MLB has officially invaded China, and despite growing concerns (or the complete denial) of political unrest in the much-disputed province of Tibet, everything is going just swell! For China, this entire event is considered a blip of a test run before the unveiling of their true grandeur as the host of the 2008 Olympic Games. For US Americans, this is the beginning of making a lot of $$$ in a virtually untapped market. And what better way to showcase our national past-time to China than to have the San Diego Padres (a bunch of bat-wielding religious zealots!) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (a group of fleet-foots named after dodging danger!) play to a 3-3 tie–the ultimate proletariat resolution to conflict. (*Another, more effective way is to simply shoot your opponent.)
Of course, the Chinese already arduously follow a sport with similarly anticlimactic outcomes. It’s called soccer, or futbol–zuqiu in Mandarin, of which I’m a fluent speaker, because, yes I’m brilliant. And arrogant. And stubborn. And sleazy. In other words, I am China.
Seriously though, I do fancy myself as an intellectual capable of overcoming cultural boundaries, stereotypes, and all that other smart sounding stuff. My four years living in China are testament to this. In fact, prior to my Fulbrightonian quest to become the world’s most renown sinologist (still working on that; we thank you for your patience) I knew that there was some history, albeit brief, of baseball in China, but I never gave it much thought. Taiwan (not China by the way), because of its American and Japanese military/political presences, had a better grasp of the game–played it even–but weren’t that good. Watching a televised Taiwanese professional contest is about as exciting as watching presidential candidates arm-wrestle: interesting, but for all the wrong reasons.
In my experience, the Chinese (back to the Mainland now) find the actual name of the sport, bangqiu, more appealing than the sport itself. Loosely transliterated from the English "baseball", bang means "great!", "awesome!", "grand!". Qiu means "ball". Naturally, Aweseome!ball sounds like the rip-roarin’ time that it is. However, when my scary Communist Party Official professor, Mr. Wang Jianguo asked me "what exactly is baseball?" and I answered with a twenty minute diatribe explaining balls and strikes, the bases, three outs, 9 innings, etc, I got a terse response: "Sounds too complicated to be embraced by the masses. It doesn’t sound ‘awesome’ at all."
This hiccup in my international relationship building project really left a sour taste in my mouth. So, 8 years before MLB ever played a game in China, I took my message to the streets, professing my love and faith for my country’s greatest, awesomest, grandest game. I found the one outlet in all of Beijing (a Japanese store no less) that actually had baseball gloves, balls, bats, and I started showing up in parks, hanging out and hitting pop flies into wide open spaces otherwise occupied by diligent university bookworms until someone would approach me to see what in the world I was doing. Occasionally, curious onlookers would get past the fact that I was a whitey who spoke their language and would actually stay quiet long enough to let me explain the gists of the game. But more often than not, I didn’t get very far.
Eventually, a certain 50-something Mr. Qian Deping became interested in what I was professing. After he made certain I wasn’t a Christian missionary using an obscure, odd angle to push Jesus, he began to show up more frequently; he became my biggest fan. Okay, my only fan. Having his undivided attention, I began to realize just how difficult it is to adequately explain the rules of baseball to someone who has never even seen or heard of it before. Mr. Qian didn’t follow most of what I taught; and he was very adamant against the idea of ‘three strikes and you’re out’.
"I’m afraid not. Three strikes and you’re out."
"This is not a good game for the people."
"Why? I think it’s a great game for the people. It celebrates individuality in the spirit of team, community, common goals."
"The people will not like it. They will not like being ‘out’. They want another try."
As much as the people may not like being ‘out’, Mr. Qian finally got up the nerve to throw the ball around with me. He threw like a girl. I couldn’t help but laugh.
"The people simply throw. There is no distinguishing between ‘like a girl’ or ‘like a boy’."
He had a point because I couldn’t get him to throw like a boy. He was stuck in his ways, and quite comfortable. His reinterpretation of the game included banning base-stealing because "stealing is a crime" and shortening games to only 8 innings because "eight is a lucky number and nine is not."
How could I argue with such logic?
I handed him a bat, stepped off 60 1/2 feet and threw him a lazy fastball. He just stared at it as it passed by, hitting a cement wall behind him. "You’re supposed to hit it, Mr. Qian. Just rear back and take a swing." I took a little off the next one and watched–in slow motion–this 50-plus year old man windup the most unorthodox swing and crush the ball to what would’ve been straight away center field had it been a ballpark and not a campus quadrangle.
I turned and watched it soar, fly high through a grey sky with that song from The Natural repeating in my head while time froze. Every hair on my body stood up. Tingles rushed from head to toe. For a few seconds, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The ball landed among a bunch of lounging Beijing University students who screamed and scattered like shrapnel upon its descent, looking in every direction for a culprit, a foreign devil. All eyes turned to me. In unison their glares scolded me for my tomfoolery.
But the deafening celebratory cackles of ecstasy by Mr. Qian broke up any ensuing retaliation by the student mob. I turned back to where home plate would have been and saw Mr. Qian holding the bat high above his head like a Tusken Raider, screaming sounds of victory to all who would hear.
"I did it! I did it! I won!"
Mr. Qian was a winner on that day (grab the Kleenex) and so was I. I may never have gotten to see him figure out how to run the bases or catch a ball or pitch in the strike zone, but for that one brief moment I was an integral part of mending two cultures that had grown accustomed to bickering over differences. Finally, the game I loved proved a fine (though at times confusing) ambassador to the people I had worked so hard to understand, to be a part of.
That was all the proof I needed to know that someday China would get baseball. It will take some time–well, honestly, it will take a very long time. But if the Chinese people as a whole are good at anything, it’s copying things that have already been proven successful. Whether it’s mass producing bootlegged DVDs or creating faux designer clothing or reinventing our national pastime as their own, I expect that eventually our broadcasters will be stumbling over names like Zhang Jianguo, Zhu Fengming, Li Ningshou, Jiang Jiahe, He Weili and Mou Daiguo. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be able to get an order of pot stickers and gulao jirou at the game. But no fortune cookies, please. Nothing could be farther from truly authentic things-Chinese than fortune cookies. Those are designated especially for American ******.
Don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m right (yinwei wo shuo de dui, suoyi, bu yao hen wo).