Turns out weather reports are wrong here, too. March 4, which was supposed to have a high of around 40 with rain showers, has turned into a February 23 incarnate. I start the morning by watching an online stream of the Kansas Jayhawks versus Kansas State Wildcats game (we’ll miss you, Sherron!), then I write for a few hours, and then I realize that sun is pouring into my room. I go outside and realize that, indeed, it is borderline glorious. It feels like spring, and of course, spring means basketball. So off to the courts I go.
I’m not a stranger to the Shandong Normal University campus. Indeed, I was here yesterday, plus I was here about a half-dozen times last fall, before the sun went on its four-month losing streak. But never before have I been struck by how much the campus – at least parts of it – could pass for an American college campus. There are birds and bikes and brick buildings, plus that intangible feel of the university setting. I’ve always thought that college campuses have a certain aura, kind of like some days of the week have a feel to them. There are few places that I’d rather traipse around than a college campus – and even fewer places I’d rather traipse around than a college campus on one of the first beautiful days of the spring. It’s a day packed with the relief of good weather and the realization that more bad weather surely lies ahead.
As I walk up the slight slope leading to the courts, I can see balls looping along the horizon, making that tell-tale arch en route to the basket. I see them before I hear them and am infused with excitement. I was programmed back in college, when I used to break into the campus dome by my lonesome, to expect to play solo. It was a Pavlovian reaction: I would see a basketball court and anticipate solitude, which isn’t necessarily what I want. But today, people are out. Not in droves, per se, but they are out. I’ll be able to play in a game.
I go left upon crossing the entrance gates and plop my stuff down along the 18-inch-high wall running along the court. I am immediately summoned into a game. We gather round and someone starts spinning the ball, letting the laws of physics dictate who will be on whose team. It’s three-on-three, and I am cast into a game before I’ve had the chance to shoot a single shot.
We’re not keeping score, and I notice immediately that my mind is wandering. This is partly because I have trouble getting into these no-score contests, but also because I am looking around, trying to lay the groundwork in my mind for what exactly I want to do with this Web site. I refuse to let this blog devolve into daily play-by-play recaps of my games with these Chinese people – I went eight-for-10 yesterday! Whoo! There are stories here, I know, and I want to tell them. So because I am not yet warmed up, and because these games where no one keeps score are inherently drab for me, I scan the concrete horizon, probing, letting the various scenes sink in.
Two things stand out over everything else: A pair of bottle ladies, and the guy who is selling water and sports drinks. By “bottle ladies” I essentially mean scavengers – ladies who loiter around the courts and collect the discarded plastic bottles of those playing. Indeed, their livelihood and the little old man who sells the bottles are intrinsically tied together; he starts the cycle by selling bottles, and they complete it by picking them up. Right now the bottle ladies are sitting along the nearby wall, about 20 feet down from where I tossed my bag and jacket. One of them is exceptionally old – or at least looks it. The skin on her face has lost every ounce of its elasticity; her cheeks are droopy and wrinkly. Her eyes are hooded, partially eclipsed by the her sagging eyelids. She has her left hand resting on the knee of the other woman, who appears to be in her 50s but, by comparison, looks like a virtual adolescent.
Every five minutes or so, the two ladies rise and go in different directions on the hunt for empty bottles. At one point while I’m playing, I see the elder one approach a row of three guys sitting by the base of our basket. Her gait is tired. She doesn’t drag her feet, but each step is measured. Her hands are clasped behind her back.
The guys sitting on the baseline obviously know what she wants. They’ve likely seen her do this routine before, and if not, the three plastic bottle she has already retrieved are a tip-off. She extends her hand to one of them in a non-verbal request for his empty bottle, and the kid – he’s probably 20…still a kid in my book – flips it at her, end-over-end, like a punt in football. Though she was standing less than three feet away, the toss falls at her feet, hopelessly short. It’s a startling display of disrespect. First off, he could have waited two seconds until she was close enough to simply hand her the bottle. Or, if he was hell-bent on testing his short-range accuracy, he could have at least tossed it waist-high, you know, so she has a chance of catching it. But no. He throws it at her feet, a kind of Eff you to a little old lady collecting bottles. Who knows, maybe she is a real nuisance. Maybe she is a witch to the guys who play basketball. Maybe. But on the surface, it looked like an able-bodied 20-year-old blatantly disrespecting a partially-feeble old woman.
You can find bottle ladies like this all over China. The nation’s recent surge in consumerism has spurred a recent surge in garbage. And this, in turn, has turned trash and recycling into its own business. According to the Web site Facts and Details, China produces 254 millions tons of garbage every year – about one-third of a kilogram per person, per day. That equates to a third of the world’s annual garbage output; not bad for one country, huh? This garbage comes in all shapes and sizes.
Go to any convenience store, and you’ll see various items wrapped four times over. One of my favorite Chinese treats are these long, straw-shaped cookies that are stuffed with a filling of your choice – chocolate or strawberry or whatever. Well, to get to the cookies themselves, you first must bust open the box. Easy enough. Then, though, you must pierce the inner bag which actually houses the cookies. That’s not all. Once you are inside that bag, you’ll see that each cookie is individually wrapped. So that’s one way the trash piles up here – things are packaged to high heaven.
And not just candy. A restaurant that I frequent brings you chopsticks upon arrival. The chopsticks come inside a glossy paper pouch – to get to the utensils, you have to bust open the pouch. Once inside, you’ll also see a few napkins and a moist towelette; the towelette has its own packaging. And that’s just the chopsticks wrapper. The dining experience also comes with a set of glasses and cups and plates – which are shrink-wrapped in yet more plastic. So each time you go to this restaurant, you consume some chopsticks, some paper packaging, a few napkins, plastic shrink wrap and the moist towelette. These are mundane examples compared to the big stuff – mufflers and tires and furniture – but with 1.3 billion people here, little environmental transgressions quickly become big ones.
One common denominator to each of these billion-plus people is the need for water, which means a good chunk of this garbage comes in the form of plastic bottles. The tap water, after all, is undrinkable, and it’s not like there are water fountains in buildings or at parks to steal a quick drink. Plastic bottles, therefore, are ubiquitous.
On the surface, there appears to be some combination of disdain, apathy and ignorance regarding the gratuitous amount of trash in China; I probably shouldn’t have to dig through three layers of packaging to get to my eating utensils. But there is nonetheless a market for that trash to be turned into profit by men and women – like the ones at the court today – who collect it and sell it to recycling companies. And not just plastic bottles: trash bags, tin, rubber and glass are all also hot commodities on the recycling market.
A New York Times article from 2006 chronicled a group of scavengers from a trash dump near Shanghai. One of the scavengers, 46, whose daughter had recently been admitted to an elite school, told the Times: “We worked really hard as laborers before, doing 12- to 15-hour days for a mere few hundred yuan. You have to work even if you are sick or tired. Here we are working for ourselves, and there is a lot more freedom – four to five hours a day, plus we can earn a lot more.” Another scavenger – “garbage picker,” as the article calls him – was a 23-year-old man who supported his 60-year-old father, solely with proceeds made from collecting recyclable trash at this dump. “Don’t be surprised, it’s normal,” he said.
Scavenging for trash is definitely normal at Shandong Normal, where ladies like these can be seen milling about every day. The eldest of the two has returned from her trash-finding expedition and has again parked herself along the wall lining the court. Her friend is still on the prowl.
A few minutes pass and our game is halted by a cell phone-induced timeout. I drain my own bottle of water and walk over to this lady. I hand her the empty bottle. She looks at me with those droopy eyes, clutches the bottle with two hands, says thank you (“Xie xie!”) and tilts her heads and shoulders in the slightest of bows. I essentially just gave her an iota of money, and she seems grateful.
Meanwhile, that old man is still hocking water and drinks. He is always really nice to me, even though our conversations are confined to my piss-poor Chinese vocab and his even worse English vocab. “OK” and “Hello” are the only words he seems to know, and the fact that today he says “Hello” to me as I am leaving casts doubt on how well he understands even those two words. But he knows these courts. He is here literally every time I am, and he is always smiling, always seeming to enjoy himself.
The bottles on his table are impeccably arranged. There are two different brands of water – one with a red cap, the other blue – and each brand is given two identical rows stretching from front to back. Next to the water are two columns of little bottles of Gatorade, and next to those are two columns of big bottles of Gatorade. Naturally, the Gatorade is color-coordinated.
From what I gather, the bottle ladies and the refreshment stand guy are staples of the courts. They have been here every time I’ve been here dating back to last fall, and they seem integral to the proceedings. Without the bottle ladies, bottles would be strewn about everywhere, blowing around in the breeze and adding yet another health hazard to already dangerous list of elements – potholes, cracks, etc. – that players must negotiate. And without the bottle guy, we would all be thirsty – plus the ladies wouldn’t have anything to do. They are part of the fabric that ties together basketball on the courts of Shandong Normal University.
As for the actual basketball on March 4, there really isn’t much to report on. Unlike yesterday, we never graduate onto games where the score is kept, and save a little hot stretch for me, I don’t play particularly well. But it wasn’t a fruitless outing. I took another step toward demystifying my presence at SNU, plus between the bottle ladies and refreshment guy I have a more than a few questions to ask.