Thursday, September 6, 2007
Updated: September 17, 3:15 PM ET
The China diaries
By Graham Hays
Editor's note: ESPN.com's Graham Hays is in China covering the 2007 Women's World Cup. He will file occasional diary entries for Page 2 during his trip.
SHANGHAI, China -- Stewed frog ovaries in a papaya cup will have to wait.
It's not every morning you wake up in Connecticut and go to bed 30 hours later in China's largest city after having flown over the Arctic Ocean and Mongolia. And it's not every day you go from a Dunkin' Donuts coffee for breakfast to the option, even if left unexercised, of said frog ovaries (with an accompanying menu photograph in case you were on the fence) for dinner. It just happened to be this day.
Shanghai is my jumping-off point for covering the Women's World Cup, and specifically the United States women's national team's attempts to reclaim a title lost four years ago on home soil. But while I'm traipsing around the country, attempting to figure out just how Abby Wambach's toe is feeling and if North Korea is indeed a sleeper or just the most overhyped flop-in-waiting since the Segway, the good folks at Page 2 agreed to humor my attempts at sharing some of the sights and sounds of both the tournament and the country that will host next year's Olympics.
And maybe it's the jet lag talking, but my initial impression is that Yao Ming is pretty big over here.
Ming's visage isn't the first face greeting travelers as they pass through immigration at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport -- that honor goes to the two gaunt Caucasians striking poses in an Armani ad plastered on columns looming directly over the shoulders of terse, bored and unsmiling immigration agents -- but it's hard to miss Ming's larger-than-life mural advertising next summer's Olympics.
A team consisting of a driver, a point man and a teenage interpreter meets me at the airport for the hour-plus ride to downtown Shanghai. After spending large chunks of the summer trying to Pod-ucate myself with at least a basic understanding of Mandarin, I'm dismayed when the teenager, a tremendously obliging sounding board who says his name is Opie, smiles awkwardly at my attempts to greet him in Mandarin and then explains away his incomprehension by saying his English is not very good. Apparently, it's still better than my unrecognizable Chinese.
Mandarin is a tonal language, with the same word meaning vastly different things depending on the inflection given (the word "mal" literally means mother, hemp or cow, among other things, depending on the tone). And as any music teacher who suffered through class with me until I was allowed to drop choir one glorious day in junior high can attest, I have no sense of tone, pitch or rhythm (and in some cases, taste).
But after several more attempts at conversation and several more awkward smiles and fervent wishes by both parties that the driver already slaloming his way through traffic like Alberto Tomba might pick up the pace, we finally find common ground.
"Yao Ming, he's from Shanghai, right?" I ask.
Opie shifts from polite suffering to outright pride, confirming Ming is a son of the city.
"We are all very proud of him," he says, pausing to make sure "proud" is the right word.
I ask if basketball is popular in the city, and my new friend confirms that while it is, it's mostly only with the young generation still in school (and somewhere at that point, David Stern felt a warm glow settle over his wallet). He and his friends don't necessarily play much themselves, but they go home after school and watch the games on television whenever possible.
After they drop me off at the hotel, I head out into the Shanghai night with the four guys who, along with ESPN reporter Jaime Motta, form the team that will travel on the road with the U.S. women throughout the tournament. Sure enough, while feasting on what seems like at least a dozen dishes served family style (magically working out to about $20 per person with the exchange rate), there is Ming on the television perched on the restaurant wall.
In a city where monitors in cabs blare advertisements from the moment you sit down and neon lights make the night sky little more than a rumor, it's not clear how much of Ming's prominence is fueled by demand and how much is fueled by a desire to portray that demand -- I've yet to see anyone wearing his jersey (five jerseys outsold Ming's in China last season, according to NBA.com), although perhaps people here just generally have a little more fashion sense than to wear jerseys after the age of 12.
But I'm betting I see one before anyone understands my Mandarin. Or before I try stewed frog ovaries.
CHENGDU, China -- Remember the stories about the original Dream Team turning hotels into virtual fiefdoms, stopping by Monte Carlo for a little hand-eye training at the roulette table and generally living the high life on their way to a gold medal in 1992?
That's not exactly how the United States women's soccer team rolls in China.
Curled up in a chair in the packed waiting area for Gates 52-56 in the domestic terminal of Pudong Airport, Heather O'Reilly looks nothing like a pampered superstar as she attempts to steal a few minutes of sleep despite the ergonomically deficient, spine-stiffening seat familiar to air travelers everywhere. Sitting on the floor nearby, Lindsay Tarpley waits her turn at the communal power-charging station as the loudspeaker barks out the latest shuttle flight departing for one of China's middle-tier cities.
Both O'Reilly and Tarpley own gold medals from the 2004 Olympics. Both are on their second trip this year to China. And both will play major minutes here in the World Cup.
All of which and about a 1,000 RMB seat upgrade will get them out of coach, as the saying goes.
After numerous trips to China in recent years -- press officer Aaron Heifetz, for example, is on his eighth -- the team might not mind a shot at living the high life of charter flights and all the other perks of privilege, but following them as they traverse the country amidst businessmen and families offers a glimpse of a more authentic China (granted, trains and buses still dominate mass travel here).
Beijing may be working out ways to curb its traffic congestion (not to mention limit the food sales from vendors whose stalls are attached to public restrooms), but in making the trek from Shanghai to Chengdu, where the U.S. will play its first two games, it became rather obvious that hurrying to wait on next summer's stars still takes a backseat some places to a more fitting philosophy of everyday life.
Hurry up and wait.
Vehicles spanning the transportation spectrum, from rickshaws to Bentleys -- but mostly the ubiquitous Volkswagen Santana -- clogged the roads in Shanghai and on the highways leading to the airport. Drivers cut each other off with a skill that bordered on artistry. Not going anywhere at all might earn a driver a flash of the brights from the car in the rearview mirror (honking having been officially discouraged), but nearly running a neighboring car off the road in order to change lanes and gain an extra six inches in the gridlock rarely merited so much as an angry gesture. It was no different on foot, where lines were merely starting points for mass exercises in unprotested cutting, interspersed with occasional bursts of almost orderly pushing.
In this setting, you take what you can get, whether it's an uncomfortable chair to sleep in or a plane from a bygone era of aviation.
"You may want to clear the chickens off your seat," someone not with the team wryly remarked as the bus transporting us from the terminal to the tarmac pulled to a stop in front of the diminutive Air China jet earmarked for the moderately lengthy flight to Chengdu.
It wasn't quite an "Indiana Jones" setting once inside the plane, but you got the feeling the wings definitely held seniority over most of the players on the team. Even more problematic was a seat pitch that made a row in the grandstand at Fenway Park look like a long line of La-Z-Boy recliners.
An ill-timed recline here could have left the person behind you impaled on his tray table.
After an announcement in Chinese was greeted by loud groans all around -- one of the first public displays of dismay I'd seen since arriving -- it turned out the flight was to be delayed an hour due to air congestion, leaving us sitting in our seats on the tarmac. Apparently, the rules of the runway are a little stricter than those of the streets.
But the rumble of discontent quickly subsided as the flight attendants -- and judging from the skirt etched on the figure on the call button above each seat, that's still not a unisex term in China -- made their way through the aisle with lunch and beverages (beer was notably among the complimentary choices, at least until it ran out).
Chengdu, in the southwest corner of the country and far removed from other rising centers of industry, felt a little more relaxed upon arrival, sort of a San Diego to Shanghai's Los Angeles (although with a population of more than 10 million, Chengdu is almost as big as the entire L.A. metropolitan area). Or at least it felt as though Chengdu moved to a more mellow beat until we discovered our driver was boldly making his way up the wrong way of one-way street, and a busy one at that, in a daring gambit to make it to the hotel without having to go around the block.
A car swerved at the last second, a bus pulled to a stop to avoid a head-on collision and we pulled into the hotel with nary a horn angrily announcing our arrival.
It seems you're never going to get anywhere very quickly here, so you better try as hard as you can to gain every possible second and every possible inch.
Just don't be too upset when it doesn't work.
And did I mention the free beer?
CHENGDU, China -- Both may be archetypes of our perception of Chinese life, but it turns out close encounters with pandas are a lot more fun than close encounters with secret police.
It's impossible not to find yourself grinning like a kid and repeatedly saying "cute" while watching China's national symbols use their proto-thumbs to grip the bamboo shoots they casually munch by the pound, doze while wedged between tree branches dozens of feet off the ground, or wrestle playfully on platforms.
It makes you think: Has anyone ever tried staging peace talks in a panda preserve?
I had a chance to overdose on cute firsthand at the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Centre in Chengdu, a city that takes great pride in its role as the country's unofficial panda capital, bright and early on Friday morning, tagging along as the production crew for ESPN's three-week coverage of the Women's World Cup got a few minutes of background footage of the famous furry beasts.
Rather than fend for myself in a country where that can be a difficult task if you don't speak the language and don't have wheels, I'm piggybacking (or mooching, depending on the moment) all trip with the five-man television crew comprised of producer Jim Witalka, reporter Jaime Motta, cameraman Mike Kuhne, soundman Nick Balogh and interpreter Ren Tong. And if that means taking a break from futilely trying to dig up any useful information on the secretive North Korean squad to go play with pandas, I just have to suck it up and be a team player. It's a rough life.
Driving out of the central downtown area toward the panda park, the dichotomy of China's urban landscape is impossible to miss. While Chengdu isn't in the midst of the same kind of building frenzy that marks Shanghai's skyline, it still sports a vast sprawl of skyscrapers. But get even a few kilometers outside that zone and the buildings quickly shrink to more human scale. Dirt side roads and narrow alleyways replace the wide boulevards, dogs wander more freely and bikes, many with wide flatbeds built onto their backs, gain even greater numerical advantage over cars and trucks.
This is another side of China, one where the World Cup -- and certainly the four letters of the Worldwide Leader -- hold no sway whatsoever. The world here is what you see in front of you. That is certainly the case with the guards at the park entrance, who put little stock in credentials or a letter from local organizers when it comes to letting us in to film the real VIPs. Apparently Chinese hospitality, omnipresent everywhere we go, ends at the gates that guard the big bears (which, as it turns out, are more closely related to raccoons than bears).
Finally we gain entry, and after some searching, find the pandas. A sign near the park entrance displays a quote from Indira Gandhi suggesting that a nation can be judged by how it treats its animals. This park appears to take that to heart. Within a few steps, the noise and claustrophobia of a major Chinese city vanish into the languid quiet of a natural forested environment. Even the nursery where one of the pandas born last year sleeps in a hospital-style crib looks pristine and state-of-the-art.
This is definitely a profit-driven enterprise -- for 400 RMB you can have your picture taken petting an adult panda -- but as someone points out half-seriously, the animals get far more space and a higher quality of life than some of the people just outside the walls.
As if to reinforce that notion, our departure is delayed when three cars suddenly box in our van just as it's pulling away from the park entrance. Men, some dressed in police-style shirts or pants, hop out of the cars and open the doors to our van, peering inside and barking commands at our driver and Tong, the team's interpreter who lives in Guilford, Conn. Both are asked (or ordered) out of the van and split apart from each other, our driver yelling in an angry manner that makes it clear his volume has nothing to do with the normal ebb and flow of Mandarin tones.
At this point, I'm feverishly trying to remember what the word for "embassy" is in Chinese.
Chengdu is a little off the normal tourist map, situated far inland and away from cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but the panda preserve is one of the city's calling cards. On this day it was full of British tourists, American kids and one guy in a Boston College T-shirt making the rounds with his girlfriend. But as those of us inside the van listen nervously to an argument that none of us can understand, we're reminded that this is definitely a different place with different rules.
It turns out that the guys in the cars weren't even official police, but instead part of a transportation committee empowered to crack down on illegal taxi services. The whole event is ultimately nothing more than a momentary delay but it sure didn't feel that way when van doors were pulled open.
Talk about killing a panda buzz.