May 13, 2010

Over Construction

Every now and then, the deafening machines churned in unison, forming a percussive sound not unlike a drum-line playing between snaps at a college football game. The rest of the time they just sound like a pair of jackhammers.

I shoot a text message to Li, who you may remember from this post entitles “A New Court.” In my phone, Li is saved as “Li Ball,” not to be mistaken for Li Bin, a fat-Buddha look-alike who I met at a nearby restaurant the other day and who insisted I take his number even though he speaks about eight words of English. According to Wikipedia, Li is one of the three most common surnames in Mainland China, along with Wang and Zhang. There is one Wang in my phone, who I met on playing ball in late February. Of the four Chinese people who I have in my phonebook – and who are listed under their Chinese names – two are named Li and one is Wang. The other is Lin.

It’s been a few weeks since I played ball with Li and his friends on that uncannily nice court. Sure, uncannily nice is a relative term – the rim was a little low and the court was dustier than an old photo album. After each dribble you can see a tan-colored cloud creep up like water that has been displaced by a rock. It will linger, float for a moment, and then find a new resting spot amid Jinan’s limitless housing options for dust. Still, it’s the best court I’ve played on in Jinan. Noticing the devolution in what I consider a good court has convinced me that when I get back to the States and step on an indoor court with wood floors and a nice ball, it’ll be like someone just handed a major league slugger a metal bat.

Li was adamant when we first met that he wanted to foster a friendship – at least a basketball friendship. He told me that they played on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and that he wanted me to join them in the future. So last night, a Wednesday, I shot him a text.

Hello Li! This is [anonymous blogger]. I played basketball with you last month. I want to play with you again. When do you play?

That’s not the verbiage I would have used had I been texting someone back home; probably would have left out the “play with you” part and dazzled the last sentence up to at least a third-grade level. But Li’s English was a little spotty – better than about 99 percent of the people in Jinan, but spotty.

He responded that he was sorry to have not contacted me sooner, but that he had been out of town for the past 10 days for a taekwondo competition. He then said that he would be playing the next day and that I should come by. They were starting, he said, at four o’clock. So today, Thursday, as I’m lazily getting dressed at four o’clock, Li gives me a call.

“Hello, [anonymous blogger].”

“Li! How are you?”

“Yes, are you playing basketball?” I can hear basketballs pattering in the background.

“Yes, yes. I am sorry I’m late. I will be there in five or 10 minutes.”

“You’ll be here in five minutes?”

“Yes, five minutes.”

I change in a rush, throw on my increasingly nasty basketball shoes, race outside and fire up my recently-purchased motor bike. (I will, for now at least, resist the urge to rant about the motor bike. This picture of me with my baby outside of a hot-pot restaurant will have to suffice. She's pretty, isn't she?)

On the three-minute ride to the court – it would have been about a 15 minute walk – I think about how I first met Li. After all, I hadn’t set out to play at Li’s apartment complex the day of our inaugural game. Instead, I was heading for a nearby university, a university that I never found. The culprit for my not finding the university was the fact that my directions were: Look for the construction. And telling someone to look for the construction in China is like telling someone to look for the barbeque grill at a Kansas City Chiefs tailgate. The constant noise, the oppressive pollution, the ever-growing economy – construction is at least partly responsible for all of it.

The construction-fueled metamorphosis in Jinan – and across China – is constant, moving at a pace that easily laps the changing of the seasons. More often than trees shed leaves and leaves change colors, streets shed occupants and store fronts change facades. Every week buildings and restaurants and stores disappear, and every week buildings and restaurant and stores appear in their stead. All of this stuff, of course, must be constructed.

When people think of construction in China, the first image they conjure is probably that of a huge factory churning out plumes of smoke and soot, or maybe of a crane-dotted skyline. Those aren’t off-base images of industry in China. If I mosey four minutes up the nearest main road, I am afforded a view of a pair of enormous smoke stacks in the distance puffing out egregious amounts of smoke and god-knows-what. And I don’t even need to so much as turn the corner to see a crane; they’re across the street. Such scenes pervade China, and a great deal of China’s much-publicized pollution issues are indeed tied to factories with mountain-sized smokestacks and large-scale construction mandating a fleet of cranes. (Jinan, by the way, is no slouch when it comes to pollution. This site, for one, ranks Jinan the 11th most polluted city in the world. If we focus and pollute like we’re capable of polluting, I’m sure we could break the Top 10!)

But China’s burgeoning economy isn’t fueled simply by its industrial factories and crane-requiring mega-projects. Small-scale construction reigns. From

With large scale stimulus plan[s], enormous investment in the infrastructure construction, and with the support of the aggressive fiscal and financial polices, the fixed asset investment increased by over 30% in 2009, and GDP 8.3% in China, meeting the GDP growth rate of 8% set by the authorities for 2009.

In light of these, the Chinese construction industry continues its fast growth, which helped make the Chinese construction market the most active one in the world, and brings enormous business opportunities for companies, domestic and abroad.

These construction markets are active indeed, and proof is easy to come by. The front gate of my apartment – which doubles as the front gate for the neighboring school – is eyed by a security guard who mans the post like a sentry. When I arrived in Jinan last September, the finishing touches were just being put on a little hut for the three-man rotation of guardsmen, who take turns at the entryway. Well, in December they tore down that hut and built him a new one; in March they tore down that hut and built him a new one. Three little outposts for the guards, all within the span of about eight months. The road that leads pasts the guard was also recently repaved – for the second time since my arrival.

Construction abounds beyond that gate as well. The main road was for weeks lined with gargantuan concrete cylinders, presumably some sort of underground piping, along with the behemoth equipment required to move such piping – huge yellow, mud-caked monsters that wouldn’t register a bump if anything from a ball to a person happened to get pinned under their tracks.

That same road used to house a popular bus for us foreign teachers – the old 103. Fortuitously, the 103 route happened to go past both of the schools at which my coworkers and I worked. Alas, its route has since been altered because the path is being ripped to shreds…by construction. And the bus that we’ve been relegated to instead – the 102 – goes past a true construction abomination: a blocks-long stretch of cranes and dust and screeching metal and a cohort of workers. The construction orgy is taking place behind big billboards designed to disguise the carnage with elaborate mockups of what the construction is ultimately supposed to resemble. According to those billboards, it will one day be the site of a slew of shops and restaurants ands swank apartments. Right now, it’s dust and metals and workers.

It’s hard to quantify the construction; I have no good statistics. But I’m telling you, it never stops. Last night I went to bed at 11 to the groan of two jackhammers that were ripping up a nearby lot. (The lot, by the way, was paved about three months ago.) Every now and then, the deafening machines churned in unison, forming a percussive sound not unlike a drum-line playing between snaps at a college football game. The rest of the time they just sound like a pair of jackhammers.

You can’t escape construction here, yet that was my landmark for the university – Look for the construction. I missed it, of course, and ended up finding Li Ball instead.

I’m not looking for the construction today. No, I’m looking for that one-way street – manned by a security guard just like the one at out apartment – that runs along Li’s basketball court. I get there at about 10 past four, and they are already playing. I park my bike along the fence sitting 10 feet east of the court; the court itself runs east-west.

A lush-red China flag is blowing authoritatively out of bounds, along the left sideline at halfcourt. Call me un-American, but I’ve taken a liking to the Chinese flag. It’s simple, stately – blood red with five gold stars. In China, red is synonymous with luck and happiness, and there is something to be said for a flag that pays homage intangible things like luck and happiness and not just government and history. Of course, red is also the color of communism, and I’m not so hot on the suppression of free speech and all the other things that the China flag represents. This site, after all, can’t be viewed (or authored) from China without the aid of proxy servers. Still, there are worse things to have as scenery than that powerful Chinese flag.

Though I am the ninth guy, they immediately invite to play. I feel awkward destroying the symmetry of the game like this, but they don’t seem to care that the teams aren’t matched. Plus one guy leaves after about five minutes, so my presence doesn’t hurt.

As with the last time I played here, I find myself ambivalent about the score. Keeping score was of paramount concern for me in the U.S., whether I was playing at a gym, with friends, wherever. But playing ball in China has had an erosive effect (or is it a healing effect?) on my concern with keeping score. The games we play are to 10; five is the norm at Shandong Normal University, but with no one waiting on the sidelines, playing longer games is fine. Li is invariably the authority when it comes to the score. That would have been me back home.

Nothing all that noteworthy happens on the court. At one point I hit back-to-back turnaround fadeaways – a shot that would be nearly impossible on the SNU hoops – that prompt a chorus of Hao Chiu!s. Beyond that, nothing too great. Li tells me after we finish that he is again going out of town – more taekwondo – and that there might not be games here for a couple weeks. This solidified my previous suspicion that Li is something of a ringleader on these courts, that his organizational presence is required to make sure things run properly. If that is indeed the case, then I seem to have gotten in good with the head honcho.

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