Springtime in Brazil

For my first party in China I could think of no better theme than Springtime in Brazil, whose Chinese phoneticization is “Brah-see.” The country’s national colors, green and gold, are identical to those of my native Australia, and it’s often a nation and culture that I perceive (in no doubt “grass is greener” fashion) to be one of the most diametrically different to the traditionally Chinese one which I am surrounded by on a daily basis.

Though the main purpose of the party was to eschew, for the evening at least, the most depressing elements of our descent into chilly, dark Winter, it was obvious that such escape was impossible for a number of invitees. Through a combination of late notice school exams–Chinese universities hold classes and exams seven days a week–and the universal immobilizing power of the flu, the lead-up to the party was a series of apologetic text messages withdrawing their sender’s attendance.

Upon arriving, my first Chinese guests educated me on Partying in Chengdu 101:

“Why do you start so late? 9pm is when most parties in China finish!”

I had neglected to consider that, in making the metaphysical leap from our physical bounds within the cold valley basin of Sichuan to the tropical climes and visions of endless Brazilian smooth-limbed dancing, one should always consider the limitations of cultural practices. This was not to be, I begrudgingly acknowledged, some sweat-fuelled, pill-popping baile funky Sao Paolo favela rave. Indeed this is, most certainly, still a country composed largely of Confucian conservatism, industrious competition and early bed times, as much as one might like to pretend–even for just one evening–that it is one of fetishized luxurious sensuality, Afro-Latin rhythm and unbridled joie d’vivre. My neighbors, who appear to favor Imperial China-period TV dramas, would likewise disapprove.

I had made a trip out to He Hua Shi (Water Flower Market) with Ypsilanti that morning, to scrounge up the cheapest party decorations in Chengdu. The market was, by Chinese standards, not overly crowded, it’s narrow collection of stalls selling a fantastically colorful, tacky mix of low quality goods–plastic, paper and otherwise. When buying Christmas lights from an outdoor stall, we followed the trader into a nearby warehouse-cum-market, whose power outlet served as tangible proof of the lights’ efficacy. Unfortunately, the only fake palm tree I could find was far too expensive, standing a good 8 feet high on the wall. Still, with successfully bargained carnival masks, green and yellow lanterns, green and yellow butterflies, and green and yellow streamers, preparations dictated that it was to be a most color coordinated affair.

After settling in over some oranges, an excellent icebreaker not utilized enough at parties these days, we played a Sinocized version of a popular American card game called “Kings,” inserting Mandarin for English. The purpose of the game, in essence, is to make up as many and as confusing an assortment of rules that force players to drink. On this occasion, our libations of choice were pineapple beer (which is light and delicious) and the less palatable bai jiu, along with a bottle of “Kangaroo Ridge” Australian hong putao jiu (red wine) I’d picked up at a Japanese grocer named Isetan, which stocks foreign products as essential as cheese and as yearned for as tim tams.

We then cleared the way for some real dancing to begin. Salsa, merengue, tango…seemingly as many ubiquitously Latin (but not Brazilian) dance styles as we foreigners could hope to demonstrate were attempted. It’s a lot to consider, given we’d already given brief guides to hip hop and rock music dancing earlier in the evening, but our Chinese contingent proved game participants. Matthew and I have both practiced Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, and we offered a brief demonstration roda, whose briefness didn’t stop me from feeling the ill effects of such unrehearsed exertions in my muscles shortly after.

As the evening wound on, the party turned into a sing-along/variety show of sorts. We sung English pop songs by U2, the Beatles and, this being China, the obligatory “Country Roads” by John Denver. But we were surprised to hear a request for a classic rock favorite from Cecelia, a Facebook friend from Yunnan and English major at Southwest University for Minorities:

“Do you know ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ by Avril Lavigne?” she asked.

We did, but the irony, of course, is that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, unforgettably covered by Guns N’ Roses, is a song originally by Bob Dylan. However, just like Britney Spears’ cover of The Arrow’s “I Love Rock N’ Roll”–which, in turn, was most famously covered by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts–such essential pop culture history, seemingly as critical cultural currency for us Westerners as the dates of major conflicts, is entirely without significance to a Chinese generation which only recently gained mainstream access to Western pop music. The week beforehand, I had been discussing pop music with my tutor, when the apparent layered meaning of the Irish boy band’s name “Westlife” arose. It isn’t difficult to imagine the band’s marketing machinery effectively predicting the trendy appeal of its name in China many years after the original 90s teen pop wave died down in the West.

Our local friends performed renditions of Taiwanese pop [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo_eV8EZZls] and traditional Chinese folk songs, playfully imitating the high-pitched, nasal singing style employed by the female singers as they performed some of the dance steps. We continued to spread the gospel of the beautiful “Kangding Qingge”, at this point still the favorite (and only) Chinese folk song in my repertoire. I have not met a single Chinese person who does not know this hauntingly melodic love song.

After the party, Cecelia asked me a charmingly unusual question:

“Do all young men in America play guitar?”

I’d never noticed it before, but all three of we limited examples of the Western male specimen in attendance that evening, play guitar.

It was a most warm-spirited, culture-hopping little gathering, and one that I hope provided pleasant temporary reprieve from the approaching Winter blues. The original plan was for the party to raise funds for Mercy Corps’ development project providing job skills training to Yi minority women in Sichuan province, but given the small number of people who made it out, I figured I’d save the pitch for a wider (hint: online) audience.



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Bicycle thief, an ode to Vittoria De Sica

I am back on the roads of Chengdu.

Purchasing a bicycle is a game of smoke and mirrors, here in the world’s most populous bicycle market. Though electric bicycles, motorbikes and cars, at a rate of 1,000 per day, are all making noticeable forays into the transport market here, bikes still rule the roads.

Alas, my first purchasing expedition was a disappointing affair. A Chinese friend took me to a local second hand dealer near his university, nothing more than a collection of rickety bikes on a sidewalk.

“Maybe, most of these bikes were stolen,” he informed me, making diligent use of the Chinese “maybe.” This is Chinglish for many things, including: “Yes”, “No”, “Let’s avoid any potentially embarrassing loss of face” and, in this case: “This is how things work here.”

The goal 0f bike shopping in China runs in direct contrast to the traditional goal of purchasing goods. With most things, a skilled shopper will search for a version that looks much more expensive and better than the paid price. In China, however, given the unshakeable skill and number of local bike thieves, this is akin to taping a “Steal Me!” sign to your handlebars. The goal, therefore, is to buy the oldest, ugliest, most unappealing, but still functioning bike you can find. I have been told of one student using a handful of locks in a vein attempt to keep the thieves at bay. Upon returning to his bike’s location, he discovered a hand-written sign where his bike had been which read: “Do you really think you can stop us?”

After trying to freeze out our hard-ball seller with an extended break at a nearby shaved ice parlor, we had returned with renewed bargainer conviction.

“No more than 100!” my friend said, as I continued to play the quiet friend who may or may not be deaf and mute.

Indeed, I ended up paying 100 kuai, but not for the original bike we’d argued over. My friend was concerned it was too new. Instead, I rashly caved into a “Benda” brand single-speed, one that was not only too small and unforgiving to its rider’s backside, but which, worst of all, looked far better than it actually was. Within a week, I decided to leave it at a parking stand as food for the baying swarm of fleet-fingered sharks, and at this moment, it’s likely bruising some other unsuspecting fool’s behind.

That was it: no more shady black markets, no more endless bargaining over stolen goods. I begun to suspect that the U-lock which sellers throw into the deal are merely pick-friendly fodder, used in some mutually-beneficial ploy between middle-man and thief.

Instead, I went to a proper bike store and purchased a factory-fresh “Phoenix” brand bike. It’s actually of decent size, and my behind has thanked me ever since. Though the bell and one of the washers for the seat seem to have been knicked, after a couple of weeks, I still own the bike–surely a good sign.

And the best part of this? I can once again join the utterly mad chaos of China’s roads, its legion of two-wheeled travelers. It feels refreshingly raw, jostling alongside fathers with children strapped in behind them, business suits shouting to colleagues into their handless ear sets, and sellers carting everything from construction waste and recycling bins to pot plants and rabbits along with them. This is China, and by bicycle is surely the most intimate, green and enjoyable way to see it, soot-filled air be damned.

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Rediscovering the Pleasures of the Palate

Food poisoning, or Traveler’s Diarrhea, goes by a number of slightly witty, often geographical monikers among travelers and expats. Among the most common are “Delhi Belly” in India, “Montezuma’s Revenge” in Mexico, “Torremolinos trots” in…Torremolino. In China, I’ve seen it referred to as “Mao’s Revenge.” Given its frequency amongst those traveling from industrialized Western countries into the more sullied waters of developing world sanitation, it’s practically a rite of passage. I see the airport banner: “Welcome to our country! Here’s some toilet paper.”

It’s caused by a few common biological booboos: bacterial infection, parasites and viruses. I’m not sure which one it was that recently got to me, and from what food I ate that it arrived. But I cannot recall such violent sickness as that first night, an endless rat-wheel of nausea and hallucinatory naps, from which I’d be woken to rush to the bathroom for more vomiting (“tu”) and explosive diarrhea (“fu xie”). I stopped flushing after a while just to save on water. At a particularly deep point of doubled-up misery, I tried to sit up and meditate on a thought other than physical pain, but my gut hurt too much.

There are few things like sickness to remind you of the fragility of your situation, particularly when alone in a foreign country in which you cannot communicate. Thankfully, my small community of friends and cheap calling cards provided wonderful support and solace. I even had a friend deliver cans of Western soup he’d biked out to Wal-Mart to pick up just for me, bless his soul (alas, I did not own a can opener).

I’d heard a number of complaints about hospitals in China, but found my time at Chengdu No. 2 to be fine. My accompaniment, a cheerful, round-faced Chinese colleague who has spent eight years studying in Denver, paid the 10 yuan (about $1.50 USD) fee at the front register, and we did the rounds, providing blood and poo samples (mine was seaweed-shade) before they stuck me in a bed and gave me a couple of pouches of saline drips. When I got some throw-up on the bed, they promptly came to mop it up and wrap over the vomit.

A few days later, following my first return t0 school, I had dinner with a recent friend. She possesses the most exotic and marvelous English name I have heard in China, perhaps the world over. It is “Ypsilanti”, and apparently, she found it in a book (one with dragons and knights, I imagine). Ypsilanti works at a Balinese-looking pizzeria/bar near my apartment and speaks enough English for us to communicate, though not particularly well. The last time I’d visited her bar, she chatted with me over my laptop screen.

“I think we can be friends,” she said sweetly.

“I think we can too.”

As we left her workplace, I explained my predicament in its relation to where we would eat. I’d gingerly climbed my way up from water and saltine crackers to rice porridge and even un-troublesome whole foods. Still, caution was to be exercised.

She mustn’t have gotten the message, because she took me for shou kou, the common nighttime Sichuanese street food. The operation involves skewers of vegetables and meat (largely innards) you pick yourself, from racks that are left in the open air. Sanitation standards tend to be dubious. This shouldn’t matter as much, given that the food is then given the classic Sichuan twice-over: it’s boiled in a large wok-like pot of oil, then brought to your table, to be dropped in one’s personal bowl of oil and hot peppers. Alas, both oil and hot peppers were not on the cards for my stomach that evening. Horrific visions of me staring once more into a toilet bowl for the next few days plagued our meal.

Not looking to make the situation an embarrassing one, I ate a few of the vegetable skewers, apologizing profusely for my inability to eat more heartily. She then tried to take me to a number of other places: a pizza joint, a teahouse. Try as she might, I couldn’t do it, and we ended up going to a little Taiwanese dessert house that specializes in milk curd, which I tried with medicinal ginger tea.

My stomach, it turned out, is back in fighting form, and it’s a rejuvenating feeling, after re-educating myself to eat solid food, to be able to walk past the stalls and noodle houses of Chengdu and think: “I can eat that…I can eat that…I can eat that.”

I was overcome with excitement the first time I had to go pee–the first time in three days–and practically cheered the first time something approaching firm stool was released from my bowels.

“I’m stooling! I’m stooling!” I gushed mentally, in the way that new parents might about their child. (“She’s teething! She’s teething!”) Maybe I should have left it there to admire.

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A week on the road with Chengdu’s finest

There are two major holidays on the Chinese calendar. One of them is Spring festival, the traditional Chinese new year. The other is National holiday week, which recently took place at the beginning of October to celebrate the founding of the PRC in 1949.

I had been invited by a friend to take part in a road trip, in remote Northwestern China, far from the crowds. The final destination was Qinghai Lake, China’s largest, located over 10,000 feet above sea level in Qinghai province, not far below Mongolia. It would take us four days just to reach the lake, traveling from our home in Chengdu through mountainous northern Sichuan and neighboring Gansu, the country’s poorest province.

This region of China “formerly marked the outer limits of ancient China,” I read in my guide book, separating various dynasties in the east from the feared barbarians to the west. It is best known for its role as part of the Silk Road, which is responsible, amongst other things, for the introduction of Buddhism and Islam to the country. I was as eager to see some blue above my head as to glimpse a less developed, non-Han (the dominant ethnic group, to which I belong) piece of the country.

I got plenty of both, but the experience was combined, for better and for worse, with doing so at the whim of a large group of Chinese in “travel mode.” Given that we only had one week, it’s probably unrealistic to have carried hope of gaining much first-hand insight into China’s Tibetan and other ethnic minority cultures, but as it were we followed a cookie cutter itinerary in which such opportunities were even more limited. Our tourist stops often felt like elongated photo shoots, and we tended to eat dinner then retire early at hotels, rather than explore.

I spent most of the time staring out of the window of a little “Xiali 2000”, the name given to what is in all respects a Toyota Corolla, renamed to suit Chinese regulatory demands. I tried to absorb as much cleansing scenery as I could, given that the following months will be filled largely with concrete and smog. This proved to be a surprisingly difficult task, as I had to constantly tune out the domestic drama being played out by my fellow passengers. A family road trip is a family road trip, and this particular one’s steady stream of bickering and flare-ups was painfully enduring. Perhaps thankfully, it was all in Chengdu hua, a dialect of Sichuan hua, which is itself a vaguely intelligible dialect of Mandarin Chinese. I allowed the dull cacophony, mixed with Chinese bubblegum pop and muzak from the car speakers, to provide a soundtrack to long hours of thought and reading, as the idyllic slideshow ran before my eyes.

I’d gone into the trip with visions of misty Buddhist mountains and lush, untouched greenery. Tragically, I found, a large portion of Sichuan’s northern mountain terrain has been entirely deforested; occasionally, I would see patches of recently planted saplings. Sichuan is a large province; it’s population of 100 million is equal to five Australias, and it used to be far greater, but for the recent separation of Chongqing, a city that lays debatable claim to being the world’s largest (around 31 million, though this includes surrounding areas). In previous times, what is now Western Sichuan was part of Tibet, and it wasn’t long before we started to reach predominantly Tibetan areas.

In Gansu, we finally found ourselves some unrazed mountain forest, tinged yellow and red in Autumn, followed by long, rolling stretches of grassy steppe. Herds of sheep, goats and yaks became common sight, as well as the white tent homes of the Tibetan nomads who keep them, chimneys puffing away in the morning. Gansu is also home to China’s largest minority, the Hui, thought to be descendants of Arab and Persian traders who arrived during the Tang dynasty. They are Hanafi school Sunnis (described as the oldest and most progressive sect), like all Muslims in the country, and the men wear square white hats. Their delectable flat noodles, made with great skill by hand, are readily available in stalls throughout Chinese cities. We drove by some marvelous Chinese-style mosques, green and domed, some with long, narrow minarets, their upturned eaves displaying clear pagoda influence. Gansu is noticeably poorer than Sichuan. Outside of the cities, people live in simple earth and mud homes and there are little signs of the rampant development taking place elsewhere.

If Gansu is China’s forgotten land of Muslims, then Qinghai is its Siberia: it has housed several prison camps for political dissidents, and up until the 18th century, was part of Tibet. There, the landscape’s transitions increased in beauty and variety, quickly moving from grey mountains to waves of hills and arid plains, and occasionally ascending into thick fog as we wound along steep mountainside. The journey was highlighted by the occasional Tibetan temple, tucked away from the winding mountainside road, gold roof shining brilliantly, or when slowing down for the passage of domestic horses or omnipresent yaks, the most essential animal to the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle. Signs painted on to small town building fences read: “Please allow your child to go to school” and “Obey the rule of law.” Qinghai also provided the most breathtaking scenery of the trip, beautiful enough even to allow for rare periods of humbled silence within the car, whilst we dutifully snapped postcard shots of reflective lakes and immense mountain faces.

There is a sort of casual indifference to the demeanor of Tibetans, Hui, Dongqiang and other non-Han people throughout Gansu and Qinghai. After decades of struggle to maintain their ways within the hegemonic will of modernizing Communist China, and amidst current waves of Han migration to the cities, it seems, at least at face value, that they’ve reached a level of comfortable coexistence. Recently, the government has taken on a pro-diversity line, with colorfully dressed minority entertainers provide a sort of pretty stage show narrative of a unified China that embraces its over-fifty recognized minority groups. My group, unsurprisingly, displayed an utter lack of interest in such cultures, but proceeded to line up for their snapshots before historic jewels such as Ta’er Si monastery (one of the six most sacred monasteries of the Dalai Lama’s Yellow-hat sect of Tibetan buddhism) with an air of vaguely curious, middle-class duty.

Perhaps the clearest impression that my thirteen-strong party imparted upon me is this: Chinese can be really, remarkably loud. I have quickly come to realize that in the Chinatowns and suburbs of Australia and the United States, I’d only encountered a non-representational slice of the country, whose quiet, sometimes shy manner couldn’t be more unlike my group. They sounded at times like rowdy sailors; always animatedly sounding off on various topics, with witty banter thrown across the dinner table amidst a woozy stream of snake poison-strong shots shared by a few of us men. I understood almost none of it, but entertained them as the lone foreigner with my efforts at non-verbal humor.

One of the few other men in the majority-female group was a rotund fellow who I came to think of as “El Generalissimo”, given his predilection for startlingly loud, theatrical shouting, reminiscent of a certain Venezuelan leader. He stayed in the same business clothes for the duration of the trip, and his voice similarly remained unchanged, a single volume baritone utilized across a spectrum of roared dinner jokes and thunderous argumentation over our myriad navigation problems.

“Cook my mountain mushrooms, (wench)!” he bellowed at Qinghai Lake, thrusting a plastic bag towards the subdued Tibetan restaurant owner with hands stretched, in order to display the little black tasties.

From what followed, I can only assume that she declined, as the General’s wife and another crewmember soon begun washing and preparing the mushrooms themselves. I had to give it to the fixed-volume General though: his mountain mushrooms were indeed delicious, given the limited beef, cabbage and potato diet afforded at such altitudes.

My favorite accommodation was to be found in Xia He, a small town housing a handful of colorfully dressed minorities. We were greeted in warm fashion by a troika of young Tibetan women, who hung a white silk scarf around each of us, lei-style, then offered us a cup of qing ke jiu, a barley liquor, as they sang in their fascinating, clipped tongue. We stayed in a series of tent-covered rooms which encircled a central prayer flag pillar, and I managed to learn a little Amdo dialect Tibetan from the staff. The written form is an attractive, pointed script of Sanskrit origin, and I was eager to copy a little. But when I asked them to write down the characters for “Nice to meet you,” I was told that they couldn’t.

“The only place to learn to write Tibetan is in the monastery,” a woman explained.

When we finally reached Qinghai Lake, it did not disappoint. I’ve never been to Lake Michigan, but I imagine it’s similar: a massive body of water stretching as far as the horizon in lovely shades of azure through to greenish blue. At its center is Bird Island, whose colonies of rare cormorants and cranes had, alas, already flown south for the winter. Even here, high on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by all manner of Tibetan religious and cultural objects, great effort had been made to provide symbolic gestures of Chinese national unity. A giant statue of “Yingying”, one of the five Beijing Olympic mascots, had been erected nearby. A youthful orange panda-meets-traditional Tibetan antelope who could pass as a mutated teletubby, her child-like face beamed benevolently across the lake, yet to be worn down by the harsh plateau winds.

We were rushing around the lake, for reasons unbeknownst to me. The landscape nearby had turned into sculpted golden sand dunes, similar to those which a friend had gushed about riding down on sand boards in neighboring Xinjiang province, an activity that appealed deeply to my inner ten year old. The team had other ideas though.

“Why are we in such a rush?” I finally asked.

“We don’t have much time,” my friend excitedly explained. “We’re going to a nuclear testing site!”

I am unsure of the motivations for visiting a place such as the aptly named Nuclear City, but was curious as to what we might see: enormous craters, three-headed yaks…hopefully no bombed-out temples. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on who you talk to, the site offered little noticeable sign of nuclear detonation, and we drove back to the city of Xining in the dark.

It was only during the return journey that we struck weather difficulties. Our little car that could, having courageously plowed across much mountainous terrain on the way up, became bogged along a muddy, unpaved road. Just as we dragged it out, one of the ladies snapped a perfect “Happy sign” picture–it is identical to the peace sign, and is flashed by everyone from children to the middle-aged here–with a group of Tibetan nomadic women who were traveling on foot. The crew spent the next ten minutes forcing them to partake in an impromptu “Me with the exotic natives” photoshoot, the sort you imagine tour group Americans taking on trips to indigenous lands. The Tibetans obliged with seemingly unlimited patience, and we gave them some fruit in return. Just down the road, a truck driver coming in the opposite direction stopped us, claiming he’d had to cross a patch of water four-feet high. We turned back.

That evening, already behind schedule, we found the road to be closed due to the weather, forcing us to take a detour down another rocky, unpaved side route. Its closure was indicated by an easy-to-miss solitary wooden sign, its characters scrawled in red paint. If I were home, I would have found it extremely suspicious, and figured it was a concern worth raising.

“Are there any bandits around here?” I asked. I’d been told earlier of the dangers involved in crossing into Tibet through the robber-infested mountain passes of Western Sichuan.

“Yes, but not as many as in Qinghai or Gansu,” my friend reassured me. “They usually do not kill you. They just want your money,” he advised, adding that some wield AK47s, carried over the border from Russia.

A little while later, after successfully completing one detour, we were forced to make another. Having reached a tunnel, we found it to be temporarily closed, marked even more sketchily by some witches hats and another makeshift wooden sign. With little pause, we detoured onto a dark, unpaved track, and my imagination kicked into gear.

“Does anybody know kung fu?” I asked.

Having safely made it home to Chengdu, we stopped for our final dinner, and my friend and I entertained the group with a couple of multi-lingual love songs. The English one was “Yellow” by Coldplay, whilst the other was a well-known folk song called “Kangding Qingge”, taught to me by his father, concerning a pair of lovers from nearby Kangding, in Western Sichuan.

“He loves her for two reasons,” my roommate had translated. “The first is…because she’s a good person. The other reason is that she is good at housework.”

“Fair enough,” I thought, before returning to my apartment, where I did some housework.

PS: In case you bump into any Amdo region Tibetan speakers (there are at least three Tibetan dialects), “Day moe” is “How are you?” and “Chiu re na nga heng ge ga ge” is “Nice to meet you.”

“Yes,” I can cheerfully share, is “O’le,” which sounds almost identical to the phrase commonly associated with men in sombreros.

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Australia versus Canada, Chengdu Stadium, September 20, 2007.

The Women’s Soccer World Cup, now in its final throes, is taking place in various cities throughout China. Fortunately enough for me, the Australia Matildas happened to be playing against Canada right here in Chengdu. The game, originally scheduled for Wednesday, September 19th, was pushed back a day because of weather.

Coming straight from a school at which we teach, two friends and I arrived at the new, curvaceous stadium, located in the center of the city, just before half time. As one of them had joked earlier, foreshadowing events, being the only ethnic Chinese of our group, I was the only one stopped by security and forced to turn in my bag. It turns out that being foreign, but in particular, Caucasian, can get you far in a number of situations in China.

At half time, we joined the crowd in their shuffle through the concession stands, to see what sort of fare Chinese stadiums serve up in place of meat pies or french fries. Our curiosity was answered, in uninspiring fashion, by popcorn and ice cream, the former of which is both sweet and salty, like a lot of Sichuanese condiments. I had been hoping for something a little more local, such as the scrumptious meat and vegetable skewers street vendors peddle outside the stadium, and indeed, all over town.

Not long into the second half, Australia tied the score at 1-1 with a goal that sent the crowd into uproarious approval. I screamed too, but, in the midst of another week of teaching, my voice was already shot through and I remained hoarse for much of the game’s remainder. It was wonderful to see so many Chengduers out at the game to watch two countries which might seem ordinarily quite far removed from their lives. Though I noticed one maple leaf flag in the crowd, I am delighted to report that I saw far more green and gold, in terms of locals clad in clearly Australian supporter uniforms, Australian flags hanging from stands and, of course, a small but noticeable number of my faithful countrymen, a good number of which I suspect also ply the teaching trade.

During much of the second half, the Wave–a generally benevolent (and universal, it would appear) excuse to do something nonsensical because everyone else is–was put into good, if tiring effect by the gregarious crowd, at one point doing five consecutive rounds of the stadium. They also tended to favor a particular chant over others, which sounded vaguely like “Hao Chao!” or “Good ball!” I discussed with my friends, two recent American college graduates, the intensity of soccer stadiums in countries in which the sport plays a far more emotional role in people’s lives. It was refreshing to see how family-friendly and relaxed the audience was here. I’m yet to hear of sports-related violence in China to date, and hope it stays that way.

The sun was setting directly over the stadium, and it would have made for a gorgeous shot–players and field, crowd, stadium and sky–beamed into Facebook profiles and Flickr albums for all to envy after the game. I hope somebody got it. Alas, none of us had brought our cameras.

I cannot attest to being a huge Australian women’s soccer fan prior to the game, but I have nothing but the highest of respect for our players after watching them on Thursday. They were tenacious all game, dominating much of the possession, even if they failed to convert on a lot of good opportunities. Most noticeably, there is a refreshing lack of the sort of “Ahh my ankle!” amateur acting that afflicts men’s soccer. As my friend put it: “We women have enough trouble as it is gaining recognition as athletes. The last thing we need is another excuse for men to tell us we’re too weak to play.”

We soon struck up a mutual appreciation for the Aussie goalkeeper, Melissa Barbieri, based more on her stunning looks than her play, which nevertheless was excellent. After the game, we met an Australian from Adelaide named Chris whose sister plays for the team, and who is traveling with them for the duration of the tournament. He passed on our love to Melissa, whilst gently breaking the news to me that she is engaged.

As sterling as their performance had been, it seemed that we would pay for our inability to convert after Canada scored to retake the lead, with less than 10 minutes of regular time remaining. My heart sunk a little, though I had to give it to the Canadians, whose courageous goalkeeper’s face had recently been on the receiving end of an errant Australian boot. She later came off the field. Down, and with World Cup hopes on the line, the Matildas plugged on though, and sure enough, in injury time, we scored a blinder of an equalizer on a beautiful set-up within the box, which was calmly slotted past the keeper. I screamed as loud as one can without access to a functioning voice box, alongside the 30,000 others. Looking around me, I was surrounded still somewhat foreignly, by similar-looking Chinese faces, and dressed in my work clothes, I had not even a little Australian flag toothpick to distinguish the fact that I too, am from the same country as those beautiful athletic girls in green and gold on the field. Subsequently, our ecstasy felt much more like a group emotion, than say, my “truer” one being shared with these other “non-authentic” ones. Rather, we were all the same: a bunch of yellow folks cheering for girls with yellow hair (amongst other colors) and yellow shirts.

In that moment, when the Matildas had finally scored in those absolutely last, do-or-die, win-or-go-home ticking seconds, everyone in that stadium was Australian. When the referee’s whistle blew, the Canadians sunk to their knees in agony, and the Australians hugged and celebrated before our congratulatory cheers, pumping their fists and kissing their jerseys for us.

After the game, I met some of the other Aussies. They were easily distinguishable by the fact that a small crowd of Chinese were milling around to take pictures with the flamboyantly dressed laowai, with their giant kangaroos and face paint. Such sporting events involving an (any) Australian national team in London are practically a national day celebration for the significant Antipodean expat community there, but here, it was a much quieter, intimate affair. Some of us went to Mutts Nutts, a local pizza joint nearby, to recap and wait for some of the team to come out and celebrate. Alas, it turned out they had an early flight to Tianjin for the next game the following morning, and I don’t believe they made it out.

But still, to be reveling in their presence, here in Chengdu, a city unknown to practically anyone outside of China, as a Chinese-Australian who’s only recently come to live in the homeland of his ancestors, it felt warmly satisfying at a quite personal level. In the stadium, I tried to imagine such a thing occurring a mere twenty years ago, when modernization was only just beginning to filter into the southwest, and when to many, China must have felt like a giant closed door. On the field and in the stands, we were athlete and spectator, the talented and skilled before the appreciative and spirited. We just were, and politics, for that 90 minutes (plus three minutes stoppage time), was left to fade into the background for the time being. In a world still so prone to division and turmoil, that return to the essence of what it means to be human remains for me sport’s most marvelous attribute. It goes to explain why, whilst on the road, it always figures as one of my favorite activities to participate in or spectate, particularly if there’s a little green and gold reminder of home involved.

Addendum: I found out that Australia bowed out of the World Cup with a hardfought loss to Brazil. Certainly not a bad way to go out, and congratulations on an excellent showing at the World Cup, girls!

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Classroom Melodies, an ode to Seamus Heaney

If I had to describe the transition from college to professional life in one word, it would be “silent.” One of the saddest realities of contemporary office culture is the slow, perverse death of the spoken word. Whilst so many indigenous languages, from Australia to the Amazon, are perishing out of lack of a written form, our own, world-annihilating culture and language seems to be evolving in the opposite way. With so much text-based technology, we’re putting our voice boxes on mute, replacing them with our fingers as our primary mode of communication. This virtually-enforced silence means that one of the most refreshing parts of returning to the classroom is its sounds.

We live under the hegemonic death grip of Outlook, the dictatorship of the keystroke. Undoubtedly, the internet and the subsequent rise of new media are wonderful, democratizing things. But I do believe that our lives, enacted increasingly before screens more so than off of them, are disconnecting. Whether it’s cube farm chattel sending one line emails or google talk chatting, or the millions of teenage boys enacting their lives virtually in massive multiplayer online role playing games, the marvelously complex, intricate layers of social interaction our ancestors assembled are being rewritten, all too often on a spectrum of black and white, in the language of 1s and 0s.

There is something painfully unnatural about having relationships with colleagues in which you do not exchange words in person, not even by the water cooler, but in which group emails are filled with obligatory words of impersonal warmth. It came to represent my post-collegiate life in America, the hyper-social chatter of the campus and the zeal of classroom debate replaced by the sterile solitude of rush-hour commutes from my office PC to my personal laptop, the majority of the spoken language which entered my ears being piped in, of course, as songs via my iPod. It felt hollow, and I wanted out.

And so I have re-entered the classroom, this time though as teacher, my pupils a blanker slate of Chinese children, simultaneously rowdy and sweet. Of all the official religious buildings that Chinese faithfully tour during their holidays, the one most commonly visited largely goes unacknowledged. I refer, but of course, to the classroom. From centuries past, when passing the Civil Servant entrance exam was a peasant child’s sole ticket to a better life, through to the present, where the GREs and TOEFL lead even further out toward the hallowed climes of Cambridge and New Haven, education has in many ways served as the national altar of an atheist China. In this post-Mao, helter-skelter period of “Capitalism with Chinese-Socialist Characteristics”, this seems true, now more than ever.

It is with this understanding that I entered the two schools at which I teach. Both of them are thoroughly modern boarding private schools, where homeroom teachers call sleepy pupils out of bed, where tuition runs parents a tidy 20,000 yuan per semester, and where they can afford to hire expensive foreigners to improve their spoken English. One of them, a full K-12 school on the outskirts of Chengdu, with its gleaming glass cafeteria and immaculately sculpted pathways, resembles an American college campus. A lofty soundtrack of classical, Chinese vocal, and, rather humorously, fierce tango music is broadcast by speakers throughout the school, signaling the end of periods, energizing morning group exercise and synchronized eye massage. During the two hour lunch siesta, we foreigners are provided with a large six-bedded room in which to nap, and we have our own office, whose sign above the door reads: “Foreign Teaches The Office.”

The traditional relationship between teacher and student may be enshrined as one of Confucianism’s special relationships, but the social etiquette in place is quite different for “Foreign Expert” English teachers, such as myself. Given their immense workload, the lack of a robust grading system for this particular class, and the fact that they see me only once per week, it is natural for my students to provide a less than obliging audience. As such, I approach my lessons as a mix of performance, theater and, most importantly, all-round embrace of the spoken word.

“Oh yeah?!” I have one half of my fourth graders shout to the other half of the class. I lead them, palms upward, eyes thoroughly furrowed.

“Yeah!” the other half replies, fists a-pumping, as if China had just scored in the women’s soccer world cup.

They call is Total Physical Response, or TPR, and it goes a surprisingly long way when you’re teaching a foreign language to six year olds who will parrot anything you say, from “Raise your hand!” to “No, don’t copy me!” This may not be Shakespeare, but it is the gateway to him. Though I may not not training future thespians, I am committed to training future confident English speakers, ones whose “A’s” extend as gracefully as Ian McKellen, whose “R’s” evoke more Connie Chung than Jackie Chan. I enjoy the parallels in our experience: as I lead a stammering second grader through “Her pen is blue” during the day, my tutor will later lead her equally unsure student through “Women dou shi Yuyan Xueyan de xuesheng.” Our small victories are won together, our struggle one of personally-drawn empathy. Perhaps one day I will respond to the occasional student’s ceaseless Mandarin questioning, which once in a while ignites into a fully-raging classroom chant–“Are you Chinese?! You can’t be a foreigner!”–in their native language, as opposed to my current practice of ignoring them. They will tell me their Chinese name and I might write it on the board in characters, as I have had them read my own off of it.

But for now, I cherish the mere sound of it all. As a spoken English teacher–they have a Chinese teacher to teach them English grammar and vocabulary–I am privileged to partake in their delight in forming the letter Z with their bodies, to extract their full concentration as they distinguish between “this”, “that” and “with.” Though I may not be able to compensate for my inability–utterly incomprehensible to them–to communicate in our common ancestor’s language, I continue to try, by imparting upon them the melody and sonority of the English language. It remains, at present at least, the only one in which I can do so.

Last week, my secret weapon was a cardboard box, whose contents–a pen, pencil, marker and chalk–I kept a coveted secret through much dramatic peeking and hiding on my part. When I rewarded the students who correctly answered questions with the chance to extract an object, eyes closed, having just been spun around several times, they grasped for the stationery with such eager, youthful hands. And though their peers’ faces did not hide the disappointment in discovering that the objects I’d worked them into a tizzy over were so mundane, I wondered whether a few of them might realize the much bigger prize that my instruction is teaching them to grasp for.

“It’s a black pen!” I beamed, with faux-revelatory delight.

“A black pen!”, they screamed back in disconcerted unison.

It was musical in its own disheveled, childish way. Though the noise of the school can feel overwhelming and exasperating at times, I cherish how human and alive it feels, against the cold click of the office keyboard. And I leave the school at the end of the day with a fulfillment that gleans joy from its achievement, verbalized, and–until now–untyped.

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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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