This past weekend, with a wide-open schedule and a full backpack, I caught the high-speed train to Suzhou to reunite with Ian and join the basketball team on the road. He had been traveling with the Dragons for 3 weeks and (thankfully) had relocated to a city not too far from Nanjing, for a final stop. Early Friday morning, my sweet neighbors offered to escort me to the train station because, after all, I was/am still a rookie at all things “China”. I bought a ticket and was on my way much faster thanks to their guidance!
When I arrived at the Suzhou station I called Ian with the anticipation that he was somewhere in the station; that we would lock-eyes through the crowds, run into each other’s arms, and feel safe at home. It took several minutes on the phone to realize that we were both staring up at the “North Entrance” of two entirely different train stations! Before panic-mode set in, Ian did some renegotiating with the team driver and his translator and told me to stay put. 20 minutes later a shiny black Benz breezed up to the kiss n’ ride. Wha-la- my tall guy stepped out. Together at last!
The team was scheduled to play in a 4-game tournament about 1 hour outside of Suzhou, in a town called Wujiang. What we could piece together from the people involved in the event is that the tournament was arranged by local wealthy businessmen who could afford to hire a basketball team to represent them. Each night at nearly 9pm the players threw on sunflower-yellow uniforms, rode the bus 10 minutes down the street, got in a quick and thorough warm-up from Coach Lockwood, and hit the outdoor courts under the lights.
It was an exhilarating experience being at one of the games; sitting wide-eyed on the team bench, feeling the throat-rumble of pounding drums upon scoring, hearing the crowd yelling “Jiao! Jiao! (Go Go!) through the clouds of smoke, seeing towering lights illuminating the blur of quick-footed athletes…and even attracting a few bats that swooped down over our heads. The Dragons competed against teams mostly composed of amateur players and a few professionals, so it was no surprise that they conquered the court and came in first place in the end- 4 out of 4 games! Since it is pre-season for the team, this tournament was nothing more than practice for the players. They seemed to care less that they won and I don’t blame them, especially after spending 3 weeks on a bus and in a hotel room. The businessmen, on the other hand, were chain-smoking and belly laughing in excitement.
After the 20 minute quarters were finished the team, Ian, and I crowded back onto the bus and headed off to feast. Granted, it was 11pm when we all wandered down the local streets for sustenance, but that didn’t hold back the businessmen from ordering large bottles of Budweiser and Baijou to pair with the Jiangsu delicacies. I was the distinguished guest of Coach L. and the only person rolling with the team under 6 ft tall, half-asleep, and surprisingly a little hungry considering what time it was. We walked down the street, past a large cage on the corner full of clucking chickens, and towards the restaurant. Just before we strolled in the front door Ian and I saw a man with a kitchen apron go over to the dusty cage, open the door, pull out a squawking chicken, place it on a scale, and then snap its neck! We entered the restaurant, sat down at a round table, and were presented with a large pot of boiling broth and chicken parts. Included in the stew were the chicken feet, complete chicken head, hacked up parts of its spine, hips, and whatever else. Basically, we ate from a large vat of chopped up chicken, bones and all.
Over the next 2 hours the pot was also filled with vegetables and various other meats, but every 20 minutes or so another terrified and squawking chicken was carried in by its feet, right past the large table of carnivorous and drunken basketball players and staff. Another chicken bites the dust! I myself chewed off hunks of meat from the poor chicken bones and repeated in my head, “T.I.C. Dear God, there are happy chickens on my parents’ farm. T.I.C”. We stumbled back to our hotel as a flock, full and happy.
Between the 3 daily family style banquets, the basketball games, and Ian’s creative team workouts in the 2nd floor hallway, the two of us managed to escape the hotel and wander around town. To me, it didn’t matter if there were historical sites to see in this town or not; China is a spectacle in itself. We walked down side streets tightly packed with fried noodle & meat-on-a-stick stalls, grandmas caring for diaper-less babies with round cheeks, men with grease-stained hands re-assembling bicycles, lit cigarettes dangling from their lips.
On accident we wandered in to a poorly ventilated warehouse lined with meat & produce vendors. I did my best to keep my mouth from gaping open from stimulation overload as I took in a lot; a woman sheathing off scales and decapitating large squirming fish, heads left writhing on the table and gills gasping for their last breaths…plucked chickens side by side on counter tops, rigamortis set in…eels slithering in dingy buckets surrounded by fish guts…crates on top of crates full of brown speckled chicken eggs…bunched vegetables neatly displayed on the damp and crusty cobblestone floor…burlap bags overflowing with nuts, seeds, and multicolored grains…and at least a hundred workers peeling, chopping, cleaning, and preparing their items for sale. Nothing is censored. Nothing is hidden. It’s all out in the open for the customers to see. I understand the comfort a customer gets from knowing their meat is fresh, but holy blood-bath! I’m not used to stumbling upon “behind-the-scenes” at the butcher shop.
The tournament weekend came to a close and we were back on the team bus for a 4 hour drive home. Along the way the driver took a detour and dropped us off at a glitzy hotel. Ian and I felt another formal feast coming on. And we were right!
With a full belly and a warm mid-afternoon buzz, I climbed aboard the bus with the team for the final time. We were Nanjing bound. It was a long action-packed weekend but I am grateful I was invited to be a team guest, to take part in the celebratory feasts, and to have a glimpse into Ian’s world when he’s out on the road. Although the bus-to-hotel life isn’t for me, I now know that the man I care most about is in good hands; well-fed, well-supported, and well-respected for choosing to live with his girlfriend downtown, instead of with the team. The Jiangsu Dragons’ family welcomed me as one of their own. Who knows, I may join the team again during my lengthy winter holiday as they will travel to 17 cities in China over the basketball year!