I Found Duke Fans in Malaysia. Oh Joy.

In the first blog in this series, I talked about my arrival in the rural northwestern state of Perlis and some of the busted expectations that have come with working in an ethnically diverse school here. Ultimately, I’ve come to feel a bit silly in my quest to find a Great Insight about discrimination, diversity, and oppression. Nonetheless, I’ve quickly been able to see how lucky I am to work in a school with a large Chinese minority, because I can share one of my greatest loves: basketball.

That I’d get to talk about basketball here didn’t much cross my mind, but by the end of my first week in Perlis I found myself out on the blacktop. My journey there started in class, doing a string of introductions, See, introductions comprise much of an ETA’s job, especially in her first month. They can be really tough when a) the students aren’t great English speakers and b) most are too shy to use the language they do have. Yet one of the few questions almost everyone knows how to ask is about my hobbies. (And basically in those exact words, “What are your hobbies,” or much more often “Sir, what your hobby?”) I talk about playing sports, writing, and reading magazines. And luckily for me, while none of my students have ever heard of The Atlantic or The New Republic, a few in every class do follow the English Premier League. So I try to make a few jokes about that. I was expecting as much—soccer, after all, is the global sport—but it caught me off-guard when one of my classes asked about my favorite NBA player. I gave a brief ode to LeBron James, and within two hours I had a student coming up to me to invite me to play basketball that afternoon. I told him couldn’t make it then, but I promised I’d come the next day. So that next day, a few hours after school ended, I took my car and followed behind this kid on a motorbike as he weaved through neighborhood alleys and led me to a small opening that housed an outdoor basketball court.

The court was/is a sight to behold. Facility-wise, it’s nothing to write home about: it’s an uncovered court with the faded lines, wood-paneled baskets, and swollen nets, in the vein of a playground court that’s fallen into disrepair. The court is playable, but you don’t enjoy playing there. (It was the first court I’ve played on that uses the international-style trapezoidal paint area.) Yet, the nondescript nature of the court stood in heavy contrast to the environment around it: streets of tin-roofed houses, chicken coops, and stray dogs lurking everywhere. Misty, rubber tree-lined mountains towered in the distance. It had rained earlier that day, and because the court was uncovered, it was quite wet. Yet that was no worry to the 30-odd kids that showed up—with a few brooms and a complex sweeping maneuver, they managed to get most of the standing water off of the court within about five minutes. The court was still very damp, and hence, very slippery, but you could run fast enough to play at three-quarters speed. I laced up my shoes and started to warm up to play, but I was stopped by one of my students, a skinny boy of about 14 with decent-enough English. “No game yet,” he said, “We practice first.”

Basketball court surrounded by mountains
The kids’ basketball court in Kai Bukit, the neighborhood near my school.

And so I kind of sat off to the side watched as these kids started to do catch-and-shoot and pass-pass-shot drills. Some kids had some major problems with form, to be sure, but their discipline and technical ability was nothing to sneeze at. Here these kids were, doing no-look, behind-the-back passes à la Steph Curry and draining 15-foot jumpers one after the other. I had come in expecting to be the best player on the court, by virtue of my relative height advantage and my decade playing organized basketball, but now I wasn’t so sure. Once we started playing, my doubt was confirmed: the other team had these two 17 year-old kids, maybe 5’6”, who ran up and down the court and absolutely whizzed the ball around the court in a blur. Trying to guard against them on a fast break was hopeless—there was a MUCH higher probability that you’d slip on the wet court than prevent them from getting an easy lay-in. We lost by a lot.

On the court, I had three distinct thoughts. First, I was struck by the sheer power that basketball has. To be half a world away from the Naismith Hall of Fame and Tobacco Road and Steph Curry and find a community that was as dedicated to playing basketball as any community I’d seen in America, if not more, was pretty incredible. At a time when the NFL is so dominant in American sports, business, and culture, it was a reminder that the NBA is doing more than a few things right.

Second, I felt a weird pang of envy. Basketball was my favorite sport to play growing up, but I was an only child in a neighborhood with only a few kids in it, and so the only times I got to play basketball with other people were in rec leagues and in pick-up games at the JCC that would materialize in fits and starts. I was probably good enough to join my school team, at least as a benchwarmer, which would’ve brought a sense of regularity to my basketball play. But I was too worried about time commitments and too scared to try out for the team—looking back, that decision probably wasn’t the best one. So for much of high school, I would practice my jump shots, alone, in my backyard hoop. I even had a maneuver to simulate catch-and-shoot 3’s where I rolled the ball onto, and off of the roof that annoyed the crap out of my parents (probably for good reason). During those afternoon hours, I always wished I had someone—or better yet, a whole neighborhood—to play with, Sandlot or Backyard Baseball-style, but it was always a pipe dream. Yet in this court, I found the community I’d wanted as a kid—there was always someone for them to play with, and most of the time they could field two whole teams. I found out later that the school boys’ team, which was made up entirely of players from this neighborhood court, won the state championship a couple years running, and a few players were even on the state youth team. Fancy court or not, they’d gotten really good by practicing with playing games every day. Of course, I was never going to be that good at basketball no matter how much I practiced, but it did make me wonder how much better I could’ve been if I had other kids to play with every day. More importantly, though, it made me wonder how much greater a connection to my community I might have fostered, if my neighborhood had set something like this up. Then again, neighborhood sports organization has never been a strong point within 21st century suburbia…

My last feeling was of slight disillusionment. I’ve long maintained a belief that sports are a great way to bring people together and great commonalities amongst people who can otherwise be very different. I’ve believed that, if you gave me just about any other four people who were around my skill level in basketball, we could “speak the basketball language” with each other well enough and have a fun time playing together. But I had a disconnect with the players on the court: what little phrases I’d learned in Bahasa Malaysia weren’t very helpful, as they were not basketball-related and most people were speaking in Mandarin anyway. Only a few people knew any English, so there just wasn’t any shared language. And it just wasn’t customary, even in Mandarin, to talk to one another in the game. For a player like me who likes to talk a lot on the court, shouting out defensive assignments, spacing notes, and general encouragement, it was really difficult to have that part of the game taken away from me. Even worse, when I tried to talk to them about college basketball after the game, they said their favorite team was Duke!! For me, it served as a recognition that, despite the connections that can be forged with basketball and similar sports over here, there’s still a big gap that exists and is really hard to break down. And that Duke’s evil empire knows no bounds.

Of course, that gap persists in a lot of things other than basketball—it’s probably been even more pronounced. Finding common ground with people over here is not as simple as when I went to the UK three years ago, or Israel three months ago. There will probably be nothing like the experience of starting off conversations by griping about Maggie Thatcher, as I could do in the UK, or discovering a new song by one of my favorite folk singers that all my Israeli friends love. People here love American pop music and American movies, but I don’t think I’ll ever be fully able to explain my love for Bruce Springsteen, or all the layers I see behind O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Easy Rider. Conversely, I’ll probably never grasp the full beauty of gamelan music or the fear behind all the ghost stories they tell. And I think that’s OK. I certainly don’t want a world in which Malaysian culture is as close to American culture as the British. But then again, one of the English teachers did give me some of her traditional Malay music to download last night, and today she made a Linkin Park reference. So there’s hope. Maybe I can even make a few new UNC fans, too.

Jonathan with Malaysian students.
One of the most surefire ways to break down cultural barriers: selfies.
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