Next week the Songgui district interschool basketball tournament kicks off. Seven teams, three weeks, one champion, no monetary reward. Copious amounts of face and shame on the line. Last year Sanzhuang, my school, finished dead last. Lucky number seven.
For the big tournament, Sanzhuang will join forces with local powerhouses Changtou, Dongpo, and Cishi. Sanzhuang has nine males teachers (three participating), Changtou four (three participating), Dongpo one (of three total), and Cishi one (also of three). For the record, we’re talking schools that serve towns of a few hundred people. In the smaller schools, each year probably produces five to ten students. As a result, schools only enroll students every two years. For example, a given school will never have Kindergarten and first grade at the same time. If a school terminates at fourth grade it would offer Kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade one year, first and third the next. Three teachers. Forty students, maximum.
Anyways, the two other Sanzhuang team members—Mr. Liu (1st grade teacher) and Mr. Yang (principal and entertainer)—and I went down the road to Changtou for a meeting. We didn’t play basketball. We didn’t run suicides. We didn’t even talk strategy. We did, however, talk style. The eight ragtag warriors on our mighty squad sat down in a room full of couches, smoked cigarettes, and drank tea. Mr. Yang began…
“First, we must remember safety. We are old (average age of 40). We must avoid injury at all costs.”
“Second, last, and most importantly, uniforms. Uniforms!” (A round of head-nods and universal grumblings of agreement). “First, as far as uniforms are concerned, we must all wear the same one. When passing the ball, it is crucial that we remember that we are one team. We don’t want to make the same mistakes as last year, do we?” He glares at a squirrely looking guy in the corner.
“Our uniforms must be of high quality. We must spare no expense on our uniforms. No expense! Now, we will go to Songgui and buy our uniforms.” And so we went.
Songgui is 20 minutes down the road from Changtou. We arrive around 6:30. The eight of us duck into a tiny shoe store that appears minutes from closing. To recap, it’s me, the principals of both Sanzhuang and Changtou, the vice principals of both Sanzhuang and Changtou, and three other teachers. As far as this tiny pocket of the universe goes, it’s a rather reputable crowd.
Mr. Yang, leads the expedition. Uniforms! He skims the racks, like a witness out to identify the perp. It’s a modest store. A real hole in the wall. Γ shaped. Men’s shirts and shoes on one side, women’s gear on the other. Pants and shorts in the back section. A giant poster of Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love takes up one panel of the wall. It reads, “Tenacious, fear-free, I am Love.” As I peruse the store, Mr. Yang identifies his target. A turquoise and white striped polo that for some reason has “sailing” written where the logo ought to be. Like a little girl who spots the puppy that she’s got to have there’s no talking him out of it. Sailing. Mr. Yang looks around at the other teachers. They oblige with a round of head nods and universal grumblings of agreement. This is the shirt.
We’ve got to try it on. The proprietress, a middle-aged woman, wearing a red apron, goes in the back and grabs what’s in stock. Only five. “We’ve got the same one, but with red stripes, or yellow,” she says. I see them hanging on the rack. Sailing. “No problem,” Mr. Yang responds without hesitation, “We’ll send for the other three turquoise ones. Rush order!” She puts the shirts down on a bench. They’re in giant Ziploc bags. The teachers look at each other and motion in concurrence. Everyone takes off their shirts. Recap: Here we have a bunch of 40-50 year old guys, among them principals and vice-principals. Imagine your elementary school principal walking into the local Foot Locker, picking out a shirt, and disrobing. Imagine him smoking a cigarette while doing it. Imagine six other middle aged male teachers from your school doing the same simultaneously. Absurd! So, I guess I have to take my shirt off. I generally wear a medium to large in the US. They hand me the 3XL. It’s a little snug, but it’ll do the job. We actually look pretty good in the shirts, almost like a team. Everyone disrobes again and puts the shirts back in the giant Ziplocs. The proprietress takes our orders.
So that’s it? We’ll be getting the other three shirts in the mail? Not. So. Fast. We need pants. Our team uniform will be a turquoise and white striped polo shirt that says “sailing” where the logo ought to be and warm-up pants. Does the polo get tucked in? A valid question. I guess I’ll find out when the time comes. We go to the back of the store. It’s a tight lane with female pants on one side and male pants on the other. I grab a pair. Mr. Yang shakes his head and shoots me a look of shame and embarrassment. I’ve picked a pair of female pants that have no distinguishing characteristic. Frankly, I don’t think he was ashamed that I had picked female pants, but rather that the pants lacked the appropriate level of pizzazz that our squad deserved. I put the pants back on the rack. Everyone takes turns in the fitting room. Apparently, it isn’t okay to drop trou in this store. Presciently, I waited to see how my teammates approached the situation before going full boxer-brief.
None of the pants fit. Too tight, too short. The proprietress heads to the back of the store. After about five minutes she returns. She gives me a look that implies these are the biggest pants that exist in the country of China and this is my last shot. They fit. Barely. “They are very handsome. You will wear them in class from now on,” Mr. Yang announces.
Time to go. Turquoise and white striped polo shirt? Check. Biggest-in-China gray warm-ups with blue streaks? In hand. Not. So. Fast. I walk back into the main lobby. The other teachers are contemplating the shoe rack. This cannot be serious, right? Shirts, pants, and shoes, for a glorified pick up game. We may not win, but you better fucking believe we will all be wearing matching pairs of shoes. Per usual, I’m the only one who finds anything abnormal in the situation. So, I guess it’s normal.
Arms folded, cigarette between the left index and middle fingers, Mr. Zhao, Changtou’s principal, coolly motions to a pair of black mesh running shoes. He looks left, he looks right. The other teachers nod and grumble approvingly. “Why yes, yes indeed sir. Splendid indeed sir.” He looks at the proprietress. She heads to the back again, slightly flummoxed, and returns with a bunch of boxes.
The teachers love the shoes. They praise Mr. Zhao’s cunning eye for fashion. The proprietress asks me my size. “I don’t know, 30 centimeters, thereabout.” She shakes her head. “No, no, no!” She brings out what I presume is the biggest pair she has because it takes her another five minutes to find them and they are neither black nor mesh. I open the box and squeeze. Absolutely no way my heel is getting in there. I look at her and shake my head. She frowns and shrugs. I look at Mr. Yang. He looks sad again.
“But, do you have shoes that look like these? You have shoes that look like these, right?” A demand phrased as a question.
“I suppose I do, maybe. Yeah, I have some black shoes.”
“And they look like these? They’re black? Definitely black? This same color?”
“Yes, absolutely. Black like the one’s you’re wearing.”
“And this texture as well?”
“Well, they’re black. They aren’t mesh though. I have mesh shoes, but they’re blue.”
“This may be a problem. I will think about it. Give me one day to think about it. It reflects poorly on the team and the school, you are aware of this?”
I seriously fear that I may be kidnapped in the middle of the night and wake up with my feet bound, lying next to a box of 28 centimeter black mesh running shoes.
We purchase the uniforms. Apparently the school pays for it (for now). This is good news, because I really did not want to dip into my salary of $300 a month to buy a snug 3XL sailing polo shirt and a pair of warm-up pants that look like they’ve been lifted off a member of the Boca Raton Tennis and Racquet Club. We leave the store and head back to Sanzhuang.
When we get to school, I hop out of Mr. Liu’s Volkswagen. He whispers something to me. I don’t catch it. I lean toward the driver’s window.
“Don’t let anyone see the pants and the shirt.”
“Ummm… ok.” Frankly I was hoping no one would ever see them, so this is encouraging news.
“It’s a secret. We don’t want to unveil it until the game.”
“Got it. You can count on me.”
Honestly, as painstakingly difficult as it is for me to admit this (you know, as a man and whatnot), this last bit made me choke up a little. I felt like a dick for my undying cynicism. The entire evening had been a preposterous shopping outing between eight grown men, local public figures in their own right. We spent hours picking out the perfect outfit for a seemingly insignificant basketball tournament in a tiny little district in a tiny little county deep within the heart of the biggest country in the world. Sure the teachers laughed and smoked and had a good time with it, but it really meant something to them. It really means something to them. There really is pride on the line. Students will be watching, teachers will be watching, significant other will be cheering from the sidelines. Everyone that matters in our tiny little universe will be there. It’s not going to be serious. There won’t be any trash talking or hard fouls. But, what there will be is a rare opportunity to show some visitors what Sanzhuang is all about. And if that means a tucked in turquoise striped polo, a pair of gray windbreaker pants, and some black mesh kicks, then I’m all about