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Masculinity and Chinese Pick-Up Basketball

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China.  Basketball.  Masculinity. Amazing!!
In my summer contract here in China, a great and deep joy has been to play pick-up basketball on a fairly regular basis. Just down the road is a great court with views of the nearby mountains and lights for night playing. (Night time ball includes nature hazards: the crickets come onto the court and frogs come after the crickets!)  We gather after dinner and play half-court, 3 or 4 per side.  Why this warrants a blog post is the culture of masculinity on this court. 

I’ve played b-ball since grade 7, was an MVP on my grade 11 team, was a second team all-star and got some notice from the coaching staff at University of Calgary summer basketball camps.  Approaching grade 12 graduation and realizing I was lost in terms of a ‘what’s next’ vision, I quietly imploded in grade 12 and gave up my two loves: basketball and saxophone.  In the years since I've picked up music again and to a lesser degree, basketball.  I’ve played in some leagues and lots of pick up games.  Pick up games have proven to be the least satisfying due to the kind of masculinity that dominates a lot of pick up ball.  The relentless and sometimes violent arguing about fouls…the guy who decides its his job to coach everyone else when they do something that doesn’t work…and my all time pet peeve, the player who curses at 97 decibels when his shots don’t fall.   So imbalanced!!

In my rites of passage work and mentor role, I’ve developed an effective response to this last dynamic.  I’ll stop the game to say, “Okay look, I hear you yelling and swearing when you miss shots, which of course everyone does, but only you scream about the mistakes you make.  So I’m going to shut down the game unless you change.  Go ahead and keep swearing when you miss, but when you hit one, you have to celebrate with equal intensity, or this game is done!”   Very effective in raising awareness!  Just sayin’. 

Back to China.  Tonight was my 15th time playing here. Lots of different men show up, some regulars, some infrequently, some younger guys, some teens, some in their mid 30’s I’d guess.  At 52 I reckon I'm the oldest.   When we play they are uniformly calm, easy with smiles, competitive yes, but never against each other.  Both teams applaud especially great plays.  They laugh about funny moments, and when a game ends it would be impossible for a random spectator to tell who won or lost. 

Many of them live great distances away from family, partners and their children and spend their days off on long bus, train and plane trips to visit.  They work long hours and live in a tall building that inexplicably has no air conditioning.   It’s been a hot, muggy summer with average temperatures in the low to mid 30’s and more heavy smog days than clear days.  The place I’ve been living in doesn’t have air conditioning either, but I have my own room and am on the ground floor.  These men live up to 6 floors high, 4 to 6 to a dorm room.  I didn’t like myself much during the peak heat of July, living in what felt like a 24-hour sauna.  I was in a weird mood, tense, feeling pressed down on, no feeling of “home” to be found.  It is easily imaginable that the basketball court could be a place to release pent-up frustrations with aggression and physical outbursts.  But it doesn’t happen.

They play hard, push each other and themselves, but I haven’t seen or felt any kind of overt aggression or negativity.  Well, okay, one exception: a younger guy who tends to call ‘foul’ when his shots don’t fall.  I talked with him through a translator about that and then played against him.  He stopped doing it. 

I LOVE playing with these guys.  I’m so aware of their peaceful warrior sport culture that I feel a bit embarrassed when the rust in my game shines through for all to see yet again, or my own competitive nature kicks with some aggression.  I find myself wanting to sulk, kick the fence, play harder, swear.  I know I am losing my edge a bit, and they can see it, feel it.  It’s good for me to play with these men.  They are really ‘spirit of the game’ players. They are helping me learn to stay loose in situations where I get tight….down low under the basket, trying to avoid my shots getting blocked, or trying to keep up with the 2 former professional players here.

All of this was true already.  But tonight something new happened: I got hurt.  I had a knee on knee collision with one of the stockier men.  The intense pain took me down to the ground right away with eyes shut and I couldn’t communicate or move for some minutes. When the pain receded enough to focus on getting off the court and I opened my eyes, I was amazed to see that both half-court games had stopped and everyone was around me. What I received today I have never ever seen before.   It was really extraordinary!  I had to wave off the pack, thanking them, but telling them to go play again!  They just stayed with me. I felt really lucky and really cared about. They literally carried me to a sideline bench, got some Chinese medicine liquid to rub on my knee and got me some ice.  A few minutes later one man rode my bike home for me while the man who’s knee I ran into drove me back to my place and I was carried inside!

I typically don’t do well with injuries.  Often my inner critic and my internalized male oppression will want to punish my own vulnerability.  It attacks me, calling me stupid and blaming me for the injury.  I noticed just now that that dynamic never had the chance to begin, surrounded by such active concern.  

In Canada in pick up games there are lots of injuries and I’ve had some myself.  Typically a few guys come over to the injured player, act a bit awkward, decide to get some ice, then go back to playing.  It can look a bit cold, and often, it pretty much is, as a sense of genuine concern isn’t really there.  Sometimes the injured players are left to figure out how to hobble around and get back home on their own.  Ankle sprains are common and can be pretty wickedly painful, but again, the group often leaves those injured as soon as 1 or 2 people appear to be helping. 

I want to be clear that this is not a direct criticism.  Men do offer help, but caring for an injured stranger is clearly not the priority.  And in Western culture, it won’t be without systemic education about gender role identity.  My masculinity work has shown me thousands of times and ways how deeply socialized men are to demonstrate invulnerability, whether dealing with their own injury or that of another man.  Replacement players are invited in quickly and the focus is really on getting back to the game.   

Working here a few times has helped me see the basic distinction often noted between East and West: We vs Me.  Both East and West cultural frameworks have positives and negatives, and broad comparisons like this area always dangerous because they always miss diversity and nuanace. And, I'm going in!  My injury experience was really about cultural values and focus.  Chinese culture values the group/family more strongly than Western culture, and I really appreciated that!  In my masculinity work here last year I heard a lot of the same issues and pressures expressed by Chinese men that I hear from Canadian men, until the topic of family emerged.  Familial piety and the pervasive emphasis on looking after one's parents is not something I've heard much of in my masculinity work outside of China.  The expression I see of this Chinese value really touched me last night, as the 'family' of basketball players took care of one of their own.  I know from the 1 on 1 coaching sessions I've done with many company staff here is that the flip side of group-first mentality is often a frustrated, unknown and unexpressed sense of self and individuality, and difficultly in asking for one's own needs.  Like the sublime intelligence of ying and yang, East and West have so much to offer and integrate from one another.  

I figure the last time I played ball this frequently was actually in high school, or in my early 20’s at the latest.  Just getting on the court again, knowing I was going to be able to do this for 3 month (but only on days when the smog counts are really low), has been a very spiritual experience.  Getting back into the movement patterns that define basketball, and playing in actual games has been quite moving for me and created a reconnection to something very deep and precious in my being.  A large part of this experience, woven deeply into it, has been my incredible enjoyment, surprise and respect for the men and boys who play here.  What I see as their masculine style has a maturity and eldership that is important to me and largely missing back on Canadian courts/culture.  I LOVE IT!  It really touches me and I will do my best to carry the impression they have made upon me back into whatever level of basketball I can manage when I return home.  Their presence has been pretty much the most deeply fun and consistently enjoyable part of my summer here.  I bow with respect and gratitude to the men of the b-ball court of Jackson Hole, China!