Saturday, October 16, 2010

Games People Play

A younger US expat pal and coworker, JT, and I were walking on what passes for a sidewalk across from one of Beijing’s newest flashiest shopping malls recently when I almost stepped on several migrant construction workers who'd been laboring on one of the endless upscale apartment project nearby.

Weatherbeaten, weary and deeply tanned, they were squatting and playing and kibuttzing over a crude strategy game they’d thrown together on the walk on the early cool Saturday fall afternoon.

It was a chalk-drawn chess or checkers type square with pebbles and brick shards as one group and freshly broken twigs as the other. (Insert obvious cultural/ social irony detail here: at the same time, less than 100 yards across the bustling road jammed with late model BMWs, Audis and upscale Chinese autos, about 200 or more white collars and others were lined up; status and tech-hungry weasels salivating to buy the new iPhone in a mega Apple store.)

“Ask them what they’re playing, how it works,” I urged him. He’s wickedly fluent in Chinese, part of the New Blood Literate and Fluent Educated Foreign Sino Squad that will eventually (and justifiably) replace Fossils Like Me in China’s 21st century foreign job and social networks.

He bent down and, in what I assume was cool and polite Chinese, asked.

“He says, ‘ground chess,’’’JT replied. “But I think he’s being a little sarcastic Told me to stick around and watch and I’d figure it out.”

We declined but I began musing. “Julian!” I shouted to my son, though he is in Colorado and was presumably blissfully deep asleep at the time. “Sorry, but I can’t get you the newest Xbox for Christmas. But, hey! Here’s the new ‘Chinese Migrant Worker Play Station!’

"A piece of chalk, some rocks and twigs packaged in a nifty plastic bag endorsed by the China Intangible Cultural and Social Heritage Academy of Social Sciences.

”Also included is a half used pack of Dubao (“Derby,” one of the cheapest and foulest Chinese cigs. See: unfiltered Chesterfield or Old Gold) and two stained, sweaty small blue or blue and black camo caps for the complete migrant experience.

"Plus a ‘Seven Chinese Migrant Worker Secrets to Sleeping Anyplace, Anytime and in Any Position –From Horizontal on Hand Rails to Doubled Up Like a Fetus on a 9-inch Chunk of Broken Parking Barrier at the Height of Rush Hour!’”

There was admiration overall. For starters, JT and I could imagine few, if any, US construction workers playing ‘ground chess’ or any other strategy game – makeshift or otherwise - on their down time. “Pound down the beers chess,” maybe. But otherwise…nah.