I roar past them on my embarrassingly loud bike, leaving a trail of pungent, almost sour white smoke in my stead. I would love to see the carbon footprint of my motor bike, which is as loud as a racecar but as weak as the 240 yuan piece of junk it is. It burns oil and gas like a Chevy Suburban, and I fear that I will eventually be treated to a dastardly karmic payback – retribution for the oodles of crap I pumped into the air during my year in China. At the very least, I am doing a number on my respiratory system, as well as the lungs of any poor sap who happens to be behind me on the road.
The bike doesn’t have a key, so when I park it next to the courts, I don’t turn it off so much as it just kind of winds down, groans and eventually goes to sleep. It’s like a computer that hasn’t been used for a few minutes, seemingly programmed to recognize when its work it over and react accordingly. Miraculously, it usually starts again when its rest is over.
I traverse the ten feet to the gate, surveying the sparse action on the courts. It’s dead. There is one four-on-four game going, one three-on-three contest and then a few people just sitting around. I make a note of this desolateness and approach a guy who is sitting by himself at the base of a goal. He is resting in the shade with his legs stretched out and his back parked against the green metal pole that loops from the backboard into the ground.
I ask him if I can use his ball by saying, “Keyi bu keyi?” which literally means, “Can no can?” I don’t know if this is proper way to make the inquiry, but he seems to understand and lofts the ball into my waiting hands. I shoot plant-footed 8-footers for a few minutes and then lace up my kicks to take some earnest jump shots. It’s annoying, but I can’t help but think about Kobe Bryant as I’m shooting. The jump-shooting display he put on in the Lakers’ Western Conference-clinching win in Phoenix the other day was otherworldly, stuck in my mind like a great line may get planted in a poet’s mind. I hate Kobe, but when it comes to shooters jumpers, he is probably the best person on the planet to emulate. He is the Hemingway of jump shots: Hemingway was a drunk and by all accounts not a very nice person; Kobe is a pompous, lecherous prick. But my god, they are both good.
Sneakers snugly tightened, I do my best Kobe impersonation, shooting awkward, twisting jump shots just like he does. It strikes me that I’m 24 years-old and still fantasizing that I am a real basketball player, but I keep on going. I shoot by myself for a while before a few other guys who are about 20 years-old join me. We shoot lazily, and I notice that I am instinctively giving them their change when they hit a shot. As I’ve written in the past, the concept of giving someone their change is lost on Chinese players, but, just like it’s ingrained in me to pretend that I’m a famous player when I shoot around, it’s ingrained in me to give dudes their change.
After a few minutes, Wang, the Refreshment Man, hits the scene. He rolls up in what can best be described as a flatbed bike. There is one wheel out in front, like a normal bike, and not one, but two wheels in back, supporting a four-by-four deck. You see these flatbed bikes all over China. Sometimes people load them with recyclable trash; sometimes they’re rolling around with mini-kegs being delivered to a restaurant; sometimes there are people chilling back there. Befitting of his title of Refreshment Man, Wang is hauling a few hundred water bottles, packaged up in cases of 24.
Since we’re not playing a game, and are instead still just shooting around, I grab a buck and waltz over. He spots me as he’s unloading the cases and says, “OK!” Wang is about 50, probably 5-foot-6, and appears to be kind of doughy, like you wouldn’t get much resistance if you gave him a little poke. He is generally wearing a smile, as he is today. I respond with an OK! of my own and ask him for a water. He snares a bottle from his limitless bounty and hands it to me. I thank him in Chinese, to which he replies, “OK!” I turn back to the court and take a hardy gulp, and into my mouth rushes a quenching dose of crisp, clean, hot water.
Back home I would have scoffed at the idea of drinking warm water, especially while playing ball. At the gym that my friends and I most frequented in Kansas City, we used to have a specific water fountain that we’d head to between games. We passed three different fountains on the way to this magic fountain because its supply of H2O seemed to be about 15 degrees cooler than everywhere else. It was one of two fountains set into a wall down the hall from the courts, and there were times when my friends and I would patiently wait in line for this fountain while its twin fountain four inches away sat unused. But again, the colder the better. (I have a theory that, when there are two water fountains side by side, the one that is lower is always colder. Just drink for thought…)
Here, though, there aren’t water fountains. Nor, for that matter, is there cold water. It is one of the things that struck me as odd when I first arrived. But the Chinese are convinced that it’s good for health to drink warm water, and I’ve wholeheartedly bought in. (The Chinese are convinced of other things, as well, that I don’t subscribe to, like that walking backwards is good for your brain. It’s not unusual to see people walking backwards on sidewalks in the early morning. The Chinese are also huge fans of open windows. Even in the dead of winter, I would often walk into my classrooms only to see that my students had thrown the window wide open. As it was explained to me, Chinese people think it’s really bad to have the air in a room stagnate, so they open windows to get things circulating – even if it’s like 25 degrees outside. It’s unclear to me whether or not they think it’s unhealthy to sit in a freezing room. I haven’t, and won’t, buy into that one, nor will you ever find me walking backward.)
But the warm water? I’m hooked, as are the other 1.3 billion people who live here. And whether or not you think they’re legitimate, there are reasons behind the warm water obsession. As a blogger for the Global Times put it:
The abundance of hot water in China is also connected to Chinese medicine. It is better, according to Eastern wisdom, to drink hot water for the sake of digestion, and overall health. Water with ice in it can take longer for the stomach to digest since the body first has to expend energy to heat the water up to body temperature.
Others take it even further:
Some evidence suggests that by drinking hot water, we remove built up deposits in our nervous system. These deposits are responsible for creating negative thoughts and emotions. By removing these build ups, we can help to purify our thoughts and put us in a better emotional state. Drinking hot water can also actually purify the toxins out of your body….
And others take it even further:
Cold water can also in extreme circumstances lead to heart attacks. As we have our meals enzymes and acid secretions start and this process sort of warms up the body. Drinking cold water is like attacking the body with an exactly opposite temperature. Not only does the whole procedure of digestion gets interrupted or slows down, the body can also react in the form of a heart attack. It does not always come after a pain in the right arm or pain in the chest…
That’s not all…
Drinking hot water after meals reduces cancer risk. Let me explain how. Drinking cold water will solidify the oil part of the food we have eaten. This will slow down the digestion process. And when this sludge reacts with the digestive enzymes and acids, it will break down and will start getting absorbed by the intestine faster than the solid food. This lines the intestine. The consequence is that this will turn into fats and lead to cancer. Therefore it is best to drink hot soup or warm water after a meal.
Hot water has even been used as a legal alibi. A suspected thief died in February while being detained by authorities. The family was suspicious of the cause of death, but the police officers insisted that he “died suddenly while drinking hot water.”
I don’t necessarily buy in to these more far-flung reasons for drinking warm water – that it can reduce stress and help thwart cancer. But I do think there is credence to the suggestion that cold water is harder for your body to process because your body must warm it up in order to “use” it. It’s admittedly odd, but even on a day like today, the first day of June with the sun blaring, I don’t want cold water. If Wang had had a bucket filled with ice, and slipped bottles of water in there to make them cold, I would have grabbed one of the non-iced bottle that – like the one he gave me – had been baked by the sun. I’m done with cold water.