Long Long sat front and center in his American Country Music class.
It was Tuesday morning, and the day’s topic was Outlaw Country and Southern Rock. In a windowless practice room in the Jacobs School of Music, the Chinese international student begrudgingly listened.
He listened to Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson.
“How many of you have seen ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?” the professor asked.
About half the class raised their hands. Long did not.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic lyrics appeared on the projector, and the class followed along silently as the song played aloud. Long translated the twang in his mind. Two rows back, one student tapped his pencil to the beat.
“Big wheels keep on turnin’/ carry me home to see my kin/ singin’ sounds about the Southland/ I miss Alabamy once again and I think it’s a sin, yeah”
The discussion moved toward the “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band and transitioned into the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
“It’s a sound that’s not at all unfamiliar to you,” the professor said.
But when the Chinese international student enrolled in the class in January, they were all unfamiliar. Long listens to pop music, not country. The genre doesn’t even exist in China, Long said.
A journalism major pursuing a music minor, the sophomore had planned to take a different music class this semester. But the statistics lab he enrolled in was cancelled, which threw off his schedule. Long needed a different music course to fulfill his music minor requirement. American Country Music fit the bill.
“There’s still a lot you can learn, though,” Long said.
Since he arrived on campus in August, Long’s life has been a reel of reconciliations. His diet now includes cheeseburgers and fresh veggies alongside the traditional Chinese food he finds in Bloomington restaurants. In class, he speaks English, but with friends he reverts to his native Mandarin.
In less than a month, the international student will pack his bags and return to China for the first time since last fall.
In spite of the cultural barriers that have challenged him along the way, Bloomington has become home. From his window at the top of Eigenmann Hall, he can see it all.
Will doesn’t do it every night, but sometimes Long stands at his 11th-floor picture window at sunset, watching the tangerine blaze sink out of sight on its way to a new day halfway around the world.
* * *
Long, who goes by Will in the United States, found Hogan Stanger through the Onestart Classifieds.
“Basketball coach needed!” the ad read. “Price negotiable.”
It called for an experienced coach, one with patience and passion. The 12-man team needed to build a defense and wanted help Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon.
Will said the team had no idea how to play defense. They needed individualized skill work. Some had played in intramurals, others were rookies.
Will received many inquiries about the position, all from Americans. Will interviewed only four of them. Hogan was third.
Will and Hogan sat at a table on the fourth floor of Herman B Wells Library. Behind them sat another Chinese student, Alvin Zhan, the team captain. He transcribed the interview on his computer.
Will asked a variety of questions: How will you handle the communication divide? Will you be patient with us? Are you willing to commit to us long-term?
They talked about Hogan’s coaching philosophy and experience.
He finished the other interviews and selected Hogan as their new coach. Their first practice would be the Saturday after spring break.
The American walked into the School of Public Health gym around 10 a.m. The Chinese team was already warming up.
Hogan shook Will’s hand, introduced himself and briefly exchanged introductions with the rest of the team. As the sun poured in through the windows, the players gathered on the court.
One wore crimson IU athletic shorts and another sported a white t-shirt designed with an American flag, the Superman symbol replacing the 50 stars. Upon the feet of every player were shoes of different colors, representing only one brand: Nike. Some wore the specialty line, Air Jordan.
Lebron James’ face was plastered on one black t-shirt.
Hogan began practice with the basics, instructing the players to dribble down the court with their right hand and back with their left. With little uniformity, the team went through the motions of a remix version of the drill Hogan explained. At random times along the way, players paused to dribble behind their back or through their legs, throwing each other off pace.
As Hogan engaged enthusiastically in English, the only feedback he received were nods of acknowledgment. The players called him “sir” and “coach” but instructed each other in Mandarin. Amid side conversations he couldn’t understand, the American coach tried to crack a few jokes.
Even coaching a sport he lived by, Hogan seemed a little out of place.
Hogan demonstrated plays for the team, using his hands to move people into place. He called Will by name. Everyone else was “you with the red shorts” or “you with the yellow shoes.”
“What we gotta do is communicate and have each other’s backs,” Hogan said.
The team shouted across the court to one another in Mandarin just like their new coach had instructed.
“We yell in Chinese,” Will said. “You have to take time to react if you’re using English.”
They had asked Hogan if he minded them using Mandarin during practice. He didn’t mind as long as they were effectively communicating.
After two hours of practice, Hogan recapped what they had learned, emphasizing words like “we” and “our.”
“All we have to do is play smart and play hard,” Hogan said, quoting one of his former Bloomington High School North coaches.
The practice ended without a team huddle. They turned to leave, but Hogan stopped everyone, requesting a second round of introductions.
He went down the line, shaking hands one by one as the players he knew only by clothing color introduced themselves again.
“Hi, I’m Paul ... Tobias ... Alvin ... Jack ...”
* * *
Will’s mom would say he’s an “independent guy.”
Unlike many first-year students at American universities, this isn’t the first time Will has lived away from his parents. For three years in high school, he lived at a boarding school in his hometown of Shenzhen, a large city just north of Hong Kong. It was there Will learned to speak Mandarin, China’s official language, and Cantonese, the official language in Hong Kong. It’s also where he learned to speak English.
The now-19-year-old traveled to Europe with his parents during the summer after his senior year, and it was then he decided he wanted to study abroad in college. Will had already enrolled in a community college in his hometown, but in spring 2012 he applied to IU.
When he arrived in Bloomington just a few days before international student orientation, Will knew only one other IU student on campus, his roommate from high school. He didn’t know where he would live, let alone who his IU roommate would be.
For the first two weeks of classes, Will lived out of his suitcase in an Eigennman Hall lounge, a product of “overflow housing” when the University admits more students than there are living spaces. Eventually Will was moved into a three-person room with one American roommate and one Chinese roommate.
The sophomore journalism major enrolled in an English proficiency course for international students who have passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language but are trying to improve their conversation skills. In January, Will signed up for his first two journalism courses. He’s aware American journalists can openly criticize the government, but he’s still coming to terms with the full implications of a free press.
Free speech is a foreign concept to Will because China’s communist government prohibits demonstrations.
Basketball has always been an integral part of his life. He played back home. Since he arrived in August, he’s seen the Pacers play in Indianapolis, refereed intramural basketball and followed the Hoosiers.
Now Will and a dozen of his friends are forming an official Chinese Basketball Association. They want to give Chinese students a place to learn and practice.
After they’d decided to hire Hogan, the newly formed team discovered the Chinese Student and Scholar Association was sponsoring a basketball tournament.
They already had the drive to get better — now they had a place to compete.
They named their team Tree New Bee. In English, the phrase means nothing. That’s the point. In China, citizens are responding to anti-protest policies by developing double-barreled phrases. When spoken aloud, a Mandarin phrase meaning “to boast” sounds very similar to the English words “Tree New Bee.” Additionally, the individual Chinese symbols for the words tree, new and bee, when placed together, mean “to set a good example.”
It’s a play on words within a play on words, a way for this all-Chinese team to blend its new and native languages.
* * *
Two boxes of Mother Bear’s pizza occupied the small lounge table where team Tree New Bee was draped across couches and chairs, settled in to watch their Hoosiers take on the Orange.
It was the Sweet Sixteen, and IU was coming off an ugly win over Temple. The No. 1 seed needed to pull this one out. Tree New Bee’s brackets and pride depended on it.
The Chinese basketball team was cheering for Cody and Yogi and Victor and Jordy, but they were studying the five-man formation that SU was executing almost perfectly.
The two-three zone.
“Syracuse is known to have one of the best zone defenses in the country,” Hogan said in practice just hours before. “Watch what they do tonight.”
The team had invited Hogan to watch the game with them, but he planned to watch at his childhood Bloomington home with his parents.
After halftime, the Hoosiers’ point deficit only expanded. Inside the Union Street Center Birch Hall lounge, tensions rose. Alvin, Paul, Jack and Will sat on the edge of their seats, eyes jerking back and forth as the small figures moved across the screen. On a couch perpendicular to theirs, Tobias flirted with a handful of girls that had joined the watch party, oblivious to the sixth banner that was slipping away from a hopeful campus.
As the final buzzer sounded on a deflated Bloomington, fans blamed officials and shed tears at Kilroy’s. Their brackets were trashed, but the disappointment was not the same for the international students whose crush on IU basketball was in its infancy. They didn’t grow up in households where Indiana basketball was a form of religion, where relatives told back-in-the-day stories of Bob Knight and NCAA championships and dominance.
As the Hoosiers crumbled, Tree New Bee was finally coming together. That night at practice they had learned two new plays, “Hoosier” and “Indiana.” They scrimmaged each other and stayed late to shoot around for fun.
The following afternoon, Tree New Bee congregated in a computer lab to watch film of Syracuse’s two-three zone that handicapped their Hoosiers the night before.
* * *
Aside from the Recreational Sports referees, Hogan Stanger was the only Caucasian at the Asian Student and Scholar Association basketball tournament. All around him, students, players and coaches spoke Chinese.
He wasn’t phased.
Wearing red IU basketball shorts and carrying a clipboard, the coach was looking for a win. He had watched Tree New Bee become a team. In just a few practices, they’d become friends.
As a unit they stood along the sidelines, ready to play. Wearing purple jerseys bearing the golden letters “TNB,” the players sized up their competition.
They would face Indiana Banana, a team wearing black and yellow, in their first game.
Paul Li stepped up for tip-off. He launched from center-court and swatted the ball to a teammate. Tree New Bee was rusty at first, not scoring their first points until five minutes in. With only two ten minute halves and a running clock, the game moved quickly.
With only four minutes left in the second half, the score stood 14-10, Tree New Bee.
Indiana Banana didn’t score again the rest of the game. Tree New Bee went on an eight-point run. They had settled into a groove.
Hogan yelled words of encouragement at his players.
“There it is, baby!”
The game ended 22-10 and the team was ready for more.
“That was a huge win guys,” he said. “Tree New Bee on three... one, two, three... Tree New Bee!” they shouted together.
With three pool-play games in the morning and a single-elimination tournament scheduled for the afternoon, the pace moved quick.
After a slow first half in game two, Tree New Bee trailed by 6 with two minutes to go. Will sunk a three and peddled backward down the court, arm still in the air. With seconds left on the clock, will hit another field goal that he followed with a fist pump.
Final score: 22-18.
The team’s performance was beginning to match their tenacious name. They huddled together again, and as Hogan began to give a game overview, a rumble began on the back left court.
In the middle of a different game, one team’s crowd grew rowdy. Trash talking escalated to shoving, and within seconds at least 30 people were entangled in an all-out brawl.
Whistles sounded for two minutes straight and Recreational Sports referees and employees pulled the angry participants off one-another.
The guilty team was escorted off the court where they met police officers at the gymnasium entrance.
With a short break before their next game, the team unloaded their sustenance: Smart Water, bananas and a bag of Dove chocolate and Kit Kats.
A court opened up, and they started toward the sidelines. As they began to warm up, a Recreational Sports employee came over to break the news. The tournament had been cancelled. It was policy.
“We were onto something guys. We were cooking,” Hogan lamented. “Hey, we’re undefeated though.”
Tree New Bee was disappointed. They had worked hard, and they thought they deserved to play. It wasn’t about the money prize.
“It’s victory,” Will said.