April 10, 2010

Crossed Over, I

That is what I am going to do in the coming months, with one big variation: My basketball-based project will be taking place in the Far East, not the East Coast.

The sentence Too much vomit. was written on the board and a puddle of puke pooled on the floor. It was the low-point of my time in China, and probably the furthest I’d ever been from where I wanted to be.

An already rowdy group of six-years-olds had erupted into absolute bedlam when one of them leaned over her desk and proceeded to empty her stomach. There were 20-or-so minutes left of this two-hour class, which revolved around the difference between “too much” and “too many.” Grasping at straws, I tried to work that girl’s sick into the lesson.

“Too many vomit? Noooo,” I said, shaking my head. “Too much vomit.”

The kids were having none of it.

This was like, back when I myself was about six, my class went on a field trip to a production of The Nutcracker. The Sugar Plum Fairy, who was on stilts, suddenly toppled to the ground; the dark red curtain came crashing down after her. The crowd was chock-full of grade-schoolers – the whole city, apparently, was on a field trip – and after a split second of muted disbelief, we went ape. A deafening roar of clapping, laughing and yelling ensued. The fragile cordialness and etiquette of the ballet had been shattered.

The show resumed shortly thereafter, but really, it was all over. After that tumble, the grace of the dancers and brilliance of the music were rendered irrelevant. You don’t have a mishap like that in front of a roomful of kids and get the crowd back.

Similarly, if a little girl vomits in front of an entire class, things invariably devolve – and quickly. Yet in an act of utter futility, I attempted to turn the occasion into a teaching tool. I quickly tried to teach the children the word “vomit,” and then tried to fold the new vocab into a grammar point. I was like those ballerinas who went on stage even after the Fairy had set the room on fire.

And with that, the climax of my Chinese despair: When I stepped back from the board and saw Too much vomit. written in big black letters.

After all, I’m supposed to be a sportswriter. I’m supposed to be sitting courtside at some high school or college basketball game, jotting down notes and concocting an attention-grabbing lead for tomorrow morning’s game story. Maybe I’d even be eavesdropping on some fans or parents in the stands to get an idea for a feature article. Basically, I’m supposed to feel like an extra on the set of Hoosiers, not an extra on the set of Kindergarten Cop.

No, this isn’t where I thought I’d be. But it’s where I am, so let me explain.


I am an English teacher in Jinan, China. There is nothing exceptional, by Chinese standards, about Jinan. Like any provincial capital, it is crowded, dirty and loud. There is nary a day that passes where I don’t see something that would make my mother’s skin crawl, be it men hocking loogies inside a restaurant, children peeing on the sidewalk or people – myself included – buying sketchy-looking food along foul-smelling alleys from vendors whose hands are coated with God-knows-what.

But to be fair, it’s not all that bad. After a bout of what us foreign teachers like to call “Jinan Lung” – really, you describe any pollution-induced cough as “Chinese City X Lung” – I have settled into a routine here. I only teach on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, so every week I have four days to do basically whatever I want. (Save get on Facebook, YouTube and some of my favorites blogs, which, per government policy, have been banned. This blog is among the banned.) And because I’m a native English speaker with milky white skin, I get paid on par with some Chinese doctors. Indeed, my life here is indulgent financially and easy professionally.

Still, though, despite the cushy schedule and my unlimited access to rice and fireworks, this isn’t what I saw myself doing with my life after college. Nor, for that matter, is it really what Iwant to be doing. Coming out of college, I was hell-bent on being a sportswriter. And not the way that some sports nut might think, “Man, it’d be fun to watch sports and get paid for it!” I was serious about it. Between my high school and college newspapers, a pair of journalism internships and post-college freelancing for papers like the Kansas City Star, I have the chops to be a sportswriter. I’ve won awards. I can write features, profiles, game stories, blog entries, the whole thing.

Turned out, though, that the journalism industry didn’t have a spot for me. Hence, China.

But before we get to my tear-jerking post-college tour of the world of underemployment, let me explain what’s up with this blog. Because I have all this free time – free time I fought vigorously not to have – I have had to find ways to fill my days. Four days off each week might sound cool, and I guess it is. But I’m not that hot on teaching. So to keep my sanity, I have to find various ways to stay active. After all, it’s hard to justify spending too many hours watching my pirated Rambo box set or tearing through seasons of Mad Men and Seinfeld on DVD.

Reading, however, is one pastime that’s easy to justify. And on account of the free time, I’ve taken to reading like never before, particularly books about sports. It started with David Halberstam’s ridiculously in-depth biography of Michael Jordan, Playing For Keeps; then I moved onto Michael Lewis’ book-turned-movie The Blind Side; next up was Bill Simmons’ treatise The Book of Basketball; and, finally, Rick Tealander’s Heaven is a Playground.

That last book is why this blog exists.

Heaven is a Playground, published in 1976, is Tealander’s chronicle of a summer’s worth of playground basketball in New York City. He spent months on the blacktops of Harlem, unearthing what the game means to locals, getting know some of the characters – be it players or bystanders – and detailing his time there. The resulting book is an outsider’s study of how a certain subculture plays the game, how they enjoy the game, how they’ve come to treat basketball as more than a game.

That is what I am going to do in the coming months, with one big variation: My basketball-based project will be taking place in the Far East, not the East Coast.

I am not trying to rewrite Tealander’s book, nor could I. Indeed, with prose like Tealander’s, trying to replicate his work would be futile. (Seriously: “It is nighttime at Foster Park and the younger players are lazily shooting baskets in the weak glow of a street light, softly, gently, the way resting campers will toss chinks of bark into a campfire.” Guy’s good.)

But I can write. I love basketball. And I will have the time – what with my three-day work week – to tackle this endeavor, an endeavor predicated on these questions: What would it be like if a Kansan spent a spring and summer playing basketball on the courts of Jinan, China? What would I learn about China from Chinese basketball? What differences will emerge between American basketball culture – which I know well – and Chinese basketball culture – which even the most ardent basketball fans Stateside don’t understand?

1 comment:

  1. Hai David,
    I like so much read your blog. It's kind of very nice blog. All of your writings is awesome.
    May I have your email address? I'm a college student from Indonesia which do some research about Chinese culture related to the basketball.
    I want to make some conversation or interview with you about the Chinese and also the basketball itself. Because I think your background as a sport journalist with dozen of experiences in China could be used as a valid data for my research.

    Many thanks if you want to help me.