April 19, 2010

Schoolyard Ball, I

The basketball hoops almost redeem the fact that we live where we do – you know, with expletives carved in the building and fires out back.

I live in an apartment full of foreign teachers. There are four floors, four rooms per floor, two teachers per room. It is essentially a dorm, which is fine by me. I like the dorm setting. There is a certain vibe, a certain camaraderie to a dorm, even if the residents here are a little older than those residing in your average college dorm. (Most of us are about 24, with a trio of stray 45-plus-year-olds.)

Our apartment block is pretty standard for Jinan. It’s ugly from the outside, the windows are caked with the omnipresent dirt, and the views are nasty. My kitchen window, for instance, offers a lovely panoramic of a decrepit, vacant lot. And the view from my bedroom is of a nondescript, communist-style high-rise; it looks like countless others. Pretty drab, pretty boring, pretty normal.

What’s not normal about our locale is where the actual apartment is located: we are situated in a schoolyard. The school, as it was described to me, is a boarding school, and the students who go there live in an apartment building about 50 yards from ours. If you walk out our front door, the school itself is on the immediate right, and the kids’ living quarters are off to the left. The whole complex is shaped like a horseshoe: the north side is their school; our abode blocks of the east side; to the south is student housing; the west side is an open lot. That lot sprawls for a bit until it is traversed by a highway, which is a good football field from our apartment. A detestable stream lies just on our side of the highway, often emitting a smell that removes all doubt as to what flows through it.

We are constantly in close proximity to the children attending the boarding school. The best word I’ve heard to describe our relationship is “antagonistic.” Most of the kids are between 14 and 16, which, if memory serves, is a hellion age. At my middle school, the frequency with which kids were sent to the office for unruly behavior spiked at about age 14; that disobedience arc seems to transcend continents. And if I recall, 16 wasn’t all that much better – the major difference being we had licenses.

Immaturity reigns. The outside of our apartment was recently tagged with the word “Fuck,” which was carved deep into the plaster wall next to the front door. You can also find that word scribbled on a piece of paper that adorns the door. I’ve no proof that it was schoolchildren who are responsible for this, but I’ve no doubt either. In addition, the kids are prone to scurrying around and smoking cigarettes and engaging in other chicanery in the narrow alley immediately behind our building. About 10 days ago I stumbled outside at 8 p.m. to see a handful of teenage boys darting this way and that; that’s nothing unusual. What was unusual, however, was the faint orange glow I could see reflected off of an adjacent wall. Either they were holding some sort of séance, and the colors dancing on the wall were the spirits of relatives past, or there was a fire; the latter was true. For some reason, they thought it’d be fun to set a dresser on fire. Where they got a dresser – and why they wanted to set it on fire – is beyond me. All I know is that there was a healthy batch of flames before they got things under control (with fire extinguishers that I provided).

What’s more, with their three-story school building bumping up against our apartment, there is nary an instance when one of us teachers opens the door and doesn’t see a handful of them – usually more – milling about. There is a balcony attached to the school that faces the interior of our cohabited quad, and from that balcony the children often bark down at us as we walk past. “Halloo!!!” they’ll shout – never to our face, invariably behind our backs. Now, I’m a big fan of random hellos. Growing up in the big-on-hospitality Midwest programmed me to enjoy the I-don’t-know-but-I’ll-say-it-anyway “Hello!” It’s a kind, simple gesture that makes mundane everyday interactions more enjoyable. But believe me, these kids aren’t saying it to be hospitable. It’s a joke to them, the way someone at a zoo may yell at an animal, complete with post-yell snickering and laughing. We are all foreigners, and they are all at an awkward, disobedient age. It’s a crummy combination.

Stuff like this – carving swear words into our home, setting fires behind the apartment, mockingly yelling hello – has made us pretty bitter toward the boys and girls who attend this school. (To be fair, the girls seem to behave much better, but who knows, maybe that’s their penmanship on the door.) Most teachers resent these kids and most of us aren’t friendly to them, which in turn seems to perpetuate their dislike for us. It’s a cycle: they annoy us, we aren’t friendly, they are invigorated to do more annoying stuff, we’re even less friendly. This is perpetuated over and over for the duration of our six-month contracts, and then repeated with the next batch of teachers. We don’t get along. Having these kids around is indisputably the biggest pitfall of our dorm. (That, and there’s no hot water in the faucets. Lame.)

There is, however, one good thing about our shared occupancy: the four basketball courts resting in the middle of the horseshoe. Like any Chinese schoolyard – and I live, basically, within the boundaries of a Chinese schoolyard – there are basketball courts. You will be hard-pressed to find a schoolyard in China, or at least Jinan, that doesn’t have basketball goals sprouting through the concrete. And in our little quad, you will be hard-pressed to find a time of day when there aren’t kids shooting on those baskets.

The basketball hoops almost redeem the fact that we live where we do – you know, with expletives carved in the building and fires out back. The hoops are always there, always inviting. There were a few nights this winter when I took a ball out there late at night and shot by my lonesome. More often than not I wasn’t alone for very long, for the kids’ apartment spans the length of the courts. They can easily hear if there is a ball bouncing around, and a few of them would emerge from the apartment’s front door, like stray ants coming out of the ground. They would hesitantly approach me, and before long snag one of my rebounds and help themselves to a shot. Then several more.

On one particularly frigid night, thinking I’d certainly be by myself, I took a bottle of cheap, foul-tasting Chinese brandy down to the courts. I had everything I needed for a decent time: brandy, a ball and four layers of clothes. I took a long pull off the brandy before I stepped onto the court and set it down along the left sideline, there for me like a bottle of Gatorade should I need lubrication. I started shooting around, and in mere moments those ants – er, kids – came crawling out. First it was two, then two more. Before I knew it, I was playing in a three-on-three game under the dim glow of the streetlight-like lamps that surround the court. I realized a few minutes into the game that my big bottle of brandy lay easily within site of the court. The temperature continued to drop, but I was warmed up by the game-action and by the spirits. We played for a long while – these kids who us teachers by and large detest, and this teacher for whom these kids seem to have zero respect. It was fun, a reprieve from our normally animosity-soaked interactions.

The kids had a hiatus for about a month during the Chinese Spring Festival, which is in mid-February. But they came back a few weeks ago, at the outset of March, and our contentious relationship picked up where it left off.

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