April 23, 2010

Rockets, Bulls and Toddlers, I

They are like grade-schoolers who are forbidden from playing at recess because they misbehaved, instead having to sit knowing that other kids get to play.

My morning starts by trying to interview people for a different Web site I publish. The page is devoted to a particular American sports team, and it’s my job to contact people who may have anything interesting to say about said team. I know that is a vague description, but the site is subscription-based, and my subscribers may not take kindly to the fact that they are paying to read a site that is being published by proxy from China. That’s the reason why this blog is anonymous. (If you read my bio and did some Google sleuthing then you could certainly figure out who I am, but I hope to at least make it difficult.)

Thanks to the miracle of phone cards and cell phones, I can call people anywhere in America. It costs about three U.S. dollars – or 20 yuan – for 30 minutes of talking time. I burn through these cards, trying to find scoops or angles that (a) satisfy subscribers, (b) generate more subscribers and (c) cloak from my subscribers the fact that, you know, I’m in China. Thus far I think it’s working.

After about 15 different calls, I finally touch base with someone, talk with him for about 10 minutes and churn out an article. I publish it at about 9 a.m. Monday morning, which is 8 p.m. Sunday night back home.

I return home from a massage and there is a full-court game being played on one of the schoolyard courts; there is a row of spectators lining the sideline. I slow my gait to watch for a minute before going inside. I’m back out in a matter of moments, equipped with my sneakers, notepad and voice recorder, ready to head off to Shandong Normal University.

I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll have to take the cramped and crummy 123 bus to get there, but when I open the front door I see my friend Dave outside the apartment, saddling up on his motorcycle. Dave is an English guy who turned 26 last week. He has a hint of a receding hair line and spikes up the blonde locks that he does have. It looks like his hair is magnetized – pulled skyward by an invisible force. He is a good-looking guy with a sturdy build. He says he used to weigh 14 stones – stones are a British denomination of weight equaling about 18 pounds – which translates to about 250, 255 pounds. A daily ritual of pasting butter on Pop Tarts was the main culprit for him having gotten fat, he says, but having nixed that delicacy from the menu he’s down to a svelte 180, which is just about ideal for his height.

He fires up his bike and, over the sputter of his engine, I ask where he’s going. The culture market, he says, which means my destination, SNU, is on the way. He tells me to hop on. We are a whole lot of man for this bike. There is no real footrest for a second person and only a smidge of a second seat. Thus, we are pretty cozy: my chest pressed against his back, my legs jutting out on either side of his waist, my feet clinging to any part of the footrest I can reach.

I hop off at the intersection closest the university. The ride wasn’t cold, but there is a chill creeping into the air. The sun has become obscured, and I can’t decipher whether it the culprit is smog or clouds. You can still see the yellow sphere up there, but its rays have been reduced to a moon-like glow.

As I approach the courts, I see people perched like gargoyles on the fence lining the indoor courts, just like they were last week for the P.E. exams. There are concrete blocks every 10 feet, separating the green metal rods, and on each of these blocks stands a motionless Chinese dude. They are peering intensely into the hangar, trying to steal a glance of the goings-on, while whistles blow and balls bounce inside.

The outdoor courts beyond the hangar are eerily empty, filled with an unusual and annoying silence. The exams, once again, have taken precedence over all other forms of basketball. The entirety of the playground – the 22 outdoor courts that stretch nearly 200 yards south of the hangar – have again been sacrificed because…well, actually I have no idea why the outdoor courts are cordoned off. The exams are going on inside, the courts are out of earshot of the hangar, and some people obviously want to play. Sure, the guys on the fence seem to be relishing a chance to watch the exams, but there are many more people sitting on the steps of a nearby school building. They are like grade-schoolers who are forbidden from playing at recess because they misbehaved, instead having to sit knowing that other kids get to play.

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