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Waking Up the Dads

These things happen when you’re a wai guo ren in the most Chinese places, instead of hanging safely in the ex-pat havens. I had boldly gone – and only through the dumbest of luck – where no “outside country person” had likely gone before. No big deal: I was in the mid-court seats of a chilly Dalian gymnasium, the ones where Party members or other administrative kingpins sit for the bigger ceremonies. It’s the closest thing to corporate boxes at my university’s indoor stadium: padded office chairs roll freely behind a ten-metre-wide desk, instead of the moulded blue plastic bum-holders in the rest of the building. Can you see me now?

I was minding my own business avidly minding every bit of business connected with the on-court director of our newly-stumbled-into youth basketball club, and with my son’s performance of a medley of this young coach’s greatest hit, “50 Ways to Beat a Pylon”. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in my head it has the same tune as Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.) Reassurance to my sports-averse readers: this isn’t really about basketball. It’s about me, and China, and Chinese fathers (one of ’em), and as often happens, I was the oddball, detached and alone. I was a sitting duck.

It can be lonely for foreigners in Dalian, flatscreen friendships notwithstanding, except when you want some solitude. My Mandarin is limited, and most Chinese people keep very much to themselves, and not just with wai guo ren. Case study: I teach my students, the ones who will spend their third and fourth university years in Canada, how to make eye contact with others, how to nod your head slightly, and how to be ready to smile.1 Long story short, then, the little smiles and nods and howya doin’s that populate my comfy Canadian life are scarce here.2 However, that’s no guarantee that “friendliness” won’t suddenly break out if someone needs an English tutor for her middle-schooler or a white face for his company’s marketing campaign.

That day in the gym, I just wanted to watch, but I had to gently fight off the stranger whose eyeball test informed him that I was just the guy to edit the report he was submitting to a foreign science journal. I made sure that at least the majority of his “face” remained intact and in his possession. There was, too, a woman who was confident enough to make simple fellow-parent conversation in English, with the odd Mandarin flourish from me. This was a rare and pleasant treat, actually. She wanted nothing but a little conversation, and she helped me to understand what the club was about and what parents were looking for. Mostly, I think, they wanted some scripted fitness. 75 minutes. My kid gets exercise. Check! There were more than a few round little mounds puffing and huffing around the pylons.

One made me smile. Chubby, maybe ten years old, he figured out how to maximize the lengthy periods of waiting in line before his turn came to stumble through one of the Fifty Ways. He would hustle his way up into the stands, drink sweet milk tea – youth obesity in China stems largely from the popularity of these and Western-style soda beverages – and chatter to his father about what was going on. This man never looked at his kid, not once. He never raised his head from the video game he was playing on his I-phone, nor even grunted the slightest acknowledgement that the needy little fellow was there. He came up for a sip three or four times, and then for several minutes during a formal break from his “running”.

I was two seats over in the bleachers, and my smile had turned grim. I didn’t understand much of what the lad was saying, but I summarized his torrent of words as follows: Well, Dad, I’m here now and I was doing things down there. Did you see? Whatever the precise content, there was not one glance or word of response from Father Dear; no, wait, untrue, my Hanyu was good enough to recognize a two-syllable curse when his gaming went south. (Weakling.) The kid wasn’t there to hear it. I guess that’s good.

I wanted to smack him, and not verbally. (As if words were an option!) Some of my writing students have recorded small laments about the remoteness of their fathers, including dads whose attention was sucked out of them by video gaming. What are they thinking? Do they even know they’re stinking up the Dad Joint? There must be fifty ways to shake a father, but I couldn’t think of one.

1 My students are mainly university frosh, who often remind me of ninth-graders in their awkward enthusiasms, but also in their fresh and not-yet-cynical sheltered-ness. (Boyfriends and girlfriends were forbidden during high school, so there’s a lot of does he have a girlfriend? giggling that would be annoying if it weren’t so innocent.) They “walk and talk” for the first 15 minutes of our oral English class recently, and those who get really bold try out some of our rehearsed greetings, basically anything other than HelloHowareyou? Iamveryfinethankyouandyou? They find this exercise difficult, embarrassing, and they start to understand my shocking declaration that many North Americans find the Chinese very unfriendly. This exercise, mind you, is done in the halls of their own small college with fellow students they see regularly, but who are NotTheirClassmates! It’s still amazing and sad to me how hard it is for them to meet others.
2 We quickly learn, too, to spot the Russian students. They’re the fair-haired, round-eyed kids who also won’t make eye contact, also travel in packs, and who are even less likely to smile than the Chinese. Both come from places where, especially in the past, trust was expensive and unfriendliness was a highly recommended defence against betrayal, suspicion or standing out from the crowd.

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