Column #155 Chengdu, China

March 1, 2004
Column 155
Chengdu, China

Fly two hours north from where I threw darts last night and you’ll be shiverin’ in a Mongolian snow drift. Head the same distance due west and you’ll be walkin’ to the board through goat dirt.

Set in the majestic foothills of the towering Himalayas, the original city of Lhasa (translation: “goat dirt”), Tibet was built, literally, on soil transported by Sherpas riding goats. Hence the unusual choice of a name for this exotic centuries-old locale.

But I’m not in Mongolia or Tibet. I’m in Chengdu (translation: “becoming a city”), capital of China’s Sichuan (like the spicy hot food) province. First inhabited in the Paleolithic (Stone) Age, the place has been becoming a city ever since.

In Neolithic times people living in Chengdu used simple tools, bone needles and crude weapons. Yesterday for lunch I used chopsticks. My pasta turned out to be pig’s blood-vessels. I rushed out the door to puke and was nearly run over by three little men on bicycles. Chengdu has a ways to go before achieving the vision of its name.

This is not to suggest that Chengdu is some sort of backwoods outpost. Paper money was invented here. During World War II it served as one of the first bases for the “Flying Tigers,” that renowned group of American and Chinese fighter pilots who fought against the Japanese. Today, along with dozens of joint-venture enterprises (international conglomerates in partnership with the Chinese government), McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the largest giant panda breeding facility in the world all have a prominent place on the landscape.

More than 20% of the world’s population live in China — 1.3 billion people. 38 Chinese cities have populations of more than a million. Conservative estimates of just the number of Chinese homeless are well above the population of all of England. In fourth position on China’s list of most populous cities, with a population of just under 10 million people (more than any city in America), in its unique way Chengdu is as bustling a plot of humanity as any on earth.

So it should come as no surprise that the sport of darts has managed to find the beginnings of life in Chengdu. Where I have found life in my travels — no matter how dirty, different or far away the location — I have also always found a foothold for darts.

In Chengdu that spot is Sophia’s (formerly Paul’s) Oasis, across from the Traffic Hotel on Bin Jiang Zhong Road. Nestled in an area populated by hostels and inexpensive cafes, Sophia’s is one of the more popular pit-stops for backpackers and college students en route (often after a visit to Hanoi) to Tibet.

It’s odd really. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Katmandu and Marrakech were the destinations of choice for another generation of anti-war youth. No “self-respecting” kid from a rich family would have dreamed of venturing to Hanoi, at least not of their own volition. Some were provided free tickets. 58,000 of their names are now etched on black granite in Washington, D.C.

But these days it’s different. Or maybe it’s the same.

Last night Sophia’s was jammed. A new generation of carefree kids of privilege, mostly from America, sucked down beers (pi jiu) and chomped on burgers while other kids were being gunned down in the streets of Baghdad.

What these kids know of the war in Vietnam they read in books. What they know of the war in Iraq they learned sittin’ on a couch and watching a flat-screen television. Their opinions, which they expressed so passionately last night — their hatred of George Bush and puppy-like allegiance to Howard Dean — are based on uninformed emotion. And they are blind to the incongruity of it all — of expounding on such beliefs in the middle of a communist country that in the past year jailed and executed more people (many for doing nothing more than expressing their opinions) than all of the rest of the world combined.

Sophia’s is a friendly place — definitely worth a few-hour stop if you find yourself at the crossroads to Tibet with an itch for a bit of 501 and some political banter. It’s small, smoky. The food and music are western. The kids bring their own CDs. There’s just one dartboard. But it’s one more than none. And it’s active.

I grabbed a beer, scribbled my initials on the chalkboard and waited my turn at the line. For about an hour I watched the board and waited, growing ever-more anxious as I listened to the political babble among the shooters and their backpacking friends. It’s been a while since I’ve found myself as ready as I was last night for my chance at the line.

When that opportunity arrived the board was mine for the night. It’s not that it took particular skill to knock back most of these kids. Not a one of them really knew the game. Pretty much all of them were juiced.

As their initials moved to the top of the list, one by one to the line they stepped. A spiky-haired kid named Ivor from Holland. A whole string of spiky-haired kids from around America. A spiky-haired kid from Perth. Short-arming. Lunging at the board. More political blather.

They all threw the same. They all talked the same. They all looked the same.

I found myself on a private mission to whoop them soundly — to make my own political statement, to myself without ever speaking a word. I’m naturally quiet when I throw anyway. I shake hands, wish my opponent well and get down to business. Last night my business became more than darts.

As I dispatched each kid and watched him shuffle off into the smoke, I felt good. It’s silly, I know — I wasn’t really accomplishing a thing. Not a soul in the joint had any idea that my political views were the antithesis of theirs. I don’t for a moment suggest that my views are better or right.

Still, as each kid wandered off in defeat I found myself feeling proud. Proud of America. Proud of all that our leaders are doing to make the world safe for all humanity. Proud of those men and women who have died — who are dying — for what they believe is right and just.

How dare these kids condemn those trying to square the events of September 11.

How dare these kids ridicule those dying in Iraq to ensure that others can enjoy the same basic freedoms they have.

Darts sometimes has that effect on me. I lose myself in the game. Just as I pretended years ago each baseball zinging towards my bat was actually my homeroom teacher’s face, I’m motivated and able to focus better today by imagining that I’m achieving more than just sticking dart after dart where I aim it. For me to be effective at hitting the numbers, hitting the numbers has to be about more than just winning the game.

As last night unfolded and the pi jiu inspired more and more aggressive political commentary, I found myself throwing for enlightenment. Instead of my homeroom teacher’s mug, as I let go of each dart I imagined it as a tool, a tiny laser-like piercing instrument, designed to release disrespectful thoughts and provide an entry point for new and respectful thoughts in the minds of the children I was facing at the line.

Late into the evening there occurred a moment when the spikes and points and wild abandon of my opponents’ locks appeared to me, honestly, to be a manifestation of the misguided ideas in their heads — each thought wiggling, pushing and punching at the inside of their sculls, struggling desperately to find an escape route to the light.

This is when I realized (to borrow from the kids’ lingo) that I was “like, really fucking wasted, dude.” Pig’s blood-vessels and Chinese beer simply do not mix.

Still, I couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly. As my purposeful darts sent each of these wankers packing it seemed entirely fitting, at least in my state at the time — puking on my second sidewalk of the day — that the next stop for most of them would be somewhere along a distant street of goat dirt.

From the Field,

Dartoid

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Dartoid
Author of the column that since 1995 has been featured by Bull’s Eye News, the American Darts Organization’s (ADO) Double Eagle and numerous other darts publications and websites around the globe.

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