In the soundtrack to my Chinese life, certain noises stand out: honking cars, chirping cellphones, saws cutting through steel. I taught English in a village in Hunan Province in 2003-04 and loved the clatter and clang that gave voice to a people furious to develop and advance.
But before dawn and after dusk at the university in my village, the only sounds came from the outdoor basketball courts not far from my apartment. I woke up every morning and went to sleep every night to the rhythmic sounds of balls bouncing against cement and clanking against rims. Every moment, dark or light, students hooped it up. The rims got no rest.
I had gone to China expecting to refine my Ping-Pong skills. Instead, I found an entire university and an entire nation obsessed with basketball.
This obsession became apparent my first day. Trinity, a young woman who worked at the university, had invited me over to her parents' house for my first Chinese meal. I was the only foreigner among two dozen Chinese people – teenagers to senior citizens.
Trinity introduced me to her boyfriend, Michael. She explained in Chinese that I was from Minnesota. Michael's eyes widened in obvious excitement. I could see his mind scanning for the proper English word. After a pause, he pointed at me and exclaimed, "Jar-nett!" He paused another few moments, scanning for the next phrase. Finally, he found it: "Forest Wolves!"
This game of word association repeated itself what felt like thousands of times that year. No matter where I traveled, I'd say "Minnesota," and Chinese strangers would excitedly reply "Jar-nett!" or "The Garnett" or some other variation of pro basketball player Kevin Garnett's name, followed by "Forest Wolves," the literal Chinese translation of "Timberwolves." I gained abundant respect for the NBA's marketing department.
Later on during that first dinner, I was introduced to the second main theme of my Chinese life. A young professional named Jay, translating for his boss, a wealthy business tycoon named Mr. Zhuang, asked me in halting English, "Daniel, do you know how to slam-dunk?"
Taking him figuratively, I replied, "Yes." Who, after all, doesn't know how basketball players slam-dunk?
He relayed my affirmative answer to Mr. Zhuang in Chinese. Then he relayed Mr. Zhuang's response back to me: "Daniel, Mr. Zhuang wants you to come give a basketball performance to his company."
"When?" I asked.
"Tomorrow," Mr. Zhuang replied through Jay.
Mr. Zhuang, on the spot, was offering to fly me to his company's headquarters in Shenzhen, a southern boomtown, so I could show his 200 employees a real slam-dunk.
One problem: Despite being 6-foot-4 and having spent most of my high school life working on my vertical leap, I can't dunk.
This deficiency haunted me everywhere I went in China. Most interactions with strangers began with the "Minnesota Jarnett" word association, quickly followed by the "Can you dunk?" question. And, like Mr. Zhuang, no one stopped at the question. I was quickly handed a basketball and asked to demonstrate.
I felt tremendous guilt and shame every time this happened. They would work themselves into a frenzy, gather around the basket, and be extremely disappointed when I couldn't throw down.
Late in the second semester, however, I discovered a winning approach. One afternoon, I was shooting hoops with some of my students when all my Chinese colleagues in the English Department happened to walk by. They were coming from a department meeting and were dressed formally – men in suits, women in skirts and blouses.
Seeing me on the court, Mr. Deng, the department chair, grabbed a basketball. Rushing over to me in his suit and tie, he handed me the ball and exclaimed, "Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, smash it, smash it, smash it!"
This was a demand from my boss. The English faculty gathered just behind the hoop. The dozens of students stopped their games and joined the crowd.
I did nothing to discourage their enthusiasm, going past half court as though I was preparing my approach before liftoff. There was, of course, the small problem that I couldn't actually dunk.
But necessity sure was a great mother. With the whole crowd assembled, I happened to see a little Chinese girl off to the side of the court. She had rosy cheeks and a bowl-cut hairstyle, and she would come up to me every day at the courts, slap the ball out of my hands, and start shooting underhand. I loved this girl and called her mei mei, or "little sister."
While everyone watched, and I continued to hype the English department, I motioned to her to come to me. I handed her the ball. Then I picked her up at the waist and walked her toward the hoop. Just in front of it, I hoisted her as high as I could reach. The crowd sighed audibly in excitement. She lifted the ball over her head with both hands and tossed it through the hoop.
The English professors went berserk with applause, screaming "Very good, Daniel!" They had all seen a million slam-dunks before on television. But never was the dunker an 8-year-old Chinese girl. Finally, I had dunked – in a way no one else had, not even "The Jarnett."