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Larger than Yao

July 19, 2011

篮球. lán qiú. basketball.

I spent the better half of the 2009 summer living in the autonomous region of Yinchuan, Ningxia.  To this day it is altogether one of the more interesting and memorable experiences I’ve had in the Peoples Republic.  Partly because as a white american I was even more of a minority than the minority population in an autonomous province of China.  And partly because I was teaching english full-time to a jubilant, wide-eyed and sometimes outrageous group of students at a local language school.  I had several different classes with students ranging from 12 – 18 years of age.

Some lessons were taken from books, and many I created myself, or simply went impromptu.  With the older group of students, in a class of about ten, I was as curious from a perspective I had never been before.  It was the first time in my life I found myself leading a group of adolescents.  The time where voices crack and hormones rage as often as new pimples form. For one of the first times in my life I actually was conscious of myself trying to act cool.  Although this probably just added to the awkwardness of it all, it also eased the tight adolescent tension and recalcitrant ways.  Most of these classes I conducted in a round-table discussion-like setup with the goal of informality and comfort.  In the first few sessions, in order to prove that I was indeed cool and could educate at the same time, I printed up a packet of song lyrics and played music through my laptop.  I wanted to teach them genre’s of music, instruments and also dissect various lyrics and their meaning.  And as we all sat there, listening to music from Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and other great artists, most seemed somewhat interested–an achievement in a group of adolescents from my perspective.

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As time went on the comfort level increased and classroom dialogue became more meaningful.  One underlying theme, that I wish to touch upon now, seemed to resonate with the males–an unconditional love for the NBA.  Just recently I read a two-part essay by Asian American columnist Jay Caspian Kang.  This is the first time I’ve read any of Kang’s material.  His writing is eloquent, raw, humorous and a pleasure to read.  One essay, which inspired this post, was a reflection about the cultural impact of Yao Ming:

“The mammoth hope of a national athletic program representing 1.2 billion people, Yao was Chinese, on a scale we had never seen before…With Yao, I always felt that same dread. In an absurd, yet still significant way, watching him over the past nine years was like watching a video of my parents. I worried he would mispronounce a word, bomb a joke, or say something awful about his black teammates. Yes, I should probably not compare a 7-foot-6 Chinese basketball player who can carefully select his televised moments with an immigrant parent who has to make his or her way through a skeptical and oftentimes cruel country, but when the scope of available cultural references goes from Jackie Chan to Jet Li to Bruce Lee to Ichiro to Yao to Yan Can Cook, you sometimes have no option but to inflate, conflate, and, at times, fabricate. We live in an era in which self-identification is just the pastiche of relatable characters we piece together while staring in the mirror. Where else could we look for that story? Margaret Cho? Tiger Mothers? The Joy Luck Club?”

Billboard of Yao Ming in downtown Yinchuan, Ningxia

On the other side of the world, what peaked my own curiosity was pretty much the opposite of this cultural inquiry.  In other words, the effect that cultural icons in the universe of sports, such as Yao Ming, have on those with a similar nationality. More specifically, what is it about the National Basketball League that causes the younger generation of male adolescents to designate their english names after their favorite NBA stars.  This is no fabrication, two out of five students in this particular group named themselves James and McGrady.  An even larger population of Chinese youth sport NBA gear on a daily basis and express ‘playing basketball’ as there favorite hobby.  In Yinchuan I had the pleasure of visiting a beautiful and large gated high-school that could easily have been mistaken for a small University.  Once inside I was invited to participate in a game of badminton with members of the faculty.  Upon walking into the gymnasium I was shocked to find a handful of 5 v 5 basketball games taking place.  I recall particularly one student who stood above the rest, dominating the floor and draining outside shots with perfect form.  For a good moment I truly felt like a NBA scout and imagined myself in a Chinese version of Blue Chips.

The fascination and self-identification of a good percentage of China’s youth to the NBA is widespread and ever-growing.  Yet unlike the content of Kang’s essays, which articulates a cultural impact from the insular lens of America, these students were more passionate about NBA’s all-stars: Kobe, McGrady, Lebron, Nash and so on.  Concerned more accurately with talent than origins. Perhaps Yao was a bit before there time. However, it should be expressed that Yi Jianlian was given respective air-time amongst the voice-cracking conversations.

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