Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Take me out to the crowd

Note: I wrote this on July Third, but I did not finalize it until today.

Tomorrow is independence day, so today, I will talk about baseball.
Last Saturday, before I began teaching, I walked around the city. My favorite activity when I am traveling is wandering without aim, general goals, and lots of time. Doing this, I found a big building with an open gate. The guard was gone, so I drifted inside. If someone had caught me I would have failed to speak Chinese and expected to be excused as a crazy, or retarded, foreigner.
It turned out to be a junior high-school. There were no classes on Saturday, but I looked around the empty halls. The school was a large square, formed around a baseball field. The entire center of the school was one large baseball field, and it was filled with practicing kids.
As I approached, as quietly as I could manage, I still got noticed. As usual, most stared and smiled; one guy propped his son in front of me to take photos of him looking mean. The kid, nine or ten years old, tried to grimace and look poised. Both he was terrible at, and in his tiny uniform, the whole picture screamed awkward.
The guys, equally passionate about exhibiting their offspring, told me to sit down and watch, and I did. I got out my pen and paper and took notes, making me even more of a sight. In the nearby diamond, two or three kids were tossing the ball back and forth with adults. Also, a man was popping fly balls out to the outfield, where kids took turns fielding them. Closer to me, two kids loosely practiced, clearly too young to play. One was out of shape and the other was very young.
The sun was shining, the grass was nice, the kids were concentrating; and all I could think about was mainland China. A perfect site, matched by hearing the clink of the bat (it was aluminum), the thunk of the catch, the yells from the field. Yet my mind wandered to words like "ballistic missile defense" and "amphibious invasion."
I thought about the levels of systems heaped upon every person there. I looked at the kid standing on the pitcher's mound. He sat on a circle, in the diamond, on a field, in the center of a school. The school was in a city, in a county, on an island. Maybe he was in a large country, maybe he was not. He was in a continent for sure, and he definitely stood on a world. It was hard not to get silly with the whole thing, pulling back into I was looking at the whole universe, a universe of universes, with an 11-year-old pitcher in the center.
Did it matter if he lived in the People's Republic rather than just the Republic?
Did it matter if he improved his pitching?
And which mattered more?
I saw a lot of beauty on that field. Some of the kids clearly hated it. The out-of-shape kid awkwardly threw the bat around. I think his father was the couch or something, now that is pressure. He wanted to play, but he did not have the skill, or the determination, to learn the sport. He tossed the ball around with the much smaller kid. The latter was six or seven. He wore a full uniform, even more professional looking than the kids practicing on the field. His uniform was too big and hung loosely. Clearly, his parents, likely his dad, had big hopes for him.
The little kid did have natural talent. His swing was terribly awkward, but it was clear that his body was just learning the steps that his mind already picked up. When the big kid swung, his mind did not know what to do. His form was terrible. Perhaps no one had told him what to do with his hips, or to shift his feet. Perhaps he just could not learn it. The smaller kid had as good of form as I could expect from such a young kid. He turned his feet, he twisted his body, he had the potential, he just did not have the mass yet. I wondered if that was natural. Had his father already beat him into his awkward but technical swing? Or had he just watched? Perhaps his father was the man hitting fly balls, he had perfect form. Maybe it was nature, maybe he was just born that way.
It seemed like I watched them for a couple of hours, really it was only about thirty minutes. One of the kids even brought me a drink. A few attempted to speak Chinese to me, which only produced shrugs from me. A few attempted to speak English to me, which produced shrugs all around.
The whole experience seemed overly weighty to me. It was the first time that I pictured words "ballistic missiles" and "aquatic invasion." What did China really want to do with these people? Make them not Taiwanese? Get a hold of their economy? Would it really make that much of a difference? I pictured napalm. I pictured scuds. I watched baseballs.
The next day I got to watch even more baseball, but in much different circumstances. I met two women from my hotel at breakfast. They were going to see a double header, and I, thinking they had said basketball, was visibly excited. Once I realized they meant baseball, I was still excited, if for no other reason than my experience the day before.
The tickets were cheap, and the stadium was hot. I was the only foreigner. I did not see one foreigner all day, and they stand out. That is part of Tainan, you are usually the only foreigner. Sometimes it feels like the entire room is pointed towards me. Sometimes it feels like the whole stadium is pointed towards me.
I think the people do this because they want to be judged. They have an entire culture that wants to be something else. They want to be Japanese. They want to be British. They want to be American. Its in their clothing, on their TVs, and at their movies.
You enter the room, suddenly there is a judge. He can look at the people and say, "you are not cosmopolitan people, you are backwards." He can say, "you are rich in culture and wealth." Tainan wants to be Taipei, it wants to be big and profitable. Tainan people don't buy their own lies, they know they are not rich and powerful, but they don't have to think about it until a foreigner shows up. He is not in on the game. A foreigner knows their secrets or buys their lies. A smile can be powerful when someone thinks of it as approval.
Pop psychology from the uninitiated.
At the baseball game, we were routing for the visitors, and we outnumbered the home team crowd. We were pulling for the Sinon Bulls to beat the Tianan Lions (why not the Tigers? Come on people, that is an easy one). And the Bulls had a huge crowed. The two girls I came with traveled with the team on weekends, apparently this was common for Bulls fans. My new friends knew many people in the crowd, all from totally different parts of the country. The two I came with had come five hours from Taipei to watch the Bulls play four times.
Some of the differences with American baseball were obvious. For one thing, thunder-sticks were not an optional annoyance, they were clearly required. Everyone in the audience had florescent green bats. During the game, they would clap, twirl, stamp, and gesture with the bats to pre-arranged songs. There had to be at least twenty songs and everyone, everyone, knew them. By the end, I knew them.
I choose not to translate to many of them, because it spoiled the mystique. When I did ask, I was always disappointed. They usually had a song for each player. Say Smith was up to bat. The song may go, "La, la, la, la, la, la, la, Smith, Smith, la, la, hit, home-run, la, la, hit, home-run, win, win win." When you don't speak any Chinese, you can take pretty good liberties with the meaning, I often assumed that they are saying some ancient fortune for good luck and, of course, sexual potency.
The other easy thing to notice, there were more women than men, far more women than men. American baseball is composed of ugly men drinking their failed hopes away with five or six overpriced beers. They pay lots of money to transpose their ambitions onto millionaires from countries like Cuba and they expect to be entertained.
Taiwan baseball, at least for the Sinon Bulls, is like going to a Backstreet Boys concert. By that, I mean any possible way you can view a Backstreet Boys concert. Each girl has their own guy that they "love," and they scream extra loud for their favorite, who they want to "marry." If anyone reading this is an old foreigner, looking for a Taiwanese wife, get to a baseball game in Taiwan. Where are the single women? At the baseball game, fantasizing like girls. They try to play off their fantasies as tongue-and-cheek, but it is clear that each one has come up with at least one elaborate scenario.
Much like boy bands, this love has nothing to do with performance or talent. Unlike the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC, the Sinon Bulls are actually good. But if they were terrible, that would not matter much. The Bulls won the first game, and the girls cheered for them and were happy. The Bulls lost the second game, and the girls cheered for them and were happy. If I did not watch the game, I would not have seen the difference.
Not that watching the game had much to do with the experience. The game, somehow, managed to be slower than American baseball. I assumed that the conservation of energy, or maybe even the theory or relativity, would prevent any game from being slower than American baseball. However, Taiwan pitchers will check runners all day long. Batters will foul tip five or six shots in a row. Batters will recompose themselves every six seconds. WIthout the crowd, the game's entertainment value would have stiff competition from the grass growing on the game's field.
However, the game is actually a thrill ride. It is non-stop-fever-pitch. Well, to be fair, it is non-stop-controlled-fever-pitch. The crowd will sit on the edge of their seat, ready to scream, for a foul tip. From the first inning, to the last inning, they treated each strike like a game winner. Runs were met with passionate chants and endless hoots. The chants were always what the crowd organizer organized, and the hoots were always to his tune. However, watching the game had incredibly little to do with the game.
Their yelling had a way of being very polite. They didn't yell negative things. They didn't boo when the opposing pitcher checked a runner eight times in a row. They don't yell at bunters. They yell when something good happens to their team, but not when something bad happens to the other team.
It was like two games were being played. In the stands, the game was competitive and enthralling. On the field, the game was pointless and dull. Together, it was a very exciting experience, and highly unusual. In the US, no one notices that baseball is boring because the crowd is composed of children, who are stupid, and drunks, who are stupid. Here, the audience was in some kind of celebratory orgy for events that barely mattered. But because everyone was so into it, no one really notices. By the end, I was chanting and screaming Chinese I did not understand. I found myself chanting little songs because of foul tips.
Another thing worth mentioning was the food. The woman I came with was on a quest to gorge me. She brought me food constantly. I would turn around and suddenly she had bought more stuff. First was a 7-11 hot-dog, which, although a little weird, and not $5, was good and normal. Afterwards, she gave me a Taiwanese, or at least Tainan, hot dog. It involved nuts embedded into the bun, and the hot-dog was clearly made of something else. It had a certain peppery mysterious quality that many foods have here. In addition, she gave me a sweet soup with globs that tasted like marshmallows but looked like onions. Lastly, she gave me a bowl of chicken and rice that was good and standard. If that is what dating a Taiwanese woman is like, I will be huge upon return.
Throughout the game, planes passed over. The airport was a little beyond the stadium, and planes were very low by the time they went over the stadium. Because of my thoughts yesterday, I kept thinking of jets and helicopters with big red stars. I have seen serious military fighters flying around Tainan twice now. Not quite buzzing buildings, but they do cruise very low. I guess that is the calvary.
To quickly discuss how the game, they do have the designated hitter. The show bunts. They let the other team show bunts without a 90 mph baseball to the face. They do not bean unless it is a complete accident. All the team names are English.
One more thing, they fake hurt. This makes sense in basketball or soccer, where a flop is for more points. In Taiwanese baseball, they do it to save face. In the two games, I saw about five clear errors. All five preceded watching the player in sheer "agony" because of some bone he broke. The first time this happened, I was very concerned. By the end of the game, I realized that is just what they do. Mess up? A player must have broken his shin.
At one point, two players collided at full speed. It was remarkably stupid and should not have happened. One actually had a stretcher come. I, to be honest, am not sure if they needed the stretcher or if they realized that what they did was just that stupid. It was easy to be cynical about it.
One more thing about play, they did not play a national anthem.

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