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 towards 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 Girls Basketball Team from Chongqing, China.
It might seem like a random match-up but the 10 girls jogging onto the court are part of a thirty-year relationship between Seattle and its Chinese sister city Chongqing–an industrial powerhouse of almost 30 million in the Southwest of the country.
The idea for a basketball exchange is the result of a pick-up 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 ties between the two cities. Chief Sealth, which is designated as an international high school, has been sister schools with Nankai for years.
“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 Capitan for “The Seahawks,” says she’s been having a great time with Zou Ying, also 17, 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 who also points out that their similar first names and shared experience as team captains makes them “kind of like twins.”
Both girls delight in their cultural differences. Ying recounts, in detail, experiencing 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 (Chongquing 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) and Ying finds American school “more free and interesting.”
One thing they share in common is a love of South Korean pop star PSY’s global hit “Gangnam Style.” Apparently 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 this very 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 has made an impression on Haywood, especially where it comes to basketball, and watching the two teams warm up it’s hard not to notice the difference.
The Seahawks (outfitted in eclectically colored knee socks) stand in a cluster sporadically shooting balls up at the hoop, while the Nankai Team (sporting identical pixie hair-cuts and purple warm up suits) run drills in tight formation.
Nankai, as it happens, is the eighth best high school team in all of China. Their skill is spectacularly revealed less than a minute into the game when Ying makes an effortless behind-the-back pass that provokes a gasp of admiration from the crowd.
“Those Chinese girls got some swift moves,” breathes one spectator behind me.
You may have guessed by now that Nankai won this match-up (57-40 for anyone keeping track) but everyone agrees that it’s the learning experience, not the competition, 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’ve never heard of Chongqing, this emerging mega-city of millions, until tonight.
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.
“1 in 3 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 so he can be more employable. “Having an understanding of your trading partner and the culture is an important thing.”
But jobs and trading partners are far-off concerns for the girls of West Seattle and Nankai tonight. 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.
For more about Chongqing check out this BBC report: