May 26, 2010

No South Paws in the Far East

There are any number of things that induce giggle-fits from the young’uns I teach. For instance, they invariably get a kick out of it when I stroll into class with coffee, which is a relatively recent addition to China’s beverage market (but a long-standing staple of my diet). And there is a virtual riot whenever we play a game and one of the teams’ point totals lands on 250, or “er bai wu.” In China, er bai wu is akin to an insult, derived (apparently) from ancient China when strings of currency were always lumped 500 at a time. Therefore, if you are er bai wu, you are essentially half a person. It’d be like calling someone an idiot.

Another teacher, who happens to be left-handed, told me that her left-handedness is nothing less than a point of amazement in her classrooms. When she wrote her name on the board on the first day of the term, the kids in each of her classes flipped. At first she didn’t understand what was so funny. Was it her handwriting? Was there something stuck to the back of her pants? But when she asked, she was told that it was simply the fact that she’s left-handed. Because in China, there aren’t lefties.

Well, that’s only partially true. Genetically speaking, there are indeed lefties. Roughly 11 percent of human beings are left-handed, whether they’re born in China or America or Cambodia or wherever. Thus, there are roughly 130 million people here who are technically left-handed. But if a child has a physical preference toward being left-handed, then they are trained from a young age to spurn that tendency and use their right hand, which, in China, is the right hand to use.

The blogger Ben Ross rehashed a conversation that he had with a Chinese-born gentleman who had moved to America.

…When the conversation turned to culture shock, I asked him what he thought was the strangest thing he saw when he first came to the US.

“Left handed people,” he replied without any hesitation.

“You don’t have left-handed people in China?” I inquired, making sure I hadn’t mistranslated his words.

“Nope, I had never seen anybody write with their left hand until I came to the US” he said.

“How is that possible?” I asked, “Isn’t that genetic?”

“Maybe so, but in China kids are all taught to write with their right hands. If they pick up a pencil with their left hand, the teacher will put it in their right. It’s really just a matter of practicality. In the US, you have left-handed desks, left-handed guitars, and all sorts of other left-handed devices, but in China we have none of the sort. It works out better that way I think, no need to manufacture two different kinds of something when only one is necessary.”

His story is corroborated by Wikipedia:

In ancient China, the left has been the “bad” side. The adjective "left" (Chinese character: , Mandarin: zuǒ) means “improper” or “out of accord”. For instance, the phrase “left path” (左道, Mandarin: zuǒdao) stands for illegal or immoral means. The character for “left”, depicts a left hand attending to work. In contrast, the character for “right”, (Mandarin: yòu) depicts a right hand in relation to the mouth, suggesting the act of eating.

One more anecdote, from the China Economics Blog:

One game that some colleagues and I play when undertaking 3 hour exam invigilations in the UK is to count the number of left handed students. When there are 100 students you usually end up with around 10%. This has been fairly consistent over the years.

Imagine my surprise therefore to hear that there are no left handed people in China.

Of course, there is nary a better manifestation of one’s preferred hand than the jump shot. After all, the jump shot – or at least the act of shooting, be it a free throw or set shot – is basketball’s intrinsic act. There is nothing like it in any other sport, and you can only do it with your strong hand. There are a lot of things in sports that you can do with either hand. In football, you can (and should) tote the ball with both hands, and on defense, tackling is a full-body endeavor. In baseball, many players can switch hit. And save moments when players wind up for slap shots, I can’t tell what’s going in hockey. Sure, you can do things with both hands in basketball, like dribbling and passing. But you can’t shoot a jumper with both hands. 

Like most of the Chinese, I play with my right hand. Unlike the Chinese, I sport Zack Greinke T-shirt jerseys and Florida State basketball shorts.

I’m thinking about handedness while I watch Game 4 of the Western Conference semis between the Lakers and Suns. Of the 10 starters, there is one lefty, Lakers point guard Derek Fisher, who has a ceiling-scraping jump shot that flies so high out of his left hand that it seems there is no way it could possibly find the net. (All too often, it does.) Thus, the starting lineups are reflective of the general population – exactly 10 percent are left-handed.

The percentage is exceeded, however, when the backups spell the starters. Off the Lakers bench comes Lamar Odom, a lefty, and the Suns send left-handed Yugoslavian Goran Dragic in for Steve Nash. All told, 19 players play in Game 4, and three of them – or about 16 percent – are left-handed. 

Nineteen is a pretty small sample size, though, so let’s look at the Eastern Conference Finals as well. In Game 4 of the dud series between Orlando and Boston, not one of the 20 players who took the court was left-handed – or, none of them played left-handed. One of them, though, Dwight Howard, was actually born left-handed. From his Web site:

A lot of people don’t know it, but when I was growing up I was totally left-handed. I wrote left-handed, held a fork left-handed and shot the ball left-handed.

But when I was in the eighth grade I tried to dunk on a guy and he undercut me and I landed on my left hand and broke my left wrist. After that, I taught myself to write with my right hand, eat right-handed and shoot the basketball with my right hand.

(Unfortunately for Orlando, he never figured out how to shoot a free throw with his right hand; he’s a 59.9 percent career free throw shooter. He missed five free throws in each of the first two games of the Boston series, and the Magic lost by three in each game.)

If you include Howard as a lefty, then four of the 39 players who played in each series’ respective Game 4s were left-handed. That’s 10.25 percent, or almost exactly the same percentage as the general population. I reckon that this percentage holds up on courts all over America. I can’t say for sure because I was never scrapping for things to blog about in America (and therefore never studying which hand people were using to loft shots at the goal). But I think one out of 10 seems about right. I know my intramural team in college had one lefty. I know that the gym I used to frequent in Kansas City boasted the occasional lefty, and I know that the Kansas Jayhawks had one lefty last season (Xavier Henry). I never kept tabs on this back in States, but I would say that, as is the case in the NBA playoffs, about 10 percent of U.S. ballers I played with were left-handed. 

This kid in Beijing shot right-handed, even if he shot on monkey bars and not a basket.

I want to keep tabs this afternoon, however, so I set out for a little anthropological study. I dart over to Shandong Normal at about 4:30, fighting rush hour traffic on my crummy little motor bike all the while. It takes little more than a single taxi ride in China to realize that drivers here are crazy, at least crazy in sense that they operate with inches the way drivers in the States operate with feet. If you planted an American driver behind the wheel in a Chinese city (myself included), they’d get in a wreck within minutes. Conversely, if you put a Chinese driver in American suburb, they might go crazy because there isn’t enough traffic. I knew that traffic here was bonkers the moment I left the Beijing airport. But until I got my motor bike, I didn’t realize exactly how crazy it was; now it is up-close. And because my bike doesn’t really have breaks – I keep an old pair of shoes in the basket and an angel on my shoulder – it’s all the more precarious. If this blog ever suddenly ceases, Chinese traffic may be the culprit.

The girls play right-handed, too.

Anyway, I make it to Shandong Normal easily enough. There is a huge gaggle of people watching a women’s basketball game being held on one of the courts nearest the front gate. I have never seen women play full-court games in China, let alone witnessed an all-girl duel with spectators lining the sidelines making all sorts of noise, so this is unusual. (There will likely be a post devoted to women’s basketball at a future date…) But I’m not worried about the sex of the players, just the hand they’re using to shoot. And which one was it? Right, right, right. There are a few of them who are savvy with their left-handed dribble, but no one is shooting left-handed.

I then move on to the other courts, occupied by guys, to take in some half-court four-on-four games. I mosey around for about 25 minutes – not trying to get into a game, not seeking out English speakers, just watching for those hands. Over the course of my nearly half-hour of watching jump shots, I see one guy shoot left-handed. One. I don’t know exactly many people I saw shoot, but I know that, between the ladies and the guys, I saw at least 50 or 60 people heave shots, and one was left-handed. Definitely not 10 or 11 percent. 

The one lefty!
After I do my highly unscientific research at Shandong Normal, I ride back home to play with a friend who recently got back from a jaunt to Qingdao. We walk to the courts that we share with our annoying co-habitants from the boarding school, passing a pair of four-on-four games. (There are no lefties.)

Within moments, a hoard of kids comes over and asks us to play. We begrudgingly comply, and proceed to play our own four-on-four games. This adds eight more people to the sample size, and no one is left-handed. That makes it close to 60 or 70 different people who I have seen launch shots today, and only one is left-handed. There must be more left-handed people than this one guy.

I’ll keep an eye out for more lefties in the future, but the early returns are that there aren’t a lot of lefties. But hey, that’s all right.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stats about lefties. Being one myself, I guess I never knew that only ~11% of us are that way. For what it is worth, four of my nine players on our youth basketball team were lefties. Three of them were guards. I think lefties have an advantage, especially in youth hoops because defenders just aren't used to guarding their strong hand.