Welcome to All Things China, a blog with impressions about the host nation of the 2008 World Women’s Championship.
Name that tune:
Thankfully we have moved on from the Christmas carol CD that was played heavily through the preliminary round. At the other end of the spectrum, we are now treated to tunes by Snoop Dog, that feature some unedited colorful lyrics that are a far cry from wishing you a Merry Christmas. Now, generally at hockey games, a DJ will play one song at one stoppage and then cue up the next song for the next stoppage. But not here. Instead, we are treated to hearing the same song, start to finish, no matter how many breaks it takes to finish the song. This has inspired a game among those of us that are at the rink for the entire day. We place our bets on how long any given song will last during a game. The record thus far was China vs. Japan, when we were treated to on-going parts of the same song for nearly two periods. Who knows, if we’re really lucky, we might break the two-period barrier.
The arena has several unique features. But none stands out on the technical side as much as the elaborate scoreboard. The massive board takes up virtually the entire wall of one end of the rink and has a digital clock that shows the seconds of each minute ticking by like you would see on a watch face. But the best feature of the mammoth scoreboard is the end of period gong. Instead of a buzzer or horn that you would find in most rinks around the world, Harbin has a very gentle gong that makes you feel like you have just been rung in for dinner by the butler in a bad movie.
A great day for hockey:
Yesterday was one of monumental upsets in Harbin as both Finland and Switzerland pulled off unprecedented wins. It was remarkable to see the buzz around the arena as people watched the games. As one team manager put it, “we’ve been waiting 10 years for a day like this in women’s hockey.” It was far different from being around any men’s tournament when there’s a big upset. For the women, there was a sense of validation as the U.S. and Sweden lost. It wasn’t that people were just cheering against the top teams, rather they were rooting for the development of the sport. Even U.S. captain Julie Chu was asked in a press conference if even despite the sting of losing if she could see the importance of her team’s loss for women’s hockey – it’s unlikely that you would have a similar question posed after a men’s game. Other memorable moments were watching as Swiss coach Rene Kammerer and Captain Kathrin Lehmann could not contain their smiles at the post-game press conference. Lehmann silenced the room, when she wept tears of joy when describing what the win meant to her team. Everything in the room froze as the room of reporters, who have covered all kinds of sports and events looked on in awe. It was that kind of day in Harbin.
Japan may be playing in the relegation round, but they certainly have a post-practice cool down that rivals most professional teams. The Japanese team lines up in the small cool down area and is led through a long series of stretches by their team trainer. What is particularly impressive about the ritual is its preciseness. With a crisp clap of the hand from the trainer, the entire team switches stretches in unison. A far cry from most teams, which are normally individually responsible for their warm-up and cool down.
The worshipped ones:
In most cultures, it is not unusual for the children to be the most admired. But never have I seen a culture that reveres babies and children as much as China. Recently, when eating breakfast, a woman had an infant with her. The entire kitchen staff at one point came out to play with the baby and shower it with attention. At one point a waitress even picked the baby up and waked around the breakfast room with the child. I asked, and this is not unusual that when a baby is out in public that complete strangers will offer to take care of it. It’s hard to imagine this happening in many western cities.
Eating with the Chinese:
It was banquet night here in Harbin as the various team staffs were invited to a massive banquet at one of the hotels. Few who came expected the spectacle that greeted them. Playing throughout the meal was a band of at least 20 in traditional Chinese dress, all with instruments that I have never seen or heard before (but appeared very difficult to play.) In China, it is normal for food to be served ‘family style’. Basically dishes of food are set in the middle of the table on a Lazy Susan and guests can pick what they would like to eat. At the banquet, the Chinese pulled out all the stops with the food that was served as every kind of Chinese delicacy was on the table. Of course, it became a kind of game to identify the food, but overall, everyone tried at least a nibble of the vast amounts of trays set on their table.
Eating with the Chinese: Part II
China has a culture of making guests feel more than welcome, which means quickly picking up on traditions and customs. At the banquet, once the food was served, most of the Chinese hosts were rarely at their tables. Instead, they were circulating the room offering their guest shots of what we started referring to as jet fuel. Before each drink it was customary for to say cheers, which is ‘Gombay’, or as I have taken to calling it, Gumby. After declaring your Gumby, you must down your shot of mystery fluid, at which point it is promptly refilled should another Chinese want to Gumby you again. Luckily with many tables around the room, the Gumby’s were few and far between for most, but I have no idea how our Chinese hosts were still standing after their Gumby mania – even more amazing, they seemed fine at the end of the night.
Eager to please:
The Chinese people are extremely friendly and eager to make any guests feel welcome in any situation. Of course the guests are also hoping to fit in with their gracious hosts, which means, sometimes things simply don’t work out so well in the quest to be polite. At a recent meal, I noticed at another table a Chinese man, struggling to master the art of eating with a fork. He was doing his best to make his western counterpart feel welcome. Right across from him, his western counterpart, was struggling manically to eat with chop sticks. Finally, the two noticed their follies, had a good laugh and decided to make the swap to keep the meal from taking five hours.
At any hockey arena safety is, of course, of high importance. Here in Harbin, they take their safety very seriously. At every game in the stands you can find a minimum of four men wearing doctor’s coats ready to spring into action. While it is a little different to see the arena doctors dressed like they are ready to go into the ER, this is not the most unique uniform to be found in the arena. Behind each goal judge, there are around five men dressed all in orange wearing hard hats. Upon investigation, it seems this group is part of the Harbin fire department. While this may not seem out of the ordinary, the firemen’s primary focus is the ice surface. Not sure if there’s a high risk for a blazing fire to erupt on the ice, but if it does, we’re prepared here in Harbin.
Driving here in Harbin is an art form that is the topic of many discussions around the foreign teams. While it can only politely be described as controlled chaos, there is one genius idea that the Chinese have implemented. At the major intersections, there is a digital clock beside each traffic light that counts down the time until the light will turn green. Of course as soon as the countdown reaches about the five-second mark, the horns start and you’re off to make your way through the football-sized intersection.
Full Moon Fever:
Yesterday was a holiday in China, which thankfully meant minimal traffic on the way to and from the rink. Nevertheless it was still and interesting drive home last night as at every corner groups of people had started small bonfires on the sidewalk or in the first lane of traffic. It seems that the holiday was in honor of the full moon. The people go out on the streets in pairs at and create the small bonfires to burn garbage and then add in nominal amounts of money for luck. The entire ride home you could see such small fires, or the ashes from the fires. An interesting way to mark the full moon.
Every team has their own special pre-game ritual before each game, but perhaps no team can top the tradition of the off-ice statistics crew. First, it has to be said how incredibly valuable the off-ice crew is at any championship. These are the people that keep the scoreboard running, the stats counted and pretty much anything else that you never think of while you’re watching a hockey game. Here in Harbin, the off-ice crew is a tight knit bunch that is very professional and experienced. What is most interesting about this particular group is their pre-game ritual. Before each game, the group lines up in the hallway by the locker rooms according to their duty and gets the equivalent of a ‘pep talk’ from their leader while standing at perfect attention. After the pep talk, there is a military salute before each group makes a crisp right or left face to head to their positions.
Nothing tells you you’re at a hockey game more than the sweet sound of…Christmas Carols? Through the years there have been some interesting tunes played in ice rinks around the world, but a new standard for originality was set in Harbin when Jingle Bells was continuously played through the first day of action. It seems that the song is a popular ‘American folk song’ here in China. You can hear other Christmas carols on ring tones of cell phones and even on the radio. So Merry Christmas from Harbin.
People pride themselves on being bilingual, or even trilingual. But more important than spoken language skills here in Harbin, is the little-known language of charades. With most teams coming from Western nations, in a hallways around the arena you can see people gesturing wildly to each other in an attempt to communicate. The language is definitely a trial and error system and still works best while using a very loud English voice as if the person not only doesn’t speak your language, but is also hard of hearing. This may sound like a crude form of communication, but it has proven to be surprisingly effective when a translator cannot be found.
While the World Women’s Championship is in Harbin, a two hour flight north of Beijing, all people associated with the World Championship must fly in and out of Beijing. While my stay in Beijing included only a two hour whirlwind tour of the airport, I must say from the air this is one impressive city. Looking down from the plane, you can see an endless stream of high rise buildings and an urban area so dense and sprawling that it boggles the mind what it must be like to actually enter the city. Even on the outskirts of town, buildings look to be a minimum of 20 stories high. The other striking thing is the amount of construction all over the city. Our plane did a complete loop of the city and no matter where you looked massive cranes were building more of the high rise buildings. A real treat was seeing the famed Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium from the air, which stands out like a beacon.
Men in Uniforms:
Once on the ground in Beijing, the first thing you notice is that everyone seems to wear a uniform of some kind. This is indeed a military state with officers stationed at every corner around the airport. I had to change terminals which involved a mind boggling experience of finding a transfer bus and taking a 15 minute, yes 15, drive between terminals. Of course, the ride proved to be worth it once we arrived at the unbelievable, state-of-the-art new airport terminal in Beijing. This place puts any western airport to shame with its wide, bright corridors and endless signs pointing you in the right direction. And of course, there were endless people, in uniform, of course, eager to answer any questions you might have. Two hours here and I’m off to Harbin.
Harbin First Impression:
First, I have to admit, my first impression of Harbin was greatly influenced by jetlag. For anyone that has ever been to Moscow, this is the Chinese cousin of the Russian capital. This ‘mid-sized’ Chinese city, which is five million people (yes, that’s considered mid-sized by Chinese standards) is a sprawling one filled with Russian block architecture. We drove past a large tower, which apparently is the tallest in Asia. From the airport, it was about a 45 minute drive to the hotel, which could have been the same black over and over again. The driving here, which I am sure I will have more to share about later, is also in the same vein as Russia, where lane lines are mere suggestions and horn blowing is an art form. The lanes are shared by busses, cars, pedestrians, bikes and pretty much anything else you can think of. I can only imagine the test that Chinese drivers have to pass before heading out on the streets.