Friday, August 15, 2008

Los Juegos Olimpicos

Watching the Olympics in Mexico is a strange experience.

My first encounter with the Olympics here was at a lavanderia (Laundromat) last Friday. We don’t have a TV at the Lutheran Center, so I thought I was going to miss out on the opening ceremonies. But at the lavanderia there was a tv on, ostensibly so that the lone employee would have something to do in her otherwise empty store. The TV was broadcasting the ceremonial march of countries around the track. It’s not a whole lot to see, but I every once in a while I could understand an announcer saying the name of the country – in Spanish, of course. France, for example, is Francia; Germany is Alemania, Jamaica is spelled the same but pronounced Ha-mai-ka, and so on.

My second experience watching the Olympics was my first night in Cuernavaca. One of the first things my host mom offered mi companero and I was the remote for the TV. I think she told us the Juegos Olimpicos were on canal ochenta – channel 80. Then she left the house, I guess to go visit family. An hour later we decide to try and watch the Juegos Olimpicos. I try 80. No sports. 81 – no sports. No sports on any channel beginning with 8. Okay…so I keep flipping channels until finally I find one with an Olympic logo. Except it’s broadcasting Mexican soccer. Every five minutes or so, they flash “BEIJING TOTAL” (pronounced with the emphasis on the TAL) on the screen, but refrain from actually showing anything from Beijing. Finally the Mexican soccer match ends, and then begin the weirdest sports show I’ve ever seen. Granted, I don’t watch much sports analysis outside of PTI. But still. This “BEIJING TOTAL” prime-time coverage featured a yellow puppet with a Confucius beard (seriously), really cheesy Chinese music with gong sounds at totally random points, three male commentators each in a full suit and tie and one female commentator wearing hardly anything, and, finally, a “comic relief” guy that kept interrupting things with little skits in which he would pretend to cook a chicken but then be chased around the kitchen by the chicken (Chicagoans, think of the cartoon on a Harold’s Chicken sign; Dad, think of the Swedish chef) and then Mr. Comic Relief Guy would repeatedly pull the skin back from his eyes to make, yes, squinty eyes. Squinty eyes? Really? I remember like 15 years ago Harry Carey made some squinty eyes remark and almost got booted from WGN. Here they sell chocolate milk everywhere with a label that has a cartoon of a little African-American boy with a huge afro haircut on it and they call the drink “Negrito!” I don’t get it.

Anyway, this strange Juegos Olimpicos BEIJING TOTAL program had almost no visual sports coverage. Out of an hour, we maybe got five minutes of actual sports clips. I’m guess the announcers were talking about it, but of course I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and half the time instead of talking about the Olympics they were interacting with the strange racist skit guy. It was totally bizarre.

This program is repeated NIGHTLY. After a few days, we did find Olympics coverage in the mornings and daytime, but of course we have to go to school in the mornings and daytime. We would see beach volleyball being played on the TV at the local drugstore we passed on the way to school in the morning (there is a TV on in all of these little stores, which would totally not be allowed at my old Subway - there's something we should import), and I would gaze at it longingly. That’s right: I pined for the Olympics.

And then, all of a sudden, God heard my pining.

Still looking for a chance to actually watch some Olympic competitions, on Thursday night I decided to ask my host mom if we could watch los Juegos Olimpicos. Si, si, she said, and changed the channel. And that’s when I saw it: Actual sports being played! And not just any sport: Basketball. Basketball broadcast on a Mexican television station. Basketball in which American players were competing. Basketball, real basketball. I had hit the Olympic jackpot.

What followed was simultaneously the most awkward and the most enjoyable hour of time I have spent in my homestay. “Oh!” I exclaimed, “Basquet es mi deportivo favorito!” I sat down and immediately began drinking it in like it was water in the desert. There it was, a veritable NBA All-Star team, and the only commentary, which in English would just be annoying, were two Mexican announcers talking very fast and every once in awhile proclaiming a run-of-the-mill defensive play as “Excellente!” and peppering all of it with the recognizable names of players and teams in English (well, English with Mexican pronunciations – my favorite is the Utah Jazz – here called the Oo-tah Yazz).

I figured I would sit and watch it by myself; surely Mexicans don’t care much about basketball. Except then, lost in joy at having found basketball, I proceeded to ask a few random questions like “Estados Unidos y…Greece? Es Grecia? Grecia?” “Si, es Grecia…” she answers, and then sits down to watch the game with me!

Of course, I’m happy to have the company, but I’m thinking to myself, senora, if you don’t care much for basketball, you really don’t need to sit here with me, don’t feel obligated if there’s something else you’d rather be doing, I know this isn’t really a Mexican sport, and besides, you’ve never really shown interest in sports at all previously…

But of course, I didn’t know how to say anything quite that complicated, so I proceeded to say whatever I could think of to stave off the awkwardness of making my host mom watch the NBA versus Greece. “En el Equipo de Estados Unidos, no hay jugadores de el equpo de Chicago!” I say, and then I shake my head sadly. “No?” she says, genuinely surprised. And so on.

Then she asks me a question I can’t quite understand, and she repeats it and repeats it until finally I get that the question ends with “Yor-dan.” “Oh! Michael Jordan!” “Si,” she says, and then I think asks me if he’s on the team. How do I explain this? “No,” I say, “No ahora,” meaning not now. “Oh,” she says. Then does it again, asks me the same question a couple of different ways until I think I get that she’s telling me that in Mexico, they pick the best players from each team to be on the national team. Don’t they do this in the United States? “Si,” I say…but clearly there’s something still unresolved.

Then I realize that I know where all of these players are from – or at least, what city they currently play in. And today, in school, I learned how to say where people are from! Ha! I can practice my Spanish! I amuse myself for while by saying things like:

Dwayne Wade es el numero seis. El es de Miami.
Lebron James es el numero nueve. El es de Cleveland.

That’s right, doing my homework has suddenly transformed into watching basketball, as if lima beans had suddenly turned into ice cream! Deron Williams is playing, so I explain that he’s from the Universidad de Illinois and that he and mi hermano went to school together (ok, so Greg probably never had a class with Deron Williams, but I figured I didn’t really need to include that part). Then I talked some more about mis hermanos; because we were watching basketball, it was easy to point to people on the screen and explain that my brother is a basketball coach in the United States at an escuela segundaria (I think that’s right?).

After I explain where half a dozen players are from, she asks again about Yor-dan. Why isn’t he on the team? I have no idea how to say that he’s retired. As I pull out my Spanish-English dictionary, I try to explain: “Jordan no juego ahora,” I say, “Ahora, Jordan…Jordan es un golfo ahora.”

We continue chatting (sort of – I’m doing a ridiculous amount of guessing what she’s trying to say to me and grasping at verb tenses in my responses) throughout the second half. Later mi companero comes downstairs to join us just as the game is ending, and then there is, I don’t believe it, more sports coverage. When it rains, it pours.

We watch Michael Phelps cruise to victory, see a few track and field races, and witness a Mexican losing in archery. They show the medal count a few times. This is kind of awkward – the US is second to China, but Mexico…ranks at No. 43 with a single bronze medal, in synchronized diving (a sport I did not even know existed). But, the bronze medal is a HUGE deal – as well it should be, IS a medal – and the medalists are featured on the nightly news. They interview one of the medalists’ mom, who is surrounded by friends and family, and then they keep congratulating the medalist with graphics at every break. It reminds me of when Jennifer Hudson won the Oscar, and the local Chicago news media camped out on the South Side. Except that analogy bothers me, because the South Side of Chicago is one region of an American city, while Mexico is a whole gigantic country. Even in los Juegos Olimpicos, the two behemoths, China and the United States, are on the top of the heap, and I can't quite figure out, with all the coverage of Michael Phelps, how the success of the U.S. is all over the Mexican coverage.

So it’s a little topsy-turvey being an Estadounidense (the multisyllabic word for a citizen of the United States that we learned today – try to say it five times fast, or better yet, try to make a jingoistic song out of that one) in another country during the Olympics. Somewhere Yordan is smiling. I think.

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