It’s Saturday night high-school basketball in West Seattle. There are sneakers squeaking on the court and dutiful families chatting in the bleachers. Suddenly the crowd stands and turns toward a red flag hung beside the hoop as the band strikes up a brassy version of the national anthem … of the People’s Republic of China.
This is the first annual game between the Chief Sealth girls basketball team and the Nankai High School team from Chongqing, China. It might seem like a random matchup but the 10 girls jogging onto the court are part of a 30-year relationship between Seattle and its Chinese sister city, Chongqing, an industrial powerhouse of almost 30 million in Southwest China.
The idea for a basketball exchange is the result of a pickup game Mayor McGinn (who is in the audience tonight) played with the girls of Nankai High School. He was in Chongqing as part of a delegation sent to develop educational, cultural and business tiesbetween the two cities.
Chief Sealth has been a sister school with Nankai for years.
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“We want to move beyond the flags, the festivals and foods,” says Sealth Principal Chris Kinsey, “We want to prepare our kids for living and succeeding … in a global world.”
Zoe Haywood, a 17-year-old senior and team captain for the Seatlh Seahawks, says she’s been having a great time with Zou Ying, also 17, a Nankai player who has been staying at her house.
“The first night I took her to Alki to show her the skyline, and she really liked that,” says Haywood. She points out that their similar first names and shared experience as team captains make them “kind of like twins.”
Ying recounts, in detail, her first slice of cheese pizza (she tried to eat it sideways) and remarks through a translator that she loves how much sky you can see in Seattle. Chongqing, by contrast, is crowded with high-rises.
There’s also a lot of talk about school.
Haywood can’t believe how hard Ying studies — eight classes a day and hours of homework every night. Ying finds American school “more free and interesting.”
They share a love of South Korean pop star PSY’s global hit “Gangnam Style.”
One of the first things the two teams did together was break out in a group-dance performance to the song, something the Nankai team executed with remarkable precision since the routine is part of their school’s daily physical-education class.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” says Haywood, describing a video Ying shared with her on her phone.
“It was thousands of kids in this big field all in perfectly straight lines going … ‘Heeeeyyy, sexy lady.’ … It was so cool.”
The discipline of the Nankai girls made an impression on Haywood, especially when it comes to basketball.
The Seahawks, outfitted in eclectically colored knee socks, stand in a cluster sporadically shooting balls up at the hoop.
The Nankai team, each member sporting identical pixie haircuts and purple warm-up suits, run drills in tight formation.
Nankai, as it happens, is the eighth-best high-school team in China. Their skill is spectacularly revealed less than a minute into the game when Ying makes an effortless behind-the-back pass.
The crowd gasps in admiration.
“Those Chinese girls got some swift moves,” breathes one spectator behind me.
You may have guessed by now that Nankai won this matchup (57-40 for anyone keeping track). But it’s the learning experience, that’s important.
And it might be the Americans that have the most to learn. As I sit watching the game, I wonder why I’d never heard of Chongqing, this emerging megacity of millions.,
If young people expect to do well in the shifting global economy, they’d better take an interest in China, says Scott Heinlein of The Seattle-Chongqing Sister City Association.
“One in three jobs [in Washington state] is trade-related, and China is [our] biggest trading partner,” says Heinlein, who is raising his own son to speak Mandarin and Spanish.
But jobs and trading partners are far-off concerns this night.
As the scoreboard switches off and the cheerleaders pack up their pompoms, the court fills with teenagers singing “Heeeeyyy, sexy lady!” and dancing in joyful unison.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: email@example.com. Twitter: @clpsarah