Ballin’ in Chengdu

The summer that my family moved to America was a sleepy one for me. I was 16, mourning the death of Kurt Cobain–as with other things, several years too late–and not too interested in leaving my new apartment home to brace the foreign Maryland humidity. The first and practically only thing that drew me out of the house was that which I often refer to as my first love: basketball. Through it I met my first American friends, African-American teenagers from Ellicott City’s scarce islands of subsidized housing who christened me with a new nickname (“Australia”) and taught me of false threats (“I’ma get my brother to stick you”), sufficiently scaring my parents in the weeks before entering a new school year and the miniature Hobbesian society of high school.

Thus it was that I found myself in search of the nearest basketball court prior to the start of term now, seven years later, in a very new basketball nation. Since the entry of Houston Rockets center Yao Ming into the NBA, the sport’s popularity has exploded in China, to the point where it is now one of the country’s leading sports. Huge billboards of NBA superstars like Paul Pierce tower above Chun Xi Lu, the city’s glistening commercial district. In a growingly affluent society such as China, more attention and money is being directed towards how to spend one’s leisure time. For many young people, the answer seems to be the hugely popular online computer game, World of Warcraft, which is played for hours on end in internet bars across the country. For others, however—and much to this devotee’s glee–their recreation of choice revolves around an orange ball and a hoop, rather than a screen.

The architecture displayed at the University of Electronic and Science Technology loosely resembles that found in “The Jetsons”, an American cartoon about a space age family and their dog, Astro. It makes heavy use of the block shape, right angles, concrete and glass, reinforcing the feeling that students here “will learn to make circuits and boards.” It feels modern in an antiquated way, all linear and deliberate, the fruit of a pragmatist architect’s designs, in perfect alignment with the mode of thinking which I imagine the engineering and science industries often reward. A Chengduer* who showed me around town this week and who graduated from this university was recently admitted to Yale. But most unfortunately, the U.S. government has denied her a visa on the grounds that she can’t prove that she will come back to China following her graduate work, a truly mystifying rationale.

On this particular day, though, America was being brought to the university, by way of a new-in-town English teacher. As I turned the corner on the school track field, I gazed out upon a site which brought tremors of joy, coursing through my capillaries as only true passion can. Before me laid twelve–count ’em!–basketball courts, each one filled with young Chinese men, bumping into and weaving about one another in that familiar chaotic ballet beneath the basket. I could have wept at the sight of so many simultaneous pick-up games. It was a scene ripped straight from the New York blacktops of “White Men Can’t Jump,” except without any of the Black or White people. The players here did, however, retain the inability to jump (high enough to dunk, that is).

I quickly found a game and, luckily enough, some young men whose English could get us by. They play a slightly different style to that of the States. Instead of the usual games to eleven or thirteen, they only play up to four, meaning far shorter games and constantly new opponents. As games often go in streetball, it’s a rather scrappy affair, with a lot of loose balls and changes in possession. There is a refreshing lack of ego on display, in marked contrast to the face-saving braggadocio and testosterone-fueled disputes that too often interrupt streetball in America. Overall, I found the Chinese I played with, clothed in oversized shorts and high-tops or jeans and other street garb, to be quite technically sound; far more so, say, than the African-American youth of my previous neighborhood in Washington, D.C. And where I could get by largely on speed in America, the majority of players here are fast and agile, giving the same primacy to quickness over power that I’ve spent a lifetime building my game around.

With my headband on and shirt off, I felt a bit like George Costanza from Seinfeld, wielding my American beer gut and desire for orderly offensive play amongst these lean, tawny university students. I instinctively shouted warnings–“Pick!”; directives–“Switch!”; and apologies if I missed a jump shot–“My bad!”–not really knowing whether my teammates could understand the strange Chinese guy speaking English. During a lull in play, I tried to teach them a common game called “Twenty One,” but they found it strange and overly complicated. My foreignness, though, particularly having come directly from the mecca of basketball, seemed to impress them, and after years of being silently shunned on the court for my height and ethnicity, I bathed in this new-found respect.

After losing a game and stepping off court, I struck up a conversation with a chap named Lang Jing Jing, an electrical engineering major who was eager to speak English. With his close cropped haircut and lithe athleticism, he wouldn’t have looked out of place on a shoalin kung fu movie set. When I inquired as to his plans post-graduation, he wanted to continue his studies overseas.

“Of course America is the best,” he smiled, humbly.

Like the other Chinese undergraduates I’ve met, Jing reiterated the need to study hard and focus on his studies during the term, leaving less time for activities such as basketball, beginning next Monday. Many of them, it seems, are setting their sites on studying in the West, or have friends who already are. The boyfriend of the Yale matriculate, for example, is studying in Stockholm. My roommate, a rising mathematics major at Sichuan University, scored a 1570 on his GRE.

Possessing clear priorities and clear goals, these students do not have the luxury of existential crisis, super-senioritis, or “Animal House” debauchery of some of their Western counterparts (this one included).

*I’m not sure how locals are referred to, but in place of ‘Chengdunese’ et. al., I’ve gone with ‘Chengduer’, given the added benefit that it provides the wit of the English colloquial verb.

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