obligation: I have to pay my respects and drink a few.

So that’s what he did – he drank a few, only a few. Yet despite his moderation he awoke the next day with the worst hangover of his life. This wasn’t an issue of drinking a lot (he had but a couple cans). And it wasn’t an issue of drinking a variety of booze (just Pabst). No, it was an issue of the “Pabst Blue Ribbon” being a far cry from the real Pabst Blue Ribbon that has helped broke college kids (and hip 20-somethings) stay buzzed since 1844. This Chinese Pabst was a knockoff that no doubt betrayed the lofty brewing standards set forth by Jacob and Frederick Pabst.

(Another fake alcohol story, if you’ll indulge me. Two guys I know took an overnight train ride a few years back. There are a few different ways in which you can take an overnight train. One is what’s called a soft sleeper, which is a room that has four relatively nice beds and a door to shun the noise and cigarette smoke that invariably fills Chinese trains. Another is a hard sleeper, which is like a soft sleeper but sans the door and with six beds instead of four; it’s a little more crowded, but totally serviceable. If you can’t procure a bed, then you are stuck sitting. My friends were unlucky enough to get stuck sitting. To ease the pain of this 22-hour overnight train ride, these guys bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, but because of the putrid taste and immediate nausea, they realized that the Jack was not Jack, but rather one of China’s innumerable fake products. One of my friends was quickly reduced to a floppy mess, and was forced to plop his head down on the table separating himself and the two Chinese people sitting across from him. With his forehead planted on his forearm, and his mouth aligned with the edge of the table, he suddenly vomited the contents of his stomach – a deplorable combination of noodles and Jack Daniels – all over the shared floor. Shortly thereafter he passed out cold, and for the rest of trip there was an stark role reversal: With a puddle of this foreigner’s puke at their feet, the Chinese people were in the odd position of being grossed out by a foreigner.) 

OK, how about some other perspectives on fake booze? This blogger from China rants about fake alcohol thus: 

This is a huge problem in mainland china, not only in Shenzhen, but from my experience i think the major area that its happening, is down here. I have been to places where when you open the bottle it burns your eyes it is so badly, obviously and sickeningly fake.

The poor often drink fake alcohol. There have been many reports of deaths and people going blind attributed to this practice. Poisonous, fake liquor left 40 people dead in Shanxi province in 1998….

Bootleg bottles are also a problem. In a three month period in 1998, 470 people were injured by exploding bottles, including 27 blinded by flying glass. The daughter of migrant workers was killed by glass shrapnel from a bootleg bottle of beer that exploded in Shanghai. The problem was blamed on inferior bottles and bottles that had been recycled too many times.

And a blogger who goes by Beijing Boyce wrote:

I can live with poor service, poor location, poor ambience, even poorly made drinks, but what I can’t live with is bars that lie about their booze….

I’m not alone in these sentiments. Last week, I asked two dozen readers their thoughts about Beijing’s drinking scene (full results in tomorrow’s newsletter). One theme: people are cautious about the alcohol in this city’s bars. Some snippets:

“…we all know about fake alcohol and just how much Beijing bars love the stuff: the situation is so bad in some parts of town that I just flat out to refuse to drink anything that isn’t beer – you just don’t know what you’re getting (and it’s not just small hole in the walls either)….

“Generally, buy stuff in bottles. Especially if you can see the staff open the bottle in front of you – it minimizes the risks of being served god knows what.”

And finally, this 2007 report:

In a check conducted before the May holiday, the Beijing Municipal Department of Industry and Commerce found that over half of the businesses that claim to sell real cigarettes and wine were actually selling counterfeit wines.

The department checked about 400 businesses including peddlers at shopping malls, supermarkets and restaurants before the holiday.

The authorities confiscated 3937 bottles of unqualified alcohol that covered almost all the best-selling brands across China. The Industry and Commerce department has put these enterprises on probation, pending further penalties.

I think fake booze may have been a big part of the problem with my crippling hangover today. After indulging in a mix of beer and wine, a crew of foreign teachers headed to a dance club. This particular club – like many others across China – likes to have foreigners milling about, and they’ll go out of their way to lure foreigners by offering them (us) free booze. When we got the club last night, we were immediately shown a table and gifted a bottle of Eristoff Vodka. Eristoff is, in theory, a “premium” vodka distributed by Bacardi. According to one England publication, “ERISTOFF is a high quality premium vodka - made from 100% pure wheat, triple distilled and charcoal filtered for absolute purity. At 37.5% ABV Eristoff has an exceptionally pure, clean, dry flavour and can be drunk neat or with a wide selection of mixers.” Well, it wasn’t 100 percent anything but nasty. Even as far as vodka goes, it was rank and vile. 

Of course, there is the possibility that I’m just getting a little old for this type of chicanery, for pre-drinking and going to clubs and tearing through bottles of vodka. I am now less than three weeks away from my 25th birthday. At some point, it seems like I’ll have to give up on forays deep into the a.m. 

So, that’s why I didn’t play ball today, and why I am not drinking tonight…or any night in the next several. Tomorrow there should be basketball. Now, though, I must retreat to ibuprofen, sprite and my bed.

July 5, 2010

Spurning Soccer For Basketball: An American Sports Epidemic

Jinan is subject to what meteorologists call “temperature inversions.” I can’t claim to completely understand what temperature inversions are, but from what I have gathered, a temperature inversion is an anomalous layer of air in the atmosphere that acts like a cap or lid, preventing normal weather meteorological occurrences from occurring. Hot air under the inversion can’t escape upward (which it usually does), and cooler air from above can’t trickle down to the ground (which it usually does).
The best image I can conjure is the door of a sauna. Regardless of what may be going on in the area outside a sauna, the door acts as a barrier, thwarting any cool, dry air that may otherwise seep into the room. 

I’m quickly learning that, during the summer, Jinan is that sauna. The inversion to which Jinan is subject keeps the city’s bountiful heat, humidity and smog on the ground, allowing it to accumulate into a dizzying tonic that you can almost reach out and grab. Now, I’m from Kansas City, so I grew up with heat and humidity. But there is something different about the heat and humidity in Jinan, probably because it is infused with such a healthy dose of pollution and airborne crud. It’s hard to describe without having actually walked around in it. Just trust me that it’s gross, oppressive. 

Still, where there are basketball courts and free-time, I can’t help but want to hoop. So my buddy Jonathan, who you may remember from the swindle post, and I decide to head over to Li Ball’s court at about 4:30. Maybe there will be people playing, and if not, oh well; we’ll play each other. The heat is a little less oppressive than it was a few hours earlier, but not much. After all, the inversion in the atmosphere does to ground-level heat what a tourniquet does to blood: it prevents it from going anywhere. 

We are sweating by the time I stop at a little shop to buy water three minutes into the walk there. I spurn the refrigerator and its cold water and instead buy four bottles of water that are the same tepid temperature of the little shop in which they were sitting. Jonathan, who seems to be almost annoyed by my affinity for warm and hot water, informs me that he has three bottles that, for the past three hours, have been cooling in his freezer. I shudder at the thought of feeling the sharp, prickly feeling of ice-cold water shocking my insides; I forgo my usual public health announcement that cold water causes cancer, while hot water prevents cancer (and even relieves stress!)

After a lazy 10-minute walk we round the corner into the apartment complex which houses Li Ball’s court. As we make the turn, we realize that, like a pair of high schoolers didn’t bring No. 2s to the SATs, we didn’t bring a ball to the basketball court. And there is no one else playing, which means no balls anywhere. This is a distressing revelation, for it means that one (or both) of us will have to retrace our steps back to the apartment, and then once again back to the court. It’s annoying on a practical level, and downright aggravating in light of the fact that sweat has already seeped through our shirts. 

At this moment I hear someone call my name from behind. It is no doubt a Chinese person, for the V is David is not pronounced like a V, but instead a W. There is no real V sound in Chinese, which insures that there is no real way for a Chinese person who didn’t major in English to ever say my name right. Take a moment to try to say David without even touching your top set of teeth to your lips; that’s how David sounds when a Chinese person says it. (This no V thing also seriously complicates teaching the number “5.” Invariably, it comes out sounding like “fi” with a W and three vowels tagged onto the end: fiwaue. At least when my kids try it.)

The person who said my name is a regular at Li Ball’s court, someone, if memory serves, who has been there every single time I have. He is a totally normal looking man, probably about 40. Average height, decent looking, a full head of hair that is combed to the side. I have a rapport with this guy, so we exchange pleasantries the best we can for sharing a combined 48 words. 

I tell him that we do not have a ball: Women meiyou qiu. I learned each of these words on Jinan’s basketball courts: women, or we, I learned from people saying, “Our ball”; meiyou, or don’t have, I learned because people shout it when someone takes a stupid shot; qui I learned because…well, that’s a no-brainer. The man nods understandingly and tells me that that is no problem. He either does not understand the quandary or knows where a ball is at the apartment complex. 

The latter is true. When we step foot on the court he points to the near baseline and seems to tell us to stay put. He then walks slowly to the other end of the court, the way you walk when it’s a million degrees outside. He mosies past the other baseline and opens what appears to be a closet on the ground floor of the apartment. Sure enough, he emerges with a ball and rolls it from about 50 feet away. It’s a strike, beelining to my feet as though guided by some invisible force. He waves and walks off; he’s not playing today.

Jonathan and I play a few games of one-on-one before the heat-induced fatigue/laziness reduces us to just shooting around. Our unspoken conclusion seems to be that, with the weather the way it is, there really is no point to turning this into a rigorous exercise session; that could do more harm than good. So we just shoot around, sweat and chat. 

We spend a good bit of time talking about basketball, about his Celtics, about whether or not Tom Izzo would make a good NBA coach, about how Derrick Rose is going to be better than Dwyane Wade over the next five years but no pundits want to say it. Eventually, though, our conversation turns to soccer. We are in the throes of the world’s greatest sporting event, the World Cup, and soccer is on our minds.
After a few minutes, I say something about soccer that is without a doubt true: I could have been better at soccer than any other sport, including basketball. Jonathan quickly and earnestly responds, “Yeah, me too.” 

To me, this is pretty incredible: Two guys who embraced basketball over soccer, though they both acknowledge that they could have been better at soccer.

My body is much more built for soccer than basketball, the sport which stole my heart and ultimately prevented me from ever cultivating my potential soccer talent. I am a hair under 5-11, which is hardly an ideal height for basketball, a sport which, more than any other, discriminates in the favor of vertical giants. What’s more, I am not a great jumper. I have the hops to shoot jump shots, but not to really soar the way that would be required if I were ever to become a truly formidable athlete on the basketball court. I’m also thick through the legs – mom used to call me “Thunder Thighs” – which seems to be a common denominator among some of the world’s best footballers. 

Body aside, my ability to play soccer belied how much I cared about it. That is, I was always good in little league even though I never played or cared about the sport. Had I cared, who knows? The skills that are required of basketball – limitless energy, ability to understand passing angles, knowing how to play physically but not recklessly – made me a good soccer player when I played on rec teams all through grade school. But once middle school hit, and once I started devoting my weekends to basketball tournaments and trips to inner-city gyms in Kansas City, Mo., soccer was nixed from the mix. 

Jonathan’s story is not dissimilar. He played soccer all through grade school, but he never really devoted himself to the sport the way he did basketball. He is tall and strong and coordinated, and like me his build is more suited for the pitch than the court. (Importantly, he is tall only on a normal-person scale, not a basketball-player scale. He’s probably 6-3, which is the height of many quality guards. That is not, however, the height of quality forwards, which is what Jonathan always played growing up.) 

So, here we have two fairly athletic 24-year-olds, each of whom played soccer, and played soccer pretty well, even though we never really cared about it. Alas, each of us spurned soccer in lieu of basketball, a sport that, per the physical abnormalities required to play it at an elite level, we couldn’t really thrive at. 

That’s not to say we wasted our time with basketball, or that we harbor regrets about our sport of choice, or that we aren’t good at basketball. I was, after all, invited to walk-on at my Div. II university on the strength of my buttery shooting touch, and I will always be good enough to get picked up when I played at random gyms because the ability to rain jump shots is a skill that even the tallest and springiest of basketball players don’t often possess. And while my basketball experiences with Jonathan are confined to the courts of China, I’m sure that he, too, will never have trouble playing pick-up ball because, even though he’s short by NBA standards, he’s no midget. An athletic six-foot-three guy, like a guy who can rain jump shots, will always be a commodity in non-competitive hoops.

But the fact that we never devoted ourselves to soccer is a telling (and damning) testament to the sport’s place among American youth. Just think: The United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, when we were both impressionable eight-year-olds. We both watched that Cup (and all ensuing Cups) zealously, for while we ultimately didn’t choose soccer, we nonetheless appreciate and enjoy the game. Still, we couldn’t be bothered to dedicate ourselves to soccer: Despite the fact that so-so white athletes are the minute minority in the upper-reaches of the basketball world, we made the conscious choice of basketball over soccer. That is, we chose a sport (basketball) in which we were resigned to relative mediocrity over a sport (soccer) in which we had the physical tools to compete at a higher (if not elite) level. 

And this is what has always happened in America, and likely what will continue to happen, even with the endearing 2010 U.S. squad’s jaunt to the knockout round in this year’s World Cup. Kids rarely choose soccer, even if it makes sense for them to do so.

As I watched the States’ final game again Ghana, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like had, say, LeBron James opted for soccer. Every time Landon Donovan lofted a searching ball into the box – balls which invariably skirted across the tops of the U.S. players’ heads – I fantasized about LeBron soaring in to head one home. And while guys who, like LeBron, are 6-foot-8 don’t oft succeed at the highest levels of international soccer, you can’t convince me that he wouldn’t be a kick ass soccer player. He is a true physical anomaly, a never-before-seen mix of power, athleticism and coordination. Remember, had a scholarship offer to play wide receiver at Ohio State, even though he was the nation’s best high school basketball player. Someone who could have played at one of the top football universities in the nation but instead opted to become the first overall pick in the NBA Draft surely could have learned to play soccer, right? 

It’s easy to envision a number of top-flight American athletes playing soccer. What if you put Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson out on the wing? Or the majestically coordinated Chris Paul in midfield? Had these guys been born in any other country in the world, they would have likely been trying to cultivate their immense physical attributes into soccer skills. Instead, they’re playing American sports. Which is exactly what Jonathan and I did.

Look, I’m not saying that Jonathan and I would have been anything special at soccer. Could we have played in high school? Yes. Could we have played at a small-time university? Maybe. Could we have played in the World Cup? Certainly not. But even if we aren’t world-class caliber athletes, our story rings true across the country: Kids who knew full well that they were better suited for soccer still chose to devote themselves to basketball. And are still devoting themselves to basketball.

June 30, 2010

Cultural Crossover Comment Chat

Online proxy servers are like a set of keys to a never-ending series of locks. They have allowed me to get on Facebook, check out Twitter and keep tabs on a variety of blogs, including some of my favorites like this and this and this. These sits, of course, are otherwise inaccessible in China because of the expansive Great Fire Wall of China.

One thing that proxy servers can’t do, however, is allow me to post comments on my blog. (At least the proxies that I use.) There have been a number of comments that were insightful, and a few more that asked me specific questions or made specific criticisms. But I have never responded to any of these comments – not because I didn’t want to, but because I can’t. Don’t ask me why I can post articles but not leave comments. (Don’t ask, either, why a blog about basketball is blacklisted in China.)

So in light of the fact that people have left some comments on my blog, and in light of the fact that comment board banter is, at this time, impossible for me to engage in, I’d like to discuss some of the comments that have been left.

This first one is from Cultural Crossover’s No. 1 commenter, Hopfrog.

First off, your being a total wuss, more on that later….

You know how many success stories begin with “I was down to my last dollar....” or “I hocked everything we owned...”. Your going to sit on the sideline because of some debt? Yeah, a big arse chunk of debt, but are we talking about your dreams or just some job you think would be ‘neat’. It sounds to me like this is your dream man, and if thats the case, it shouldn’t even be a question. People that know you probably don’t want to tell you to go for it, and feel guilty if you don’t make it and become straddled with debt.

Sure, there is a point to be made that it is a different world now, but come on, who’s getting that job with SI or ESPN, the guy with talent and a NW journalism degree, or the guy with talent who really wrote some cool stuff on his blog!...

If its not really your dream, then please, don’t even think about doing it. But you clearly have the talent and if this is the one thing that you really want to do with your life, well, then....

Sack up!

This comment was in response to a three-part post that began with my angst over graduate school and ended with a lengthy discussion about swindles in China. (By virtue of having been linked to my mega-China blogger Danwei, I think these may be my most-read posts.)

At the time, I was mired in contemplation/anxiety about whether or not to attend Northwestern’s prestigious master’s in journalism program at the world-renowned Medill School of Journalism. Any frequenters of the blog, or anyone who read the biographical posts at the outset of Cultural Crossover, knows about my journalistic ambitions. I want to be a sportswriter but, having graduated into the shitshow that was the 2008 U.S. Economy – and the coinciding implosion of American newspapers – I couldn’t find meaningful work to save my life. After some freelancing gigs, a too-long stint at a local library and a few heartbreakingly close sniffs at newspaper jobs, I became resigned to the fact that I may as well escape my parents house and go teach in China.

I never wanted to become a lifer in China, however, so I took the GRE right before I left and then applied to graduate schools during the bleak Jinan winter. Sending out applications endowed me with a moment of hope-inspired warmth before I would leave the post office and traipse down the smoggy and bone-chilling streets of Jinan.

I heard back in March that I was accepted to Northwestern’s journalism program among a few others. This was huge news for a wannabe journalist like me because Northwestern is simply THE program for journalism. (Sorry, Missouri. It’s true.)

The problem, though, is that the one-year NU program costs a comical $84,000. What’s more, they offered me only $12,000 in scholarships. Thus, to attend Northwestern, I would have to swallow $72,000 in debt (about $95,000 after interest, according to a financial advisor).

Now, 72K isn’t a big deal in the world of law, or the world of medicine, or business. But journalism? Boy, that’s a gamble. So I shot out emails to a bunch of trusted confidants in the journalism biz, and not a one told me to jump at the opportunity. Instead, they all talked about (a) how a master’s degree could help me be a teacher, and (b) how a master’s wouldn’t guarantee a job in the industry, how it wouldn’t impress anyone.

In that initial post, I surmised:

So there it is – how it’s possible to have the best news of the year turn into the worst news. Congratulations! You, the 24-year-old desperate to be a journalist, have been admitted to the best journalism school in the country (world?)! Now, here’s your piddly financial aid package. Go find $70,000 – psst…it’ll be more like $95,000 when all is said and done – and come on board!

Part of me wonders if I am just being a wuss, if I need to bite the bullet and swallow the debt if this is really what I want to do. Another part of me wonders if that is a decision that could ruin the next 10 years of my life.

Well, Hopfrog gave his opinion: That I was being a wuss. That if I really wanted to be a journalist – and wasn’t just paying lip service to the idea for dramatic effect – then it would be foolish (and wuss) of me not to go to Northwestern. And that’s fair.

In the end, though, I decided not to heed Hopfrog’s advice, and punted on Northwestern. (Actually I deferred my enrollment, so I could, in theory, go there next year. But I will never, ever pay $70,000-plus for a degree that doesn’t guarantee me a job that I want, and there is no journalism degree, not even from Northwestern, that could insure a job.)

Hopfrog makes valid points, but I don’t know that he has enough of a grasp on how bleak the U.S. journalism industry is right now. It’s worse than stagnant.

If I were to go to Northwestern, I would finish up in August of 2011 and be $70,000 in the hole. Even supposing that the U.S. economy begins to right itself (hardly a surefire proposition), the journalism industry will still be turned on its head. Bloggers and fan sites and ESPN will own such a huge chunk of the industry that it just isn’t a good bet to think that a degree from Northwestern will be a ticket to a job. It doesn’t work like that if there are no jobs.

Maybe I could find a job at a smaller paper, in a place like Lawrence, Kan., or Bloomington, Ind. – some college town or something similar. But those gigs pay in the $30,000 range, and if I were coughing up $9,500 a year to pay off loans, then I am basically working a $20,000 per year job. And maybe I could catch on with an online outlet, but the problem with online journalism at the moment – really, the systemic problem with the industry as a whole – is that online journalism isn’t generating any money.

My prediction – and I want to get in print so I can have a good I told you so! to play with in the future – is that Northwestern (and every crazily expensive journalism school) is going to cut its prices DRASTICALLY in the next three years, five years max. My prediction is that the crop of kids going to Northwestern and Columbia and Missouri in 2010 will go down as one of the last ones to get duped into paying anywhere near that much money for the chance to enjoy unemployment in a crumbling industry.

Think about it. Newspapers (and the journalism industry as a whole) really started to fall apart in 2008. The group of kids that would have gone to graduate school for journalism in the fall of 2008 were already signed up by the time papers started sharing copy, by the time long-time writers began to get the axe, by the time that even the most qualified youngsters couldn’t get that first job (me among them). The 2009 crew knew what was happening, but when they were accepted in early ’09, they could have still deluded themselves into thinking that the economy and journalism industry would right itself in the next year or so.

Now this 2010 group, which like me was accepted into these schools in early 2010, will be at the mercy of the new face of journalism: Bloggers who are more on top of stories than anyone (but don’t make dick for money), a shrinking number of outlets that occupy a growing chunk of the market, newspapers and magazine that are paper thin, that are still shedding staff, that appear to accepting that theirs is a fate of less content and fewer writers.

So, that’s why I am not going to go to Northwestern. Charging $84,000 for a one-year program in journalism, even if it comes with the Northwestern brand name, is tantamount to a money grab. Northwestern and other schools could charge that much in years past under the guise that it would land kids a job in the industry. Well, not anymore. The industry that we knew is gone, and so are the jobs that warrant paying that much for a degree.

This is one of the last years that people who are smart enough to get into the program will be foolish enough to not see the writing on the wall.

What I’ll be doing instead of Northwestern is getting a Master’s degree in journalism from a well-reputed Danish university, starting this fall. I received a full tuition scholarship, and I am confident that I can cobble together enough money to pay for the living expenses in Denmark. I have absolutely no disillusions that a master’s degree from Denmark will be some invaluable asset when I graduate and try to get a job in the States. Indeed, employers may scoff at the idea of hiring someone who went to school in Europe. But then again, the chance to attend school in a country like Denmark and not pay a dime for tuition is cool unto itself. Cooler than being saddled with $10,000 of debt each year until I’m 36.


Just wanted to agree - White Men can't Jump really is a classic - for a basketball player who only got into the game (from the UK) at 16 in the mid-90s it showed what basketball could be. The other one I'd describe as a classic if “He got game”.

Never got into the stretching thing before the game though... even living in China.

Doug made this comment on a post that used the film (work of art, really) White Men Can’t Jump as a springboard to talk about stretching in China. You see, in White Men Can’t Jump, there is a great scene where the movie’s lone white man, named Billy Hoyle (played by Woody Harrelson), is stretching along the sidelines. He is mocked by the all-black cohort of players, including his future buddy and teammate, Sidney Dean (Wesley Snipes). “What’s this mother f&*% doing? Stretching?”

Unlike Doug, I was never quite as into He Got Game. It does have some awesome scenes. But there are also aspects of it that are shamelessly superfluous, seemingly little more than a way for Spike Lee to make the film 30 to 45 minutes longer than it actually should be. Seriously, why does the dad of Jesus Shuttlesworth need to develop a love affair with a prostitute? Couldn’t he have just gotten a prostitute, and that could be that? That storyline goes nowhere, yet still Lee dedicates a not insignificant chunk of the movie to Papa Shuttlesworth’s courtship of a hooker, in the process forfeiting an incalculable number of chances to show Ray Allen jump shots.

Anyway, I still love the Chinese’s gratuitous stretching, and the fact that I can walk down the street flapping my arms or holding my hands high above my head and not get looked at like I’m some sort of freak. Strike that – in Jinan, anyone with white skin gets looked at like they’re a freak. But at least I’m not getting the raised eyebrow because I’m stretching. Just because I’m a white man (who, by the way, can’t jump).


Interesting stats about lefties. Being one myself, I guess I never knew that only ~11% of us are that way. For what it is worth, four of my nine players on our youth basketball team were lefties. Three of them were guards. I think lefties have an advantage, especially in youth hoops because defenders just aren't used to guarding their strong hand.

Jim V left this comment on “No South Paws in the Far East,” a post about how lefthandedness is discouraged in China and, by extension, how there are no lefty ball players.

I totally agree, Jim, that it throws off youngsters when they try to guard lefties. It’s a quirky thing to deal with. What’s also neat about lefty ballers is that they look downright cool when they play basketball, or at least when they shoot. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a sweeter jump shot than former Missouri star (and therefore sworn nemesis) Kareem Rush, who had this buttery lefty stroke that, if flipped to the right, would probably just look like any old run-of-the-mill J. Other aesthetically pleasing left-handed shooters: 2010 Kansas Jayhawks freshman Xavier Henry; Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd; former NBA guard and pothead Damon Stoudamire. No word on whether or not Jim V’s stroke is pure or not.


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Michael Jacksson left this on what was, in my mind, one of this blog’s better posts, “Up Fake: China’s Booming Fake NBA Market”. The post dealt with the interesting topic of fake, or jiade, goods in China, particularly the fake NBA stuff, which I seem to see every single day. Thanks for reading, Michael.


I have been loving your writing and particularly love that you are Suns fan. I caught the Spurs Suns game on Sunday morning where Dragic the Dragon played an amazing 4th quarter (talk about spindly!!) and where Barbosa really showed up. I don't know about Jinan, but here in Beijing I thought the Meng Niu ads with highlights were really cool... I mean the milk graphics and a milk BBall!! WTF?

But I hear you on the commentary.. I have been following to Suns here in China since I moved here from Phoenix in 1995 (yep, i was in Phoenix during Sir Charles and Thunder Dan's days!!) and have had lots of fun picking up Bball vocab to talk NBA with the Beijing taxi drivers.…

Thanks, Tianrui. I appreciate it. I wrote that post before the Suns’ season was ended in sickening fashion by the Lakers. One can’t help but wonder if they would have won that Lakers series had Ron Artest not put in that buzzer-beater in Game 5.

I went nuts when Jason Richardson banked in that ridiculous three-pointer to tie the game. Of course, as luck would have it, Kobe Bryant – the best clutch jump shooter in the game – then proceeded to airball his game-winning attempt by five feet, and Artest squirted in there to get the rebound and put up that awkward, old-man lay-up. Killer way to go out, but then again, it’s a Steve Nash team, so it’s only fitting that there was a dastardly twist. With Nash, a loss is never just a loss.

It’s just incredible to think about the various ways in which Steve Nash has been screwed over in the playoffs: Tim Donaghy fixing games in 2007, Tim Duncan’s hitting his first three-pointer of the season in 2008, Ron Artest playing the role of hero in 2010. I don’t feel too sorry for guys who get paid millions upon millions to play basketball, but if I did, I’d definitely feel for Steve. And now that Amare Stoudamire has opted out of his contract, and now that Jason Richardson and Grant Hill and Steve Nash are all a year older, it really is a shame he won’t win a title.


The slang in Beijing is mostly the same, 我靠 tends to be what I hear most often in terms of beifanghua.

Jim wrote this on a post dedicated to the different slang terms that I hear on the basketball court here in China. Even when I return to the States, I have every intention of shouting Mea you!!! when someone takes a stupid shot. The term – which is prevalent on courts in China – means “don’t have,” and is pronounced more or less like mayo. People will think I’m talking about condiments. I give it a two percent change of catching on and becoming a nationwide phenomenon.


Have you thought about foregoing this blog and pitching this idea to a book publishing company?

Jim V wrote this on an early post when I laid out what this blog was about. To be honest, yes, I have thought about trying to write a book about basketball in China. But my apathy toward learning this bizarre language will probably prevent such a thing from ever happening. Since you brought it up, though, I’m convinced that I should write a book about something, if not playing basketball in China. A book would be a way for me to write non-fiction and at the same time skirt the journalism industry, which, of course, doesn’t seem to have any interest in ever welcoming me aboard. I can mark you down for a copy, right?



Being a Bball nut also, I thoroughly enjoyed your post on the Chinese BBall experience.

I guess Bball skills brings out the “macho man” in most of us and keeping score and dominating is affirmation of manhood.

Maybe, the average Chinese Bballer is less “confrontational” or competitive in some of these situations since they know each other well ( and each others families ? ).

I know that when I played ping pong ( table tennis ) with skilled players , they didn’t try and beat me to death and make me cry. :)

They were gracious and give up a few points here and there.

Thanks, LA Guy

LA Guy has an interesting theory, which he discusses on an early post in which I express my bafflement at how Chinese players often don’t keep score. In the States, I’ve rarely played in games where people don’t keep score. There are any number of way in which score is kept. In HORSE we use letters; in five-on-five it’s generally the case that threes count as twos, and twos as ones; in “21” everyone seems to have their own nuanced scoring system. My experience in the States was that unless you’re playing by yourself, basketball is a competitive endeavor. Not so here.


I was in Orlando when we first got T Mac and he was going to be the guy that got us over the top. Of course, we heard that when we got Penny, and when we got Shaq, and what we really got was swept by the Rockets.

It was clear early on that T Mac wasn’t going to win any championships. For pretty much the same reasons that I don’t see Orlando doing squat with Vince Carter.

My immediate guess for his popularity was for being a Rocket and your entry confirmed it. At least Shane Battier gives 100% and has become a defensive monster, he deserves to be popular somewhere. I’ll take a team player like that over the T Macs anyday….

Hopfrog left this comment on this post – one of my favorites – which discussed the popularity of Tracy McGrady and then looked at why T-Mac is still popular here ever though he can hardly play anymore. The Cliff Notes on his popularity: Yao Ming and adidas.

That’s it for now. Thanks as always to everyone who reads this and comments. I appreciate it. Until next time…