April 11, 2010

Spring's First Cameo

It is so gorgeous outside that even the trash takes on a beautiful aura.

The popular Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hahn often writes that good and bad are relative terms. The idea is that what we think of as “bad” actually forms the foundation for all that is “good.” For instance, we can’t appreciate how great it is to have a tall glass of water unless we’ve experienced true thirst. Similarly, it can be that much more special spending time with family and friends if you’ve felt the pangs of separation. The bad things – thirst or being removed from the ones we love – can make seemingly mundane things spectacular. In that sense, there is good buried even within the bad.

“If we look deeply at the rose,” Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “we see the garbage; if we look deeply at the garbage, we see the rose.” Make sense?

Well, this phenomenon is in full force today, February 23, here in Jinan. Spring has made a startling cameo appearance, and it’s incredible.

The winter in Jinan can best be described as bleak. The smog obscures the sun like that fuzzy blob that obscures a breast or middle finger on network TV. Plus Jinan is on the east side of China, so even if the sun does pierce its way through the smog, it’ll start to set really early, like before five. After four solid months of dark, biting weather – the garbage – the city broke free from the shackles of winter on February 23, awaking to a blissfully sunny and smog-free day – a rose made all the more beautiful by what preceded it. February 23, is a beautiful day by any standard; I reckon it would have passed muster even in San Diego. But the fact that it comes on the heels of four months of crap, well, that makes the sun seem a few shades brighter, the soft breeze a little more ticklish.

There is a strong but not overbearing wind that sends leaves, hair and trash aflutter. It is so gorgeous outside that even the trash takes on a beautiful aura. I see one black plastic bag drifting effortlessly through the sky as high as a three-story building, and it looks almost majestic. The kid from American Beauty would be in heaven. The wind infuses the air with just the tiniest chill, but the sun is strong enough to regulate things.

For the first time since I’ve been in Jinan, it simply feels like spring. And ever since I was about five-years-old, spring meant basketball.

So I make the jaunt over to Shandong Normal University, where much of my social experiment on basketball will take place. I played at SNU maybe a half-dozen time before the weather forbade it, but this is the first time that I’ve been to the court since I decided to embark upon this blogual adventure. It reaffirms some of my beliefs about basketball in China, namely that it’s hugely popular and quite different than basketball in America. Every one of the 22 courts (there would be 24 but for some broken rims) on the concrete swath is occupied by people playing varying brands of basketball. Some of them are just lazily shooting around. Some are playing games but not keeping score. Some people are just watching. This is a perfect day to play basketball – at least the most perfect out of the last 120 – and people have heeded the weather’s invitation.

I set up shop on the first court inside the gates that flow into this sprawl of courts. That’s where I remember the most competitive games being played last fall; per location, it is seemingly Court No. 1 in the literal and figurative sense. One tip-off that it’s a competitive court is that they are keeping score, and not everyone does that here. I plop my backpack down next to the court, tear off my Kansas Jayhawks hoodie and watch the action unfold, letting it be known via body language – the only language I share with these guys – that I am trying to get in the next game. And I do.

My squad is comprised of myself, two other English teachers – Antuan from Kentucky and James from North Carolina – and a Chinese onlooker selected at random. (OK, it isn’t totally random; he is kind of tall.)

Situated where it is, right next to the gate funneling people into the sprawling patch of courts, Court No. 1 is easily visible to anyone walking along the adjacent walkway, which is a popular thoroughfare for SNU students. And anyone who happens to be walking by on the afternoon of February 23 sees a 5-11 white guy with auburn hair (me), a 5-8 black guy with the knotted seedlings of dreadlocks (Antuan), and another black guy who is shaped like a boulder (James). We are the only non-Chinese people playing and quite possibly the only non-Chinese people that a lot of SNU students have ever seen hooping there. Add to it the fact that we are squaring off in four-on-four games against yellow-skinned, black-haired Chinese dudes, then you could have bet that a crowd would gather. And you would have won that bet.

Almost immediately, the viewing gallery – which moments ago housed but four 20-something-year-old Chinese guys waiting to play the next game – is a hot ticket. It’s not standing room only, but the crowd quickly swells to more than 15. And it isn’t just guys waiting to square off with the winning side. College-aged girls and older Chinese men and women – people who have no interest in playing and, moments ago, no interest in watching – park themselves next to the court to view. They leave as soon as our game ends, and largely because I shoot a paltry one-for-five, our game ends quickly, in defeat.

Being treated as something of a spectacle is nothing new for me here in Jinan. While this city is a provincial capital, it sure as hell isn’t a tourist destination. It’s a one-hour flight to Beijing and only slightly further to Shanghai, so if any tourists are plodding around this part of China, they won’t make time for Jinan – nor, for that matter, should they. Furthermore, Jinan isn’t much of an international business hub. In many of China’s larger cities, white people abound – Europeans, Americans, Australians, Canadians, all tapping China’s vast and ever-expanding economy. But not in Jinan. Almost all foreigners here are either English teachers or studying Chinese, and both of those groups are tiny. Thus, Chinese people here aren’t accustomed to seeing non-Chinese people, and they’re really bad at disguising their curiosity. On buses, at restaurants, on sidewalks – Jinanese people stare unabashedly at foreigners, unafraid to train their eyes on us as we walk past, like someone may eye a fish swimming the length of an aquarium. Often, they’ll shout “Halloo” at our backs after we’ve walked by. In a sense, it’s cute; in another sense, it’s exceptionally annoying. Either way, that’s how it is.

So it’s no surprise when we take to the court and people gather around. It’s not so much that were stars. It’s that we’re spectacles. And this is a phenomenon that I hope dissipates as my trips to SNU become more and more frequent. I want to just be one of the guys, so to speak, without the “Oh my God there’s a white person out there!” hoopla. And hoopla really isn’t too strong of a word. SNU students are pointing and whispering and snapping photos with their phones. Along with the mini-throng gathered along the court, there is a row of people peering through the adjacent fence. Comparing it to a zoo isn’t that much of an exaggeration.

Here's Antuan posing for a photo. It's not a celebrity effect. More of an animal-at-a-zoo effect.

Now, having good-looking college girls gawking at me – while I do something that I happen to be good at – isn’t the worst thing in the world. But at some point, I hope I cease to be so noteworthy. I’ll trade the cute-Asian-girl scenery for a chance to meld into the scene at large.

Telander, whose white skin was similarly atypical on the courts of Harlem, discussed this phenomenon in the introduction to Heaven Is a Playground:

I have tried not to evaluate the events overly much, just as I tried my best during the summer to stay out of the way, to let things happen in natural fashion. I dressed pretty much as everyone else did (shorts, sneakers, later on a golf hat and an ABA wristband) and I played ball, ate, drank, and laughed much as they did. Certainly I was visible, but I feel I overtly affected very little…

I hope to replicate Telander’s savvy. By virtue of my skin, I will never not stick out. But by virtue of my consistent and persistent presence at the courts, I hope to eventually become, if nothing else, a regular, someone who it would be strange not to see for a while.

There are other things I notice on February 23. The attire, for instance, which swings wildly in different directions. One player is wearing “Jordan” brand digs from head-to-toe – t-shirt, pants and sneakers – while another player is wearing jeans and leather dress shoes. This disparity isn’t uncommon. Also – and this, like the optional-scorekeeping, strikes me as odd – guys smoke a lot of cigarettes between games. In the States, the between-game ritual is to scurry to the water fountain or check your cell phone; here they light up cigs. Furthermore, there is an interesting friendly-hostile dynamic that I haven’t figured out. For instance, I was absolutely bowled over at one point by a particularly zealous player who drove at me as though there were a price on my head (did he resent my presence?). But after the game, as he smokes a cigarette, he utters one of the few English words he knows: Sorry. I respond by unloading about half of my Chinese vocabulary on him: “No problem,” I say. “You’re very good at basketball.” It probably comes off as the English equivalent to “Not problem. You basketball, good.” But hey, I think he appreciates the effort.


Winter returned a few days later, nixing basketball and setting the backdrop for one of the truly bizarre moments of my life. True to the stereotype, Chinese people love fireworks – honest to God, there are literally fireworks going off as I write this sentence at 11:30 in the morning. And on February 28, the day of China’s Lantern Festival – loosely described to me as China’s Valentine’s Day – there were fireworks galore, more than I’d seen in my six months in China. And that’s saying something. What tipped it from odd to downright wild was this: it was snowing hard – easily the hardest snowfall of the winter. People were spilling on the sidewalks, socks didn’t stand a chance of staying dry, it was nasty. But despite the snow, fireworks were exploding everywhere when I went out to dinner. I can’t exaggerate the ubiquity of fireworks that evening. From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., you could see them in every direction hear them literally every second.

My mind was blown: a dastardly snowfall sharing airspace with constant fireworks for hours on end. Almost as strange, I suppose, as a white dude from Kansas sharing the basketball court with a bunch of Chinese guys in Jinan for hours on end. Maybe some day it will all seem normal.

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