Friday, May 06, 2005

Football at Beida

Recently I have spent a lot of time on the Peking University campus hanging out with friends, reading cartoons, and playing football. I know, I'm such a slacker. This piece is about when I go and play football at the awful dirt ground next to Weiminghu.

When I get there I usually approach one of the groups of people that are already playing on the field and pretty much just step in on the field. Usually without saying anything or being told anything I just start playing in one of the teams. Sometimes someone points at one of the goals or maybe there will a short word exchange among the players on which team I should join. That is how it is done. Then we play like we are trying to ignore each other.

If I were in any other country I would never just walk into the field, since that would interrupt and disturb the game. This way would in any other place drive me nuts, since suddenly there would be a bunch of new guys on the field and you would have no idea who is playing with whom. A for me 'normal' approach would possible be to, at an appropriate moment, ask if one could join. I also imagine that in almost any other country your team-mates would say something like "Hi!", or nod at you when you join in. Back home I would even tell the team my name and they would usually say theirs and possible even shake hands. Not here. I am completely ignored, though they are VERY well aware that there is a FOREIGNER playing with them. At most there would be some nervous laughs ("He he! A foreigner!") behind my back. I would even guess that is would be such a big deal that some will talk about it with their friends afterwards.

It is perhaps worth to mention is that we are sometimes 30-40 people on a 7-man field and in my eyes that makes the game quite boring. Where I come from people coming to the game late would probably be asked to wait if there would be more than 20 more people on the field . They would understand and either wait or start up their own game. In my thinking it is better that 20 people play a fun game than 40 play a really boring and pointless pinball version of football. I understand that these guys are probably used to playing like. Perhaps in their viewpoint it would also be unthinkable to deny anyone else from joining, especially if the joining guy would have some friends already playing. So, in my point of view, everybody loose. But that is just how it works. I personally leave when there is too many people.

Playing with these guys is kind of interesting for me since my other Chinese friends are somewhat interested in languages and other countries. I seems to me that a majority of these guys aren't interested in learning English (they are not preparing for any language exams) and have no interest in (or hope of?) going abroad. My guess is also that they generally don't like or even strongly dislike foreigners. Chinese friends tell me that there are quite a lot of folks like that, but they probably rarely let a foreigner know. I imagine that they are the people that glare angrily at me and the ones that go on with long ramblings on the forums about the bad foreign influence on poor victim, yet in all ways superior, China.

When staying in China for a while one can get the impression that everybody are trying to learn English or are really interested in getting to know foreigners. I don't think that is case. If there is no language exam ahead I think most people couldn't care less. The impression probably comes from the fact that the people that are interested and like foreign things, they are the ones that generally approach you and become your friend.

So I'm playing ball with them. There is very little talk, and almost only between the people that are already friends. The no-talking part actually hurts the game. It is pretty useful to communicate with words or shouts. "Watch your back!", "Pass!", or "Hey!!" can help a great deal. I in fact do my own thing and go on doing that. The quietness is very strange since in almost any other circumstance people here are very loud. I guess some encouragements or small celebrations wouldn't hurt either. The lack of that is perhaps a little more understandable because of the tendency to not want to stand out from the group. So, when someone scores there sometimes is a short "Yeah!", possible a short applause, and then that's over, back to silence. Everybody goes back, looking down to the ground, pretending nothing has happened. Me too. If anyone shouted and made a little run with their arms stretched up, I guess nobody would do him any harm, but it just doesn't happen. If I did it I think it would be pretty awkward and I would be the foreigner showing off.

People ask me if I love China and I usually reply that I don't. Why do I think so and why am I still here then?

It's not the noise, it's not being pushed by people, it's not how people cut the line, it's not the pollution, it's not the greasy food, it's not the grey boring buildings, it's not the traffic, not the spitting, not the dirt and trash. These things can make you rant and whine on a bad day, but I think that would happen to any foreigner in another country. Perhaps just a little more in this particular one.

As a matter of fact, I meet very few people (right now I can't remember anyone) that have stayed here a longer time and say they love this country. I know several people that have stayed in for example India, Nepal, South Africa, Chile etc. and say that they really love these countries. For the good and the bad, they love that country, they love the people there. I understand them. I think I could feel that for these countries too. I've stayed in India for 6 months and although I went through hardships, being stared at, cheated, had sever diarrhea, most people there are very genuinely friendly in their approach. It is annoying sometimes, but usually warm and friendly. (That is if you travel away from major tourist spots like Agra where everything basically sucks.)

Back to China. People that you meet either stare at you or ignore you (but are oh so aware that you are there). People behind you look at you, some turn around and have a quick glance, and some start talking about the "foreigner". They REALLY do a good job to make you feel like an outsider. They folks from the country side stare at you or even shout at your back when you have passed by ("Laowai! Helloor! Hehehee..."). Since I live in a neighborhood in Beijing with a lot of foreigners I fortunately don't get too much of that. Another scenario is that some brave person comes and wants to practice English. That person might be lingering around for a while, hovering near you, while you sit there just waiting for the “Are you from America?” to hit you. That leads to the usual boring questions and the "Your Chinese is very good".

Maybe all this doesn't sound too strange too you and that this is normal when coming to a different culture? I guess my feelings are pretty difficult to express. The experience here is so much different from where I have traveled and lived before. Singapore (1 year+), Malaysia (numerous trips), Thailand (5 trips), Mongolia, India (6 months), Nepal, Morocco, USA (1 year), Russia and all over Europe. You can sense that China has been very isolated country. Isolated not only in number of people going abroad and people coming here, but also how people are educated, and how "foreigners" are portrayed for example on TV. When traveling in Mongolia people treated you like a person, not necessarily friendly, but not like some superstar, enemy, or an ET.

I think my lack of affection for this country comes from this cold approach.

Maybe I should say something about the strenuous hospitality and overly generosity that kicks in when treated as a guest, but I will do that some other time.

Update (May 14th):

Since this is the longest post I probably have ever written, I will add some more things to really make it a great record. Congratulations and to all of you (3?) souls that actually manage to read it all. Pity on you that you have nothing better to do.

I played another 3 hour session this Friday. This time the guys were dressed in identical blue clothes. Both teams. When first coming to China it might be difficult to distinguish people from each other. Chinese also have this problem with people of other races. Playing football with people that I don't know, with the same clothes, and having the same color of hair and skin is a challenge. I tried to suggest that one team should take off their shirts (because they were also getting a little confused), but that only happened for 5 minutes. After that there had already come and gone so many people so it was all screwed up. Since I really didn't want to run around and police and manage things, I just played defender. My tactic? Try to take the ball from whoever was trying to come my way. Then pass to whoever was running away from me. Kind of worked.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... A little down today, are we now?? Don't worry, soon you will be back in Sweden for midsummer and I will force-feed you with sill o potater, kottbullar, schnaps, dill and knackebrod until you get your mood up again. ;-)


Johan said...

Being force-fed with knäckebröd doesn't sound like a good way to cheer someone up... ;) sounds more like... torture

I'm alright with the rest. I might be heading to Stefan's summer house in Värmland. We'll see. Worst case would be that I work.

Anonymous said...

an accurate picture of our life here! i was continously nodding while reading :-)
i wonder what my chinese friends would think if i forward this piece to them? they are well above that level of (non)communication but still, would they reflect on it or just be reactional? hmmm...

Anonymous said...

oups, sorry, forgot to declare my identity!
its ceren, and im not anonymous at at! ;-))

Johan said...

It was an attempt to try to describe a feeling that I often have here, but I realized that even if I used a lot of words I am not so happy with the result. I'm really glad you could identify with some of it though.

Anonymous said...

Wow. They sound like Koreans.

Allan said...

I fairly understand you. Personally, at least for some of them, that's due to the lack of confidence. They don't actually want to ignore you, they feel shame on their English level to communicate with you so the way they choose is to just escape. (This happens not only in this case, but for all the situations when they don't wanna face up to their disadvantages)

But what you write is all true. I cann't defend anything actually. We have to improve. We get a long way to go.

Johan said...

Hi Allan!
Amazing that you read all of this. It's been a long learning process living in China, and though I often forget to mention it, I actually don't think other people are THAT different.

You really don't have to try to defend other Chinese, as well as I hope you won't make me responsible for what other Swedish people do. I do appreciate that you try to explain though.

You are a really friendly dude, and that is enough for me.