Nate Tinner is not an international school coach (yet). However, he has a great story to share. I will let you read it in his words.
Why do they always serve tea with meals? What’s with all the rice? Where’s the fork and spoon? Why do they drive mopeds instead of cars? Shouldn’t these kids be doing something other than a daily basketball camp during their holiday break?
My trip to China was a series of unanswered questions.
Most of them were bad questions. Slightly racist questions. Questions stemming from an utter ignorance of how society operates outside of the Western Hemisphere. I should have known better than to expect what I was used to in America, and yet it didn’t take long for me to begin pondering the possibility that there is more to functional human society than the “American Way”.
In many ways down on my luck and in other ways just looking for something to do, I traveled to Pingnan, China (Guangxi Province) in late January to teach basketball to a bunch of upstart youngsters just on the brink of CBA stardom.
(If you didn’t track with my sarcasm there, don’t even bother with the rest of this piece.)
Having never been farther east than Switzerland, imagine my introspection as I headed west in a cozy China Air jetliner headed for Beijing. My geographical categories were exposed at that point for the sociocultural charade that they were, as a kind of belittling notion that attempts to other the “Far East” into Oriental oblivion.
Then. I was at the mercy of Chinese hospitality for a month.
Having no Mandarin skills beyond “Ni hao” and wondering above all else how I would communicate with people who knew no English, the twin forces of basketball and basic human goodwill became my closest friends. The constant generosity and helpfulness of a number of hosts in Pingnan were refreshing, not because they made communication any easier, but because it shocked me out of my prejudiced fantasy that I had traveled into a different dimension, where “Anglophone” was synonymous with “understanding” and “American” paramount to “kindhearted”—two associations I in fact knew to be false.
I quickly learned that there is such a thing as a universal language, made up mostly of grunt-like “uh-huh”s, head movements, hand gestures, and the like. The elementary- and middle-school boys, who faithfully appeared every afternoon to receive basketball wisdom from an amateur twenty-something, managed somehow to understand my pleas and directions well enough to get in lines, form circles, run and dribble at the same time, and miss a gaudy number of left-handed layups.
As I watched them struggle with everything I fumbled through at a similar age, I was even graced with the opportunity to learn (and royally mispronounce) several basketball terms in Mandarin. For every airballed finger-roll attempt on their end, there was a missed tone or consonant sound on my end, and through our shared struggles we gained kinship. Struggle, it seems, is the best bond of brotherhood.
The chasm of ignorance and misconception remained wide, however, on both ends. The few conversations I was able to have in (broken) English with Chinese nationals can be summed up in such a gem as “American schools are happy! Chinese schools are sad.” That said, I was no better. To this day, I assume Chinese people are just not that into dessert, don’t understand that windows are not to be opened when it’s cold outside, and are unable to comprehend structured traffic laws. America simply is not China, and vice-versa. But attempting to think through the “Why?” behind this reality is about a lot more than “They just don’t get it.”
Bare with my cliché, but China taught me a lot. You learn a lot about who you are when you’re cooped up in hotel room within the borders of a country unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. You think about certain things. You crave and sometimes fight for amenities you apparently can’t live without. You forget about a ton of things that never mattered in the first place. You ponder what to do with your life when you get home. How you’ll change. How you’ll stay the same.
I spent most of my trip to China in silence. Weeks on end without speaking a word of English to anyone who could understand it. Weeks. After the initial realization, I feared that I was losing something that I would never get back, or that I would have to re-learn for some time. But in the silence, every smile counted. Each handshake. All the high-fives and camera poses. These were my conversations. And they were rich. Life-giving. Simple.
And so I came to appreciate tea. I craved the taste of rice more than anything in the world after about a week. I lost my taste for sugar. I even gained patella tendonitis. But for all the things God gave and took away in Pingnan, I remember one thing the most: they were just like me.