Saturday, July 11, 2009

Winner's Circle

The two boys crouching in front of me are identically dressed. Baggy nylon shorts cut just at the knees. One in Carolina blue. The other in Celtic green. Both in oversized t-shirts hiked up and tucked down elastic waistbands in the back. Both with headlines, one reading: “NIKE, Kiss my Airs,” and the other simply “LBJ MVP.” They are wearing headbands, their chests heaving in anticipation, tiny beads of sweat forming on their foreheads. They lower into defense stances and check the ball in.
I am in flip-flops and khaki cotton shorts, shirtless and drenched in a lathered wetness in the blistering Taiwanese afternoon heat. It is typhoon season and the humidity is thick as a steaming bowl of wonton. A crowd has gathered around the little public court next to a Taoist temple tucked neatly behind a high rise tenement and rows of shops. Faces stare. Fingers point. Camera phones flash. Young boys sit on one another’s laps and quickly text into cell keypads. Bicycles propped against the stone gate glisten in the sun. Old men fan themselves with newspapers in the shade. A lazy dog beside a dripping faucet yawns.
I slap the ball at the top of the key, a make-shift oval above the wide trapezoid international lane. This American hasn’t lost in over an hour. Just holding court and taking all comers. I started with two college kids in a game of twenty-one: two point baskets, one point free throws, land on thirteen go back to zero, then a father and son in matching glasses, then five on five with a group of middle schoolers, then one-on-one with every high school kid who’d ever seen an AND 1 mixed tape, trying to cross me up and break my ankles but nothing, absolutely nothing doing.
Now finally the ringers have been called in.
They arrived on the backs of motor scooters, already in their high tops, lobbing alley-oops off the backboard and throwing them down, then lapsing into elaborate handshakes and high-fives. “First you roll it, then you smoke it, then you fist bump, then you blow it up, come on, blow it up.” They chest bump and strut around the court like young demigods.
I pay them no mind, walk over and check on Lauren Kinu asleep soundly in the shade. Her face is peaceful, nibbling on her blanket safe in the stroller. She is becoming a toddler and barely fits in the carriage anymore. I touch her check when I hear I am being called.
“Hey… American, you play?”
I turn to the two boys at center court and I walk over and take the ball, kicking a pebble lodged deep between my thonged toes. They don’t know it yet. It will take the first three games to twenty-one before they show any real fear. But I own these guys.
After the game we shake hands like gentlemen and I pose for pictures.
I can tell it is a crushing defeat. They didn’t count on my physicality. I just know how to use my hips to push off or place an elbow to the back just so to make a rebound fall in my hands. They only looked at my face, the lines around my eyes and the lack of hair on my head and thought, this old guy’s got no game. That’s when I knew they were mine. I gave them the drop step, the fade away, the pull up in the lane, and the reverse. I caught them in the air with head fakes and leaners and lobs to myself off the glass. I even saved a cross-over for the final game point, dropping one kid to the asphalt, looking back at him before sinking the winning layup.
It was a clinic.
Just in time too. Kinu was up and looking around. I wished the boys well, said I’d be around another time for a re-match, and headed the back way home, laughing to myself that I’ve still got it, and maybe, just maybe, it never left.
It’s the American in me, I can’t help it. That brash, bragging, in your face, international tool that every country loves to hate but secretly hopes to someday join. The one that says our players are the best on the planet. The one that is disappointed when we don’t bring home the gold. The one that says soccer is not real football, and that our sports winners are world champs.
That’s life in the winner’s circle, and nothing will ever change that.
It doesn’t always translate though, like some switch I can turn on and off, and most of the time it backfires in my face. Take for example my learning Chinese. After six months I have given up. I am an awful student, just atrocious. I try to say, “Please give me bread” but say, “Please lick the toilet” instead. I can’t figure out the Taiwanese alphabet. My pronunciation sounds like my mouth is full of rocks. And the one phrase I can count on “I don’t have,” (May-yo) gets me in more trouble than it’s worth.
“Do you have any children?” Uh cornstalks…? May-yo?
So I’ve thrown in the white flag. I surrender. Yet is this part of the American spirit? What happened to my “can-do” attitude? What would I say to a student who wanted to give up? Would I say, yeah, Chinese grammar, are you kidding me, I quit too?
No. But it reminds me how leveled the playing field really is. That I can’t just force my way to fluency. It takes time, years even, to develop a skill. I remember teaching at Dong-Eui University in Korea and my students, very sharp, very adept, would often ask me how their English compared to native speakers. I would look at them honestly, assessing flaws but with compassion.
“You’re about at the same level as my niece, who is five years old.”
Their faces would fall to the floor. I never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. It was intended as encouragement, but I also wanted them to know whose language was number one. Now the sneaker is on the other foot, and for the first time in my American life, I am seeing the importance of interacting with Chinese as not just a location to visit, to marvel at the Sichuan valley or camp atop the Great Wall, but to speak this native tongue, to learn their tricks, to hedge, to give full court presses to verb conjugation and box-out vocabulary terms, to get through this rookie year and survive.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m constantly on the losing end. Standing in the cafĂ© pointing at menu pictures, counting out coins aloud in the post office while the other patrons roll their eyes, repeating myself over and over in taxi cabs then finally handing the driver a piece of paper with the directions inscribed. My butt has been kicked thoroughly by Chinese language. Yet still I come back for more. The American in me cannot be completely knocked out. Knocked down, yes, but never out.
Case in point: Chinese Names for NBA Teams! (I know, I’m on a bit of a basketball kick lately)
Recently it was American play-off basketball which meant I got to watch a couple of middle of the night games on the ESPN Taiwan. At first I tried translating the names of teams for fun, but I was very quickly corrected of my errored ways.
So here goes. (Literal translations of Chinese NBA teams in italics)
This year in the NBA play offs Western Conference you had the Los Angeles Lakers (People Living in the Lake) against the Utah Jazz (Earth Music). This was followed by the Portland Trailblazers (the First Openers of Business in Barren Land) against the Houston Rockets (the Flaming Arrows). The next match up was the San Antonio Spurs (Poking Horse) taking on the Dallas Mavericks (Small Cows), completed by the Denver Nuggets (the Gold Chunks) fighting hard against the New Orleans Hornets (the Yellow Bees).
That’s nice, don’t you think?
The Eastern Conference also had their share of difficult translations. The Cleveland Cavaliers (the Night Riders) took on the Detroit Pistons (the Life Cloggers). This was also followed by the Atlanta Hawks (the Old Birds of Prey) against the Miami Heat (the Hot Fire). The next match up was the Orlando Magic (the Magic Dogs) taking on the Philadelphia 76ers (the 76 People), concluded by the Boston Celtics (the People born in the Celtic Region) and the Chicago Bulls (the Office Cows or also know as, the Publically Traded Cows, depending on who you ask).
You can see how my head was spinning. This was only made worse by my Chinese friends inability to grasp why I thought these names were funny. They would shake their heads, point to the paper and consult others in a group who would scratch their chins and grimace. They would say, “This symbol means Los Angeles Lakers.”
“Yes, but translated literally doesn’t it also means ‘People living in the Lake’”?
They would consult one another again and answer yes. “But that is not how we say it.”
“But this way it is funny.”
They shake their heads no. “It is not funny. Why?”
I felt like those boys in the park showing up in NBA gear and getting beat by an old man twice their age in flip-flops because he knew the game in ways they could not. That his wisdom just exceeded theirs. This is part of the life though, isn’t it? If I am going to make my life here I must accept it, don’t I? I suppose that’s wisdom as well. But believe me, getting their butts beat was the best thing that could happen to those boys. They went back to the courts to practice. They stayed humble. Hungry. They’d be back on top again. With their mix-matched LeBron James shoes and Tar Heel Jerseys, texting Chinese into their Nokia phones and snapping pictures of us posing arm in arm after the game. A little bit of East and West. Staying true to ourselves. Learning to thrive. Winning by whatever means necessary.

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