April 23, 2010

Rockets, Bulls and Toddlers, II

Toddlers playing ball, stores marketing Battier and Artest, an old-timer with a Bulls hat. I didn’t play a lick of basketball today, but that’s not to say there was no basketball.

Annoyed that no one is playing basketball – or rather, that people are playing basketball but I can’t – I leave the campus and set out to find some blog fodder.After a few minutes’ walk, I spot posters of Ron Artest and Shane Battier, two players who achieved fame here because they played with Yao Ming in Houston; I decide to pop into the store boasting these posters. It’s a Peak sporting goods store, replete with balls and shoes and clothes. It’s like a Nike store, kind of, only instead of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant playing the role of company poster boys, it’s Ron Artest and Shane Battier. I see some Battier shoes and an entire rack of Artest hoodies. The hoodies simply say “Artest” in big, block, capital letters. There is nothing appealing about the shirts at all, but still they cost 269 yuan, or about 40 U.S. dollars. That’s not cheap here.

I mosey back onto the main road. A man is taking a piss to the right against a concrete wall; popping into an alley is apparently too much hassle. After a few minutes I take a right onto a narrow street lined with shops, mostly clothing stores, that would be too narrow for two cars to navigate side-by-side. About 30 strides down that street I see an alley to the right, and about 30 strides down that alley I see a little boy, maybe four years-old, dribbling a basketball.

I walk toward the boy and a small common area – hidden from the road – appears. It is dwarfed on all sides by apartments that rise high into the sky. Children are hanging out; the kid with the ball is far from the only one on hand. They are playing in a variety of ways – toys cars, running around aimlessly, swinging around on the various playground equipment, and of course that basketball. The ball is a regulation-sized one, making it bigger than the heads of any of these kids.

On the far side of the playground, two boys stand on either side of a tree. The tree is shaped like a Y: the trunk runs vertical, and about five feet up there is a clean split in either direction. A game has been concocted – one boy will toss the ball up and try to get it through the gap in the tree. Should it get through, the other one will try to match the feat. Remember, now, that the ball is huge compared to these kids. And the fork in the tree comes at a not insignificant height of five feet. Thus, it is a task to get the ball through the gap, akin in difficulty to a grown person hitting a three-pointer.

They chuck the ball up like this over and over, almost ritualistically. Sometimes the ball will clank off the trunk, never reaching the proper height. Sometimes is will hit one of the branches and bounce between the two like a pinball before being discarded back in the direction it came from. And sometimes, of course, the ball will fall neatly through the gap and land on the other side, at the other boy’s feet, where the process will be repeated.

While I am watching the kids play – as entertained with them as they are with their game – I hear a woman call my name. This is odd. I am a 20-minute bus ride plus a 10-minute walk away from my apartment, so I’m not close to home. Plus, you know, this is China, which owns an uncanny percentage of the world’s popular. Sure, Jinan is no Shanghai (17 million people) or Beijing (13 million) or Guangzou (12 million), but there are still a hell of a lot of people. The population estimate ranges anywhere from two to 6.5 million people, depending on what you take to be the actual boundaries of the city. It’s bigger than anything we have in Kansas, that’s for sure.

Know what? Forget the numbers. I’ll just tell you: it’s crowded. A couple days ago I went to an enormous supermarket and was dodging shoppers left and right, even though there’s enough space in there to play a football game. Sometimes buses are so crowded that people have to drop their money in the slot at the front and then double-back to the rear doors because it’s packed too tight to even get on. Basically, bumping into someone at random in a Chinese city is somewhat rare, especially when, like myself, you don’t know that many people.

But it sounds like that’s exactly what’s happened. I whirl around to my right, where the person said my name, and the mother of one of my students is standing over me. “Hello! I am Tyler’s mother.” I say hi and then turn back to the kids, trying to pick out any I recognize. I have something like 210 students spread over 11 classes, so I’ll forgive myself for not immediately spotting one of them. The mom eventually calls out for Tyler, first in English – which doesn’t evoke a response – and then in Chinese. After she says his Chinese name, Tyler looks over and sees us.

He is in a class called “Fingerprints,” which, depending on how you look at it, is either a money grab by my school or a chance for young kids to get a head start – a huge head start – at learning English. You could call it a money grab because the kids are too young to really retain anything; they hardly speak Chinese. We just wrapped up week four, and they still don’t have a firm grasp on the Q&A sequence of “Who are you?”…“I’m Tyler!” You could claim it’s good, though, because if kids this young are learning English, then by the time they’re teenagers – heck, by the time they’re eight – they will have had years of experience. For better or worse, the class exists, and I teach the eight kids who are enrolled.

The mom beckons Tyler and he scurries over holding a tiny car, one of the ones that you can propel forward by rolling it against the ground and winding up its internal gear. Separated from the other children, I recognize him immediately. He is one of my favorite students in that class. He behaves pretty well and is really cute, one of those little kids who you just want to squeeze sometimes. He has huge eyes that give a curious, inquisitive look, and his voice is gravely and rough. Not low-pitched – just gravely.

He wears a confused look when he reaches us. The mom cues him to say his name, and he spits it out: “I’m Tyler.” He immediately runs away to play, and I talk with his mom for a few minutes. She is about eight inches shorter than me, a pretty woman with long black hair whose only visible defect is the faint outline of black hair lining her upper lip. Her English is spotty, but we can hold a bit of a conversation; she studied in college, she says.

Eventually the conversation turns to my work schedule. This is, after all, Monday afternoon at about 4:00, a day and time when people are generally at work. I tell her that I actually only work on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and her eyes pop open in surprise. With those wide eyes, she looks exactly like Tyler. Not wanting her to think I’m a bum, I tell then that I write on the rest of the days, a fact that seems to impress her.

“You like watching children?” she asks, not knowing the connotations of that statement in America. (At least I hope she doesn’t know.) I change the subject away from work and my affinity for small children and ask about Tyler.

“I want him to learn English,” she says in a labored but serviceable tongue, “and make many friends and go to another country. Like you,” she adds, smiling.

I nod and we both look at Tyler. “Well, Tyler is one of the best students in the class.” She whips her head back toward me and smiles with wide eyes. Whether it the language barrier or selective hearing, the only words she seems to up are “best student.”

“He’s the best student?” she asks proudly, happily.

“Um,” I say, not wanting to dig myself a hole, “he’s very good. Very good.”

We speak for a few more minutes. She looks at her watch and says that they have to go. I say bye to Tyler and they take off.

I immediately reach for my little notebook, which is in my left pocket, to note this conversation. My eyes follow the same path as my hand, shooting to the left as well. There, standing a few feet away, is an old man with what must be his grandson. The man is literally the first thing I see after waving goodbye to Tyler and his mom. His face is leathery, and his skin is blotched with orangish patches. Still, despite his aged and weathered face, he is a stately looking guy. He is wearing all black – black slippers, black pants, black coat and a black baseball hat. The hat has a loud red bill which is perfectly – and I mean perfectly – straight, and sitting atop the bill is the Chicago Bulls logo: a snarling, menacing bull staring back at you, his horns encasing the word “Bulls,” which is stacked just below the word “Chicago.” I make some notes about the chat with Tyler’s mom, but only after an internal chuckle about this dude’s hat.

Less than an hour ago, after I was spurned from playing at the university, I was convinced that this day would be devoid of basketball. But I was wrong. I immediately saw Battier and Artest adorning a store front, and immediately noticed those ugly, overpriced Artest sweatshirts. Then, a few minutes later, I see some little boys playing their own brand of basketball – playing basketball, basically, without actually playing basketball. And then this old man is donning a Chicago Bulls cap, the exact type of cap you could find all over America (save the plank-like bill).

Toddlers playing ball, stores marketing Battier and Artest, an old-timer with a Bulls hat. I didn’t play a lick of basketball today, but that’s not to say there was no basketball.


I talk with Wang later that night. Wang, if you don’t remember, is a guy I met at the tail end of February when I went over to Shandong Normal to play some ball. He spoke a little bit of English and said that he wanted to drink beer with me sometime. But I haven’t spoken with him since we first met and exchanged numbers; I thought I may as well give him a ring and take him up on those beers.

I send him a text message that says: hello! this is david. i played basketball with you last month. we should drink beer if you have free time!

He sent me a text message that simply said: D a v i d

I don’t know what to make of that, but a moment later he calls me.

“Hello,” I answer.

“David! Hello!”

“How are you, Wang?” I ask.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” There is a moment’s pause. “Um, you still watch Chinese people play basketball?”

“Yeah, all the time!” In fact, I was taking a break from writing this blog to call him.

“That’s not interesting! That’s boring!” I laughed. “I miss you. I wish you look at me and you write something funny! Maybe my English is very bad, but maybe I like you. I want to see you. I know your number. I will call you after, uh, 13 or 14 days, you know?” Why 13 or 14 days, I’ve no idea.

It’s funny the way Chinese people sometimes slip in phrases that, in English, carry some unintended meanings. Not to knock them; indeed, Tyler’s mom and Wang both speak English way better than I will ever speak Chinese. But think about some of the things they said today. You like watching little children?...I miss you…I like you. I want to see you. This happens both ways. For a while, I was conveying my lack of Chinese skills with the word sequence “My” + “spoken Chinese” + “is” + “bad.” After a few months of this, I was informed that saying “My Chinese is bad” is akin to saying “My Chinese is vulgar and dirty.” Oh well.

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