My girlfriend, who is English, has prepared a series of questions with which I will interview people at the basketball courts. This is her way of being a doll and practicing Chinese at the same time. She translated some queries into Chinese characters as well as pinyin, which is a way of writing Chinese characters with English letters. Pinyin literally means “spelling sound” or “spelled sound” (according to Wikipedia), and it is the best way for Westerns like myself to see the phonetic pronunciation of Chinese words. (After all, Chinese characters still look more like doodles than words to me.)
Because I will have no idea what my interviewees are saying, I grab my digital voice recorder so I can simply record their answers. This, too, will be turned into a Chinese learning tool by my girlfriend: she’ll listen to the recording and, with her tutor, transcribe what’s being said. It’s a bastardized way to give an interview – little chance for follow-up questions because there is little chance that the interviewer will know what answers are being given. But it’s better than nothing.
This will be one of the first times I’ve used my voice recorder in China, and I decide to empty the memory bank. There are about a dozen different tracks, and I cull through them one by one and hit the ERASE button, compulsively listening to the opening moments of each interview to make sure it’s nothing of great import. Hearing the interviews on there is like traveling back in time to my freelancing-until-I-can-get-a-job days, writing anything the Kansas City Star would let me. There is an interview with a Kansas City area boxer; an interview with a local amateur female golfer; a post-game interview with an area high school basketball coach. It’s a bit depressing to listen to, thinking about how hard I worked, and how the payoff is this: preparing to record the unintelligible ramblings of Chinese people who I will interview by pointing to a series of characters and muttering pinyin that my girlfriend wrote out. Shudder.
Voice recorder in hand, I leave for SNU at about 2:15 and plod onto the 123 bus, forced to stand for all but the final few minutes of the ride. Only after I snag the seat of a departed Chinese guy do I have a chance to glance out the window and survey the day transpiring outside. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, one in a string of increasingly spring-like days. I see a plastic bag floating in the sky before realizing that it’s not a plastic bag at all, but instead the hook of a towering crane being lowered behind a building in the distance. Am I going crazy? Mistaking cranes for plastic bags, mistaking one form of pollution for another? OK, maybe it’s only gorgeous in the relative sense.
It’s been almost a week since I last played. That day, I rode by bike to Shandong Normal and left it locked near the entrance. The bike is a P.O.S. model with one semi-functioning break and a pair of pedals that jut inward at awkward angles, forcing my feet to slip off the over and over. I spent 150 RMB on the bike – about 20 U.S. dollars – and even that was too much for this heap of junk; within days it started to fall apart. After a particularly haggard ride to the university last week, there was no way I was riding it back. So I ditched it, locked, in a conspicuous location, knowing full well it might not be there when I went back next. Indeed, it’s gone.
I am unfazed by this revelation and proceed to walk to the courts. There are four lines of people – two rows of boys, two of girls – doing some sort of martial arts-style stretching in front of the Mao statue. The girls are wearing red karate-ish outfits, the boys black, and it reeks of China: some sort of kung fu warm-up in front of a statue of Mao Zedong. Even after eight months here I am not immune to thinking stuff like this is intriguing and a little bit funny.
Immediately after passing that scene, a guy emerges on the sidewalk to my right, zealously beating a basketball into the ground. He takes a few dribbles around an imaginary defender and then goes in for a layup on an imaginary goal, finger-rolling the ball into a basket that doesn’t exist. A moment later, another guy is pounding a ball on a nearby sidewalk. He is walking backwards and dribbling, carrying on a conversation with what appears to be his girlfriend. Then the third, fourth and fifth guys with basketballs appear. Basketball is in the air.
But as I approach the courts, there is no one is playing; each of the 22 courts are empty, the gate is clamped shut with a pair of bike locks. I pass five people on the way to the courts who were either dribbling or cradling balls, yet there is not a soul playing. I don’t get it.
After a moment, I here balls bouncing – but not on the outdoor courts. The thumping is coming from the four indoor courts at the north end of the facility. The indoor courts are housed in what can best be described as a hangar; a World War II prop plane could seemingly roll out at any time. The courts are protected from rain and, for the most part, wind. I have been inside the structure once. Each of the eight goals dotting the four courts has a net, and the ground isn’t quite as rustic as the outdoor courts. That’s not to say it’s some nicely polished wood, but it’s not straight concrete – a composite of some sort. The stares I got while I was in there hinted that I should stick to the outdoor courts, so I did.
Well, that hangar/fieldhouse thing is where people are playing today. Not on the myriad empty courts where we usually play. I am thoroughly baffled. I set down my backpack and sit on a ledge next to the outdoor entrance and look around. More and more people are walking around with basketballs, dribbling them and cradling them, but not playing with them. What gives?
I attempt to find out, turning to a group of guys who are probably about 30 years-old. “Why no people?” I ask in Chinese, gesturing to the barren courts. “Why no basketball?”
They look at each other in silence and then mumble some stuff I can’t decipher. About 10 seconds of dead time ensue before they say anything to me. One of them then proceeds to answer my question, and I silently flip on my voice recorder. The thing is incredibly sensitive, so I don’t need to hold it in front of the guy’s face while he talks. It’s down by my side, inconspicuous and unnoticed.
“Exam,” one of them says. There is no confidence in his voice when he says, “Exam.” He seems worried that he’s going to botch it; he doesn’t. I nod gratefully. “Exam,” I repeat.
The group again yaks it up amongst themselves before turning to me. “Are you from England,” one of them says in English, slowly and deliberately.
“America!” I shoot back in Chinese, inducing a chorus of laughs. Saying “America” in Chinese is essentially my go-to joke. It is good for a smile – if not out-and-out laughter – every time. Seeing that they know the “Are you from X?” sentence structure, I ask him if he is from China. More laughs.