Or is it,
Someone’s got it out for me. You know when you’re part of a 10 car pileup and your Smart Car gets totaled and crushed to pieces and 17 small animals are killed in the process and you walk out with just an untied shoelace? Know what I’m saying? And you call your grandma and she says, “Someone up there’s looking out for you.” Whatever that is, I’m on the other side of the coin, big time. I’m the small animal. The gods are on my case.
I’m sitting in the teacher’s office, sprawled out over a couch. My foot is on the coffee table. I attempt to furtively remove it every time another teacher walks by. “What No. Oh, come on, I just like to hover my foot above the table like this. It’s just this thing I do.” I’m watching what’s supposed to be (and later turned out to be anything but) the greatest NBA finals of this generation: The Heat-Spurs rematch of the infamous “28.2” game when the Spurs all but had the championship rings on their fingers before LeBron James and Ray Allen went next level superhuman and wound up stealing the series in epically dramatic fashion. The Spurs were back for revenge, which, again, they got, But, I didn’t know this at the time.
I love basketball more than almost anything else. Anything I love more, you can surely count on one hand, and they’re all immediate family members. Luckily, I only have three people in my immediate family; otherwise I’d have to start making cuts. With that in mind, these NBA finals, even though my putrid New York Knicks are nowhere to be found, are a godsend to me. When the Spurs officially bounced the Oklahoma City Thunder and I knew we’d get a rematch of last year’s finals, I got that feeling in my stomach that you get right before your first kiss. I think I may have even been—no, definitely was—sexually aroused. Then I realized something that I’d slowly begun to forget.
I live in China; and, as if that wasn’t enough, I have a job. I immediately rushed to my computer and checked the schedule. Not a single game would be on Friday or Saturday night (Saturday and Sunday morning in Beijing Standard Time). I wouldn’t be able to watch one full game of the 2014 NBA finals, the greatest finals of all time, the most pertinent reason to live as far as I’m concerned. If I were a god-fearing man, I’d consider it a message. I began to think of the possibilities: I could play sick, naturally. I could fabricate a top-secret business meeting with Beijing officials and camp out in a hotel for two weeks. I could switch all of my classes to the afternoon. I could lock myself in the teachers’ lounge, where the only TV—and all the baijiu—on campus is, and threaten to destroy the each bottle of baijiu if anyone touched the doorknob. I could just quit. But if I quit, I’d be unemployed during and after the NBA finals. If I locked myself in a room and cracked open 30 bottles of baijiu, I’d almost surely inadvertently off myself on account of the fumes. It was clear: I had no choice.
I’m from the Eastern Standard time zone. I live in the Beijing Standard time zone. China is the third largest country in the world, by area, but stubbornly maintains a single time system from Beijing to Lhasa. Strange, irritating, and surprising, considering they can effortlessly switch between the Lunar and Gregorian calendars mid-sentence. In any event, the American East Coast is 12 hours behind the Chinese East Coast (and south, north, and west for that matter). So, of course, a basketball game played at 9 pm on Wednesday night in Miami would air at 9am Thursday morning in Sanzhuang. This conundrum, I’ve found, is the single worst part of living in a different time zone. If you want to talk to your dad or grandma or significant other, you can just tell them what time. “Eight am for you, eight pm for me? No? Let’s push it back an hour. Fine.” Unfortunately, when the NBA schedules the finals, it doesn’t take teachers in the middle of Southwestern China into account. And, unlike the conversation with mom and dad, you can’t very well call up LeBron and see if he wouldn’t mind pushing the tip-off up to 8 in the morning, Eastern Standard.
“You know what LeBron, I’d even be willing to compromise for 7 am, if you can swing it.”
That probably wouldn’t work either. The latest class I teach in the mornings starts at 10:15. This meant, the most I’d be able to see of any single game (if tip-off was at 8:15 and I had to be in class at 10:15—10:16 if I stretched it—would be three quarters. I’d never once be able to see the final buzzer. In the end, I could catch 15-minute stretches between back-to-back classes and a quarter or two during longer breaks. I was beholden to the bell. It really was agony. Death by baijiu fumes began to sound better and better each day.
For example: During game one, I had to teach a fourth period art class to a bunch of 11 year olds. I hate art class, especially with 11 year olds. It’s rowdy and unpredictable and someone usually cries (and it’s not always me). I was summoned by the rancorous 10:15 bell at the end of the third quarter with the score Heat-78, Spurs-74. When class ended, the game was over. The Spurs had won by 15 points! 110-95. LeBron James had cramped up and couldn’t stay on the court and I was yelling at Li HuaLin to keep his hands of off Lin LiHua, and Li HuaLin didn’t want to do that.
The games ended, I was able to check the scores, and the Spurs took the championship in 5 games, giving LeBron and friends a very public pro-basketball version of a wedgie in the process. It’s over now, and I still have my job and my dignity.
When you live in a different country, you make a lot of sacrifices. Some big (missing the NBA finals), some small (not seeing friends and family for years at a time). Being an ex-pat is weird, because you’ll never be able to make that full break. Even if you hate your country, want to burn your passport, and violently take flash pictures of the Declaration of Independence until it crumbles to shreds, you might like Butterfingers or you might like that beeping sound the door makes when you walk into a CVS or you might like the NBA. If you hate everything about your country, then you’re just a born hater, and there’s no hope for you anywhere else either. Nostalgia is inescapable.
Like I said, I’d kind of begun to forget that I was living in China. I don’t mean China, per se, I just mean living in a place that I’m not from. I’ve been here long enough now that cravings and desires for things back home have started to dissipate as it becomes painfully obvious that there are no meatball subs, music festivals, or Cheesy Gordita Crunches in my immediate future. But, LeBron’s cramp game brought me back online. A time zone is a theoretical expression of distance, and it expressed itself quite vividly while I was hovering my feet above the table, hoping for the bell not to ring. I knew, that were I back in the US, not only would I not be in class, but I’d be at a bar, getting a little bit sauced, and going insane with hundreds of other people when Patty Mills ripped off three straight threes in a row. Or even sitting in the living room with just my dad, eating a fat piece of ribeye and talking about the beautiful simplicity of Tim Duncan’s post moves.
Maybe I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the finals that bothered me, but what the finals represented. Yes, I was still completely miffed not to be able to watch the games themselves. But, in any event, I would have been watching them at 8 in the morning, on a shitty TV, with volume too low to hear and in a language that I still can’t confidently or enjoyably watch TV in, by myself, and being eaten alive by flies. And sober.
I remember when I was studying abroad in Shanghai. UCONN was in the NCAA finals against Butler. I went to a bar at 7:30 am and drank Bloodies and cheered with fifty other people who were at least interested in the game. It was good. It was ok. But, even then, it wasn’t the same. I could give countless similar instances. Yankees playoff games, Jets playoff games, the UCONN championship that happened just a few months ago. And these are just sports. You miss graduations and weddings and all kind of things. Things that, even if you were running away from something back home—I’m not—you still don’t want to run away from.
It’s impossible to recreate somewhere somewhere else. And that’s not the point anyway. You’ve got to appreciate both places for what they are. The emotion of “missing” is just a reminder that you have affection for something, and you may not have known it before. When I go back to the US, I am sure that I will miss things about China. I’m sure, on top of those, there are even more things that I don’t even know I’ll miss until I can’t walk down the street and see them or eat them. And that’s a beautiful thing. We live in a world where you can’t have all the things you love and like anytime, anywhere, at least for now. That makes it a lot easier to appreciate them. Next time I get to see a full NBA finals, in a bar, or even at the arena, with thousands of other people, I’ll be looking back to that god awful 4th grade art class and really remembering what it means to love something.
But, goddamn, I cannot believe I didn’t get to see the Cramp Game.