AK is a twenty-eight-year-old Chinese man who gave up a highly paid, highly respected job as a banker so that he could have more time to work on his football tricks. I want to say that while I watch him juggle the ball on his shins, it’s hard for me to imagine him wearing a business suit and sitting at a desk, but that’s not true—I can easily imagine him wearing a suit and sitting at a desk. Maybe he could see it too—like us, he’s at that age where things start funneling in directions you’re not even sure you want to go—and maybe that’s part of what led him to tell a disbelieving father that his grown up son wanted to become a street soccer player.
Several years ago, AK saw a youtube video of various street players. He enjoyed watching them so much that he started trying tricks himself. Everyday he spent hours mastering the moves he saw on the computer screen and then inventing his own, until he became arguably the best streetballer in China. Nowadays he has a small following of guys who meet him in public squares and attempt to replicate his tricks. They play outside the metro station, in the center of People’s Square, in front of a Mao statue at East China Normal University—anywhere they think people will see.
All over the world, we’ve managed to skirt the rain, roaming the streets, living in sunshine. But in Asia, our luck runs out. We arrive in the dead of winter, even though we haven’t planned or packed much different than we did for summertime. In Tokyo, we were American ragamuffins—layering our t-shirts, each wearing our only sweatshirt over and over again. In Shanghai, we’re just wet, terribly wet. We land in the middle of a record-setting stretch of rain. There are men using brooms to sweep the water off the sidewalk. It’s one thing to play in the warm rain of summer time, it’s another to play when it’s thirty-five degrees outside. Ferg and I buy tights and Luke and Ryan wear jeans beneath their warm-up pants and the four of us huddle beneath the umbrella we check out from our hotel. Ryan believes umbrellas bring out the worst in people—you see selfishness loud and clear as you’re jabbed in the eye, doused with repelled water, or nudged off the sidewalk in favor of the prepared people who have their lives in order and their umbrellas extended. Being tall—his face at the same level as most umbrellas—Ryan is especially susceptible to the various hazards.
The wet ball is not good for the Shanghainese streetballers’ tricks, but it does not prevent them from playing. On Saturday, they meet at the small amphitheater outside the metro station. They know all the public spots in the city where there can play without hassle from the police. It’s a different kind of soccer than Luke and I are used to—more like a performance than a game. Every guy has his own style. One guy’s specialty is a kung-fu infused ball dance, another guy is a master of the “around-the-world,” the foot somehow makes a full circle around the ball while it stays up in the air. He used the trick to woo his wife—she told him she’d marry him if he could do ten in a row. A small sixteen-year-old wearing a black I-Heart-Shanghai t-shirt and baggy jeans is a relative beginner and has not mastered a full range of tricks but his around-the-worlds are tight and clean. He and the other fourteen-year-old wear ear buds and periodically start tracing out dance moves. In order to improve their street-balling-rhythm, they’ve taken up crip-walking. In the same way the Brazilians wove the hip-sway of the Samba into their futbol, they want to make the crip-walking inflect their tricks. It’s a funny thing to stand in Shanghai, watching a sixteen-year-old try a dance that originated from a 1970s Los Angeles gang.
Not only can I not do any of their tricks, I can’t do half a trick. Compared to the snazzy juggling of these guys, even Luke is bad, and he at least knows how to do things like the “around-the-world,” even though he wouldn’t call it that because Luke doesn’t believe in naming moves—when I say things like “scissors” and “stepover,” he scoffs at me. He thinks it’s lame to name a move. He doesn’t like the idea of learning a prescribed set of movements. He thinks you should see something and then do it and then change it and then let it bleed into something else until it’s unique and unpredictable, not something you can just slap a word on. Luke has a similar approach to driving—he knows where he has to go and takes a different route to get there every time, while I sit in the passenger seat, miserably lost, longing for a route I can take over and over again. I’m not in it for new territory. I’m in it for the familiarity, for loyalty. Instincts, gut feelings—I only trust these things if I’ve spent enough time doing the same thing to know it will come out of me on its own.
But even here in Shanghai, where they are breaking the moves down for me, giving me the formula, showing me step by step, I cannot do it. I stand there behind AK as he does it again in slow motion. It has been a long time since I’ve tried to learn to a new move. I can vaguely remember this feeling of helplessness—a Sunday afternoon practice and a circle, the fear of something you don’t know how to do but dribbling into the middle and doing it anyway—I marvel over how brave I was as a kid and how not-brave I feel now. I can’t even hear what he’s telling me, I don’t want to try, I just want to stop. I’m embarrassed. I guess as we get older, and rule out the things we don’t like or aren’t good at, there are less face-to-face encounters with looking stupid. But inside the amphitheater in Shanghai, moving my legs in awkward, unfamiliar patterns—and invariably getting it wrong,–looking stupid is hard to avoid. I just wait it out until it is time to go to the neighboring park and play for real…and see if their juggling moves can translate to the field, to the game, to the kind of soccer I know how to play.
Next and final destination: Iran…