The weather is spectacular as I stroll out of my apartment on March 11. It’s a sunny 60 degrees with little smog – which along with wind-chill and clouds and precipitation must be considered a meteorological factor in China.
There are people playing ball all over when I arrive at Shandong Normal. I stop to see refreshment man (above) – his name, I’ve learned, is Wang Sheng Heng – and buy a Gatorade and a bottle of water. Before I have stuffed the change into my pocket, a guy in his early 20s has stealthily approached me and is inviting me to join his game. This is the second straight visit to the courts where I’ve been invited to play with someone before I’ve left the refreshment stand. And the second time I’ve accepted.
He is shorter – maybe 5-7 – and muscular and is wearing a slick pair of adidas kicks, the 2010 Derrick Rose shoes. I had Roses last year and I loved them, and I expect, based on the quality of his sneakers, that I am being lead to a more serious game. I also expect, based on the fact that he invited me within seconds of my arrival, that I am being led to a nearby game. I am right about the first part and wrong about the second. We traverse three or four courts before we finally get to our destination. I have no idea how this guy saw me. Alas, I’ve no idea how to say, “How did you see me from so far away?”
(This picture on the right is of me guarding the dude with the Derrick Rose kicks. It was taken after a few games, and after this guy had already made me look bad on multiple occasions. Notice I'm face-guarding him even though he (a) just inbounded the ball and (b) the ball is nowhere in sight. I'd had enough...)
I happily peel off my pants, noticing that for the first time in a long time I am actually warm despite being outside. One of the other dudes at the court, the oldest guy, says some stuff to me in a disgruntled voice. Of course I don’t know what he’s saying, and I tell him “I don’t understand,” which has been my go-to phrase for the last six months. (The sentence is, “Ting bu dong,” the literal translation of which is, “Hear no understand.”) Other players hear this and they laugh. This older guy, though, just keeps right on talking. I say “Ting bu dong” again, and he gives a dismissive hiss. He has a grizzled appearance, buzzed hair and is wearing a brown sweatshirt and brown sweatpants. I hope he doesn’t guard me.
We begin playing on the western-most court, which bumps up against a track. There are people jumping and running on the other side of the fence; soon there are people gawking and staring on the other side of the fence. They are apparently baffled by my presence, which is nothing new.
After about 20 minutes a friend of mine, Jonathan (right), shows up too. He is a fellow teacher, and he only lends to the spectacle. He is taller than me, about 6-foot-3, and his shorts reveal a pair of milky white legs. Now, I’m pretty pale, but Jonathan’s legs are like pegs of a picket fence. This, coupled with the fact that he’s the second-tallest person in attendance, intensifies the gazing and swells the audience. At one point when we’re both playing, there is an unbroken row of onlookers on the other side of the fence stretching from the baseline to almost halfcourt. People are conglomerating on our side of the fence, too, lining the left sideline and wrapping around the left corner and along the baseline.
We play for a few hours. Nothing of great significance in terms of basketball. Jonathan gets popped pretty hard in the face by that short dude wearing brown sweats – you know, the one who greeted me so inhospitably. No idea if it was less than totally accidental. And the guy who first invited me to play turns out to be a freaking stud. In one game to five, I am guarding him as he scores the first three points of the game. Nothing I can do.
Aside from that, there are a few interesting linguistic points worth noting. In American basketball, you will often hear the phrase “My bad.” It is a sort of apology and acknowledgement that, yes, I made a mistake. If someone commits a turnover, they may say, “My bad.” If someone isn’t guarding their man, and their man ends up scoring, they may say, “My bad.” If someone takes a stupid shot – and they know it’s a stupid shot – they may say, “My bad.”
Linguistically, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. “Bad,” after all, is an adjective, yet the way the sentence is constructed – My bad. – it should be a noun. My high school coach used to berate us for using the phrase. “Yeah, I know it’s your bad!” he would say with a donut-shaped mouth and squinted eyes. “No shit it’s your bad. Maybe I’ll just start saying, ‘I’m pissed!” How would that be?”
Well, the Jinanese have an equivalent to “My bad” – both in meaning and grammatical unsoundness. Here, when someone commits a turnover or has a brain-lock on defense or botches a shot, they say, “Wo de.” Wo de literally translates to “My.” They use the phrase liberally, just like players in the States say my bad, and they use it for the exact same reasons. It’s interesting that there is a Chinese equivalent to “My bad.” that, just like its American counterpart, makes no literal sense.
There is also an analogous quasi-trash-talking phrase that the Chinese use. In the States, when someone takes a shot that the defender is certain won’t go in, you’ll hear phrases like “Broke!” or “Off!” or, one of my favorites, “Live with that.” – as in, I’ll live with you taking that shot because there isn’t a chance in hell it’s going in. Well, here they say “Mei you,” which is pronounced like mayo, you know, the condiment.
“Mei you” literally means “Don’t have.” If you want a certain dish at a restaurant but they don’t make it, they’ll say “Mei you.” If you are looking for shoes that are slightly bigger than your average Chinese man wears – and this happened to me for about five hours one day – the clerk will say “Mei you.” (It’s not like my feet are gargantuan; I wear 12s. But I had to stop by literally two dozen shoe stores before anyone had my size. And even then I was stuck with these goofy blue-and-silver adidas running shoes. I digress…)
On the basketball court, “Mei you” is something you hear when someone wants to give you a little barb, when someone wants to get inside your head because they are confident that you’ll miss a shot. A few times today opposing players call out “Mei you” while I am shooting, and the first two times they are right: I “don’t have” a bucket. The payoff comes in a particularly tight game with the score knotted 4-4. I shoot a jump shot from the left side, and one of the best players from the other team – the tallest guy on the court; he had to be 6-5 – shouts Mei you! with the ball in the air. The shot slides through the net, and as annoying it is when someone calls that out and you do miss, it is tenfold more satisfying when someone calls that out and you make it.
Finally, “Hao qiu.” Hao, which means good, is pronounced like the first syllable of Yao Ming’s name; qiu is pronounced like – well, I still can’t pronounce it quite right. The word “basketball” is “lan qiu.” Lan is basket, qiu is ball. Hao qiu, then, literally equates to “good ball.” You’ll hear this when someone does anything good – a good shot, a good pass, a good block, a steal, a rebound. Hao qiu! Hao qiu! Hao qiu! It’s a utility term for granting approval.
There really is no American equivalent, at least none that I know of. You’ll hear any number of things on an American court. A good shot could inspire someone to blurt “wet,” as in the ball splashes through the net. If someone gets a steal, you could hear the word “cookies,” as in someone just stole your cookies. Sick and nasty and pure are all other words you hear that seem to translate, at least roughly, to “hao qiu.” I like the ubiquity of hao qiu, how it is so all-encompassing, a true blanket statement. If you hear it enough times in one day, it means you’re doing something right.
I’m not sure how regional all these phrases are. Maybe they’re more Jinanese than Chinese. In his book Oracle Bones, which amounts to a narrative-driven history of China, author Peter Hessler talks about some trash-talking in the south-central province of Sichuan.
In basketball games, if an athlete shot and air ball or made a bad play, the Sichuanese fans chanted yangwei, yangwei, yangwei – impotent, impotent, impotent. After I played basketball with Willy’s classmates, he would often say, in mock earnestness, “I see that you still have a big problem with impotence.”
In a New Yorker article, Hessler added: To encourage the home team, they chant “xiongqi” (“erection”).
I don’t know if hao qiu and wo de and the like are phrases that you’ll here at courts around the country. But I know that they’re phrases you hear here, and phrases that may slip out of my mouth for a while when I get back to the States.