Back on Track and Fielding My Age

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They're the blue-clad spectators, here during the "march of the somebody-or-others". Like me.

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They’re the blue-clad spectators, here during the “march of the somebody-or-others”. Like me.

When I wrote last June about my first in-depth experience of a Chinese university’s annual “Sports Meeting” — a low-performance track and field meet — I was still quite flabbergasted by the whole thing. It was an incredible show that put the circus into the “bread and circuses” recipe for keeping the mass of people contented and amused, and yet everybody takes it so seriously. I swung wildly between my reflexive love for young people giving their hearts to sport — even for a day — and my disgust with what a paltry, occasionally harmful and clearly manipulated “opportunity” the kids actually had. I liked that athletic kids got to run and jump, and hated that many participants and nearly all the spectators weren’t there by any shade of their own choice. The whole thing really wasn’t for the students at all. Mianzi, it’s called. “Face”: making the university and its officials look good, and the university experience a “colourful” one for a day or two between the grey student months. Look, you had the Sports Meeting. Wasn’t that fun? Umm.

I was also a little ticked that I and younger foreign staff hadn’t been invited to join in. Oh, we wore our hats and marched (badly) in the mini-olympian opening ceremonies, but there were faculty races, too, but no wai guo ren had been asked. Then, a week ago, I got a surprise text, asking me to join one of the funky sprint relays that Chinese meets feature. In this case, it was six men and five women, with two 100-metre, six 200-metre and three 400-metre legs. In a “training session” last Monday, I got smoked by young Mr. Zou in a 400 trial, which meant that I’d be a 200 Man, with a shorter distance to lose time in. The goofy thing is that 50-something males – well, at least one that I know of – can still get pumped about silly athletic contests. (Okay, love, I’ve got a week to lose five pounds! Did, too.)

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Sun, Pavement, Hoops: Outdoor Sociology Class in China

Dear readers: yes, it’s about basketball again, but it’s not really about basketball, and besides, there’s more to basketball than just basketball. And who doesn’t like basketball?

I remember the first time I heard the beating drums and high-decibel chants. I thought, What? There are sports at Chinese universities? I found out that, yes, the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics suddenly sprouts, when spring comes, crowds of shouting fans ringing the outdoor courts, sometimes five and six deep, for something that looked suspiciously like basketball. They’d had them at my previous school, too, but games never happened at my end of the campus and what do I know? I pick up the gist of some conversations now, but none then, and I remain nearly as clueless in reading hanzi as when I came to Dalian five years ago. Illiteracy hurts.

The traditional Chinese drum rolled out of its first-floor closet at the School of International Business at quarter to noon today. I strolled out of my fifth-floor hideaway at about the same time, my pretence of marking papers and reading my writing students’ journals gratefully abandoned. It was SIB’s third game of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intramural basketball tournament at Dongbei U, and it was one of the brightest, warmest days we’ve had. I’d missed the first two games through linguistic obliviousness, but such is the appetite for hoops in an ex-pat coach-without-a-team that I detected extra bounce – I’m thinking, at least half a centimetre — in my stride as I hustled toward the “playground”, as the Chinese call the asphalt courts for basketball, volleyball and (soccer) football. Every university has ’em, in abundance — especially the basketball courts. It can be a worn-out hoopster’s paradise. Sometimes.

SIB, in white, on a blue-sky day.

SIB, in white, on a blue-sky day.

Listen: the quality of play isn’t very good, but the kids are nice and the sun was shining and I’ve played with a few of SIB’s best and besides, basketball is like pizza, or ice cream: even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

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Inside College Basketball*. (Almost.)

* With Chinese Characteristics.

What follows is the bemused, inconclusive, but delightful tale of an “innocent abroad”, yours truly, trying hard to enjoy whatever taste of locally grown hoops he could find, and understand how it worked. Coach Howden was in the building. Several times! He was, though, a long way from his own hometown hardwood, and no one offered him a whistle or a clipboard.

I stole moments in my school’s gym over several November weekends, after I accidentally found out that there was an ongoing tournament for Dalian universities and colleges, 16 of ’em. College hoops! 15 minutes walk from Apartment 902! Who knew?

It’s pretty bad basketball, actually, which wasn’t news to me. I’ve known for years that Chinese universities, if they have teams, field poorly trained squads — never mind their Q scores, they are barely known (beyond their girlfriends) on their own campuses — that play a tournament or two and then disappear completely. Because, though, of a cinematic cheese-fest called Kung Fu Dunk (starring pop idol Zhou Jielun, “Jay Chou”) that I

Surely one of the silliest movies ever. The key fight-scenes were backed by Mr. Chou singing how his “kung fu” would turn hapless opponents into “tofu”. (It rhymes even better in Chinese.) Priceless.

watched during my first flight into Beijing, I knew there was something called the Chinese University Basketball Association. The university I taught at my first two years, Dalian Ligong Daxue, our nearby University of Technology, has had a women’s CUBA team for years; periodically, I’d see tall women trudging toward the outdoor stadium for wind sprints, or hang around after an indoor 4-on-4 game to watch them practice. No men’s team, though, at least not then, and why did Ligong have a women’s CUBA team, anyway? Apparently, some connections, and a willingness to admit under-achieving graduates of specialized sports schools and shepherd them through something approximating a degree,

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Guest Post: A Chinese Student Speaks Up

Through a P2C2E — a “process too complicated to explain,” as Salman Rushdie called it in his wonderful youth novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories — I got to meet Ms. Z. Like many Chinese university students, perhaps most, she studies in a major chosen by her family, not by her. Unlike many, she is a writer, even in her second language. In a spasm of bravery, she wrote an English essay about something honest and true-hearted and even a bit angry, and it found its way to me. It is a declaration of independence. It is her youthful emancipation proclamation.

I was moved by her courage and her plain-spoken message, and asked her permission to share it with my readers. (I did a quick edit of some rough second-language edges, but this is all Ms. Z.) She is not a “typical” Chinese student, if you assume such a thing exists, but neither is she alone. Perhaps you will enjoy a small taste of life in a Chinese university — but this time, from an eagle-eyed student perspective. She calls her piece “Marionette Generation”.

The ties that bind.

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The Party, the Bread, the Track, and the Circus

God knows that I love bread. (Bread and I, however, are in the midst of a relatively amicable separation, and my waistline has noticed.) The student body at my university, and especially at the rich-kid college within it where I teach, is of a particularly well-fed demographic, and they see their grindstone bachelor’s degree exclusively as job training, nothing more. (The majority work in majors chosen for them, often with no real interest or aptitude in the subject but only faith in the promise of the “comfortable life” that most Chinese — understandably — seek.) Though privileged within Chinese society, they do endure acres of boredom and megatons of rote learning, so the circus does come to town. And though I am not above the occasional superior sneer at the circus entertainments chosen by others, I’m still a sucker for the Olympic march of the athletes, small-town parades, the communal experience of fireworks. Even loners like me love a good show, some high-wire performance, but I was recently put in mind of the ancient Roman poet Juvenal’s scorn of the use of “bread and circuses” to pacify a population.

It was Sports Day at my university in northeastern China, a day common to most schools here. It is a more of a show than a track and field meet, and actually two days of class are

The March of the One-Time Athletes. A beautiful day for a show. (Photo: JP Mayer)

sacrificed for it. Many students are required to miss class sessions in the days before in order to prepare, but not for their events. In a country where precious little importance is given to physical education – except, that is, for the tiny minority selected in their youth or childhood to attend State sports schools and bring sporting honour to their province or their Olympically-ambitious country – this once-yearly festival of geng kuai, geng gao, geng qiang (“faster, higher, stronger”) sees astonishingly little athletic preparation, or even the possibility of it. It drives my Canadian friend JP, a masters decathlete and long-time high-school coach, just slightly bonkers.

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And Another Thing! Heels Over Head In China

Yes, and sometimes they ARE upside-down. And BENT.

I posted, a few days ago, about the ways in which China is upside-down, at least from a Canada-centric point of view. I missed an obvious one.

Here’s the ‘nother thing: people here don’t sing sentimental anthems, a la Bryan Adams, or make nostalgic carpe diem speeches to adolescents, saying that university and especially high school are “the best years of your life”. (Lies the Adults Told Us. I could go on and on, and often did with my students  back home, but let me say this: high school is a painful and confusing period for many Canadian kids, and those early-bloomers for whom those really were the best of times are doomed to chronic disappointment.) China is really upside-down about that whole wish-I-was-young-again thing. They don’t miss high school a bit!

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Pride and Xenophobia: Hitting the Wall

Another James, an American Philosophy grad with a jones for football and a twinkly-eyed swagger, learned who his friends aren’t this week. He lives in the foreign teachers’ residence at our university, along with other Yanks, Aussies, Canucks and, not incidentally, several Japanese professors and students. Jim was rather indignant to find that women in the main-floor administrative office were posting patriotic – that is to say, anti-Japanese – stickers on the office door and in the lobby of the residence. (I wrote about the growing Chinese resentment over the Diaoyu Islands here.) He’s no newbie in China, our jock Socrates, and he saw no point in ‘opening a dialogue’. He took direct and impolitic action, indignantly removing posters that he found distasteful and presumably hurtful to visiting Japanese at our allegedly international university.


By the time I met raging James, he was hurt by the lies apparently told to his Chinese colleagues by the office girls he’d always been friendly with, sputtering darkly about threats of dismissal, and incredulous at how quickly he’d been offered the fond  f— you :  This is China. If you don’t like it, leave. Everywhere on our campus float the balloons, the proud red and yellow banners, and the insistent welcome of ubiquitous volun-told student smilers honouring big anniversaries for our school and our college. I don’t believe Jim went for the faculty photo (“an important historical document”) and the following festival of executive self-congratulation. I didn’t, either.

Why Read, Anyway? The Power of the Word

Serendipity lives. Despite my love for the contents of my own little basement-bound library, I still find myself looking for (and believing in) the Right Book at the Right Time. I’m an accidentalist by literary nature: am I dialled in to the there are no accidents synchronicity of the spiritually wired world? Or grasping at the bookish straws of superstition? Take your pick.

But I have learned that I don’t need to pack much homefront reading material when I travel, because text will find me. Sure, too often it’s just that day’s sports or entertainment in another town’s newspaper, but it’s surprising how often I whimsically come across a text that I’d been looking for, or one that filled a need I didn’t know I had. Today’s example comes from an aimless stroll through my local library. Living in the big city now – and Ottawa is hugely sophisticated compared to all my tiny towns – libraries are a whole new deal for me. They’re better than the one at home. There’s great stuff everywhere. On my way to the periodicals, I was stopped by the fairly plain cover of a book featured on the end of a shelf. Why Read? was its title, and why not? was my magnetized reply.

It’s another book on the importance of reading, of course, and though I figured it would be overly familiar, the Ol’ Readin’ ‘n’ Writin’ Coach couldn’t pass it by. Published in 2004, its author, Mark Edmundson, is an American professor of literature. I was attracted by his choice of title, yes, and then by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote with which he opens the book: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” [my emphasis] In the face of a literary establishment that favours detachment, irony and deconstruction (and which he skewers with bitter eloquence), Edmundson takes an unabashedly antique position. “Reading woke me up,” he says, and made him a teacher. His beautifully written opening essay, “Literary Life”, lays out his thesis:

[L]iterature…is the major cultural source of vital options for those who find that their lives fall short of their highest hopes,…our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing, however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.

You will see that Professor Edmundson is not one for the microscope, not an advocate for poetic alienation and identity politics.

“Books…are for nothing but to inspire.” Edmundson starts with Emerson, and builds from there a passionate and sweetly worded argument that is addressed firstly to those (his colleagues) who teach literature, and secondly to students who “read over the shoulders of your teachers”. He laments the loss of a truly liberal education in America: “Universities have become sites not for human transformation, but for training and for entertaining….[S]tudents use the humanities…to prepare for lucrative careers…[to] acquire marketable skills…[or as] sources of easy pleasure.” Edmundson, meanwhile, wants them to be MOVED, “to become other than they are”.

He insists on personal transformation as the basis of a true education. “’You must change your way of life,’ says Rilke’s sculpture of Apollo to the beholder. So says every major work of intellect and imagination, but in the university now – as in the culture at large – almost no one hears.” Mark Edmundson is gloomy about the way that his beloved literature has been used, torn asunder, isolated or completely abandoned in contemporary life, but goes on to suggest the ways it might be rehabilitated, and therefore help to rehabilitate us. He has something of the tone of the prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, and this emotional appeal combined with his reasoned and gorgeous prose lends it real credibility.

I was reminded of another citation of the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, this in the Canadian literary journal Brick. Included in the publishing data at the front of each issue is this statement of literary philosophy: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” Professor Edmundson would surely approve my added emphasis, and he echoes this frankly ecstatic tone throughout this excellent book. Why Read? is a profound meditation and a call to ivory tower action. I wonder how many are listening.