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Alan Paul Interview

June 10, 2011


Post by Jon Pastuszek 

June 10, 2011


Around here, Alan Paul needs no introduction.  As fans of words, basketball and China, Paul has been somewhat of a legend in NiuBBall’s eyes for quite some time.  A senior writer for SLAM Magazine for the last several years, Paul, in addition to his outstanding catalog of work profiling some of the NBA’s best past and present players, also has a thick stack of pages written about one of our favorite subjects: China and basketball.

One of the few male “trailing spouses” in the world, Paul followed his wife to Beijing in 2005 after she accepted a job offer from the Wall Street Journal to become their China Bureau Chief.  With the wife busy at her new gig, Paul was forced into the role of a stay-at-home Dad who was responsible for his three kids before and after school.  Most would take the situation as a tombstone.  Paul, however, made the most of his China situation — instead of moping around the house during the day, he roamed freely around the outskirts of Beijing in Shunyi, taking full advantage of every unique opportunity that came his way (and got an aiyi).

Fortunately for everyone, he also spent a lot of time in front of his computer screen.  Author of the widely acclaimed “Ex-Pat Life” on WSJ.com, Paul got even more props — in our circles at least — for his Far Post blog on SLAMOnline, which focused specifically on hoops in the Middle Kingdom.  But even with all of that niu-ness, his greatest contribution came in his amazing article written about former Providence Friar point guard, God Shammgod, playing professional basketball in Taiyuan, Shanxi province with one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the Chinese Basketball Association, the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons.  It is on the required reading list for fans of NiuBBall.

As his is new book, Big in China, which chronicles his experiences in China with honesty and charm.  Eventually, Paul’s willingness to branch out combined with a passion for music, which led him into become a bonefied China superstar as the lead singer of an award winning blues band called “Woodie Alan.”

Paul will be in NiuBBall’s home base of Beijing for a book signing at the Bookworm on June 15th and a reunion show with his band on June 17th at Jianghu Jiuba.

A writer we’ve looked up to for a very long time, Alan was not only gracious enough to reply to an email we sent out a short while ago, he also volunteered to answer whatever questions we could come up with about his experiences in China.

NiuBBall: The WSJ column, the book and now a movie… why do you think your story has been such a hit and did you ever expect this type of reaction?

Alan Paul: I can’t say I expected it, but it all slowly built on itself so it never felt shocking. The big shock came in the very beginning, shortly after I moved to Beijing, when I saw how people were responding to my blog posts. I never intended them to do anything more than keep friends and families informed about our new life. Then people started forwarding them around and the response encouraged me to try to be a bit more professional and led me to submit some sample columns to the Wall Street Journal Online, which led to The Expat Life column.

When that started, I was amazed when I realized how many of my experiences – things I thought were very China-centric – resonated with people who had lived outside of their home cultures anywhere in the world. That encouraged me to begin thinking that maybe there was a book in my stories. I started one project and put it aside to focus on the band and just enjoy life in Beijing. I thought I was being sort of irresponsible to my long-term career, but the attention to the band paid off in a million ways. It was purely uncalculated – I was following my heart and doing what I loved – but it made for a much more interesting tale and book.

I was very self conscious about the idea of writing a memoir – it seems like a crazy concept – and determined that if I did so I had to find a way to make it bigger than me. I tried to explore some larger issues – how it’s never too late in life to chase your dreams or have an adventure. How things that people think might pull a couple apart can pull them together. How traveling with children can be a huge plus and not just a drag.

NiuBBall: Some people call it “The Expat Bubble, ” in the book you call it “Expat Land.”  Explain to people what that place is, and how you were able to successfully find a balance between your life there and your existence in “real China.”

AP: Expat Land is simultaneously in Beijing and in its own special universe, which can be transported around the globe. It can be simultaneously isolating and comforting. One of the primary challenges is to push out of it and remember that your timeline in your temporary home is brief and the clock is always ticking. Get out there and live it up!

We didn’t really have a choice because the Wall Street Journal owned a home in Beijing Riviera and there were certainly times that I wished we didn’t live there, but I have no regrets.  It made our transition much easier, especially for the kids, allowing us to hit the ground running and accomplish a tremendous amount quickly – including becoming more comfortable in the “real China” because we could choose our spots a little. And it was mighty comforting to have a nightly sense of retreat for my wife, who was deeply immersed in every aspect of the real China as the WSJ Bureau Chief.

NiuBBall: As a student who studied abroad in Beijing for a year in college, one of the toughest things for me was adjusting back to life in the States.  It’s something I’ve heard a lot of other people mention, too. How have you dealt with readjusting to life in your home country after three years of living in Beijing?

AP: It wasn’t particularly hard to readjust to life in the US, but it was excruciating to walk away from a life and a city I enjoyed so much. And it wasn’t just me; my whole family struggled. After a few months, I asked my oldest son Jacob, who was 11, what he missed about China and he said, “Pretty much everything except the guys spitting all over the place.” In China, I often missed specific people and places in the US, but I sort of knew I’d be back some day. When we left Beijing, it was more final, and we were mourning what we left behind.

I have been back for a while and the ache has faded. The book kind of saved my life – or at least my sanity. It provided a vehicle to work through my entire experience, as well as a demanding, exciting project to plunge myself into.  It also allowed me to keep one foot and half my mind in China, which was welcome.

NiuBBall: We at NiuBBall are really into Chinese food.  Anyone who had read your book knows that you are, too.  What are some of your favorite dishes and have you found an American restaurant that does a decent job imitating them yet?

AP: Last question first: mostly no, with a few exceptions.

Anyone who reads Big in China will recognize that I have a passion for great Chinese food. Some of my favorite dishes were eaten in tiny holes in the wall. I love spicy food, so fresh rice noodles in Hunan piled with tons of fiery goodness will forever stand out in my mind. Two kuai bowls of Guilin noodles on the side of Guangxi roads also resonate in my brain. It is possible to get some pretty decent noodles in Chinatown, New York – rice, hand-pulled and otherwise.

I fell in love with Guizhou food on a trip to that great province and ate it constantly in Beijing. I love most of it, but especially the slow-cooked ribs, the sweet and hot dumpling-y puffy balls, the picked vegetables…I haven’t seen anything remotely like this here – same deal with Uighur food, which I ate all the time.

I once had a plate of Sichuan chicken wings in an airport restaurant in
Chongqing that were sensational, just covered in fired little pieces of garlic and Sichuan peppercorns. I have tried to replicate these myself and while I failed I have come up with my own secret Sichuan wings recipe and they are damn good.

Then there’s hot pot. What can I say about that except hell yes. I found a pretty good place on the Upper West Side this winter.

I could keep going forever, but I’ll stop with one of your favorites: Jianbing. I am looking forward to seating several a day throughout my visit, as I always do. I bet I could find this in Flushing or some place, but so far I have never eaten one in the US.

NiuBBall: Now, let’s talk about the really good stuff: Did you play any basketball out there?  How would you describe the Chinese style of play?

AP: I played a little and wish I had played more. The style was familiar to me from years playing at JCCs and YMCA’s – tenacity, awkward shots, hunched over dribbling with shoulders leading the way, an uncanny ability to use glass. Lots of fun; unfortunately the best I ever played was one afternoon when I had to cut it short. I was with my friend Scott Kronick in his legendary pickup games. We were out to a great Taiwanese lunch with our families and I was wearing sandals, so I bought some old school Ahanghai at the gym. In the middle of the fourth game, just as I was starting to really roll, I realized that my feet were aflame with blisters and had to stop.

NiuBBall: Your piece on God Shammgod in Taiyuan for SLAM is legendary among these parts and a lot of other ones, too. What did you come away with about China, the CBA and Chinese basketball as a whole after writing the story?

AP: Thanks. It was a highlight of my career – both in terms of the writing and the overall experience. Part of what I came away from was the extent to which coaches control their players’ lives. Another was something you have commented upon – the CBA team’s utter failure to help foreign players eat food that is not McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or KFC. Sad.

NiuBBall: When looking at basketball in China, is there anything that you think really sticks out as different in comparison to basketball in the States?  Are there some concepts or aspects of Chinese basketball that really need to be understood before somebody states their opinion?

AP: I would say no on question two – anyone has a right to watch, observe and comment. And fresh eyes sometimes pick up on things that more seasoned people overlook as “normal.” A lot of things stick out as different, but one that always struck me the way teams tend to run all players through the same drills, regardless of position. This seemed to be changing a bit in the junior ranks and since I am a couple of years removed, I hope it has changed more.

Another related thing is the way that I think the players are overworked, resulting paradoxically in somewhat lackluster play. I think these guys have learned from a young age that they have to pace themselves because they work so many hours a day and it leads to them having a hard time understanding how to turn it up for actual games.

NiuBBall: What is your favorite memory covering basketball in China?

AP: That Shamm story – the few days I spent with him in Taiyuan and the ongoing relationship we established and maintain to this day.

NiuBBall: China, among other things, is known for its occasional randomness and ridiculousness. Case in point: You wrote that you saw Tracy McGrady ride on a crappy camel on the Great Wall.  Were there any other random situations involving basketball during your three year stay?

AP: Of course. There were many, but I’ll focus on just a couple of things that happened during my few days in Taiyuan reporting the Shamm story.

They were playing Guangdong, who were the two-time defending champions and featured Yi Jianlian, who was really huge at that moment. After the game, I wanted to hang out with Shamm but he told me that the owner would probably keep them in the locker room for a couple of hours and we should just meet up in the hotel. That’s what happened, so I was kicking around the arena.

Then I saw Rashid Byrd, the 7-foot malcontent who was the other foreigner on Shamm’s team, come out, so I said “Hi” and asked where Shamm was. “He’s still in there. I’m done.” He had just walked out on the owner and basically quit the team. He and I were looking for the Guangdong bus to get a ride back to the hotel. We ended up stuck in a vestibule and he was bum-rushed for autographs – a moment I captured in this video: http://alanpaul.net/2006/12/more-hoops-video/

Then we got on the bus and teetered through the crowds pushing forward, around the arena and to the hotel across the street. They were concerned about the throng of fans who were going to surround the bus when the players started to emerge, so they made a plan to have all the coaches form a wedge/wall around Yi and asked me to help out. Then the driver barreled over the sidewalk and pulled right up to the steps, sending people scrambling.

Sure enough, when the doors opened, there was a rush, and I had my arms locked with two assistant coaches and a few other guys, including a Nike rep, I think, forming a barrier, with 7-foot Yi behind us, secure. We pushed him into the lobby, then he ran for the elevator and I stood there watching, amazed that I had just been in the middle of this improbable scene. Several people ran over and asked me for my autograph. I told them I was not a player, in both English and Chinese, but they just shrugged and handed me stuff to sign, including shirts, posters and programs. I laughed and signed them all, to great thanks.

NiuBBall: You covered the 2008 Olympics in-depth for NBC and SLAM.  As one of the lucky few who got to see every Team U.S.A. game, who do you think is the better team, Dream Team or Redeem Team?

AP: The Redeem Team will always be special to me because, as you said, I was lucky enough to be in the arena for almost every minute they played. But you can’t compare them to the Dream Team, which had three all-time legends in Michael, Magic and Bird. You could make an argument that Kobe, Wade and LeBron deserve similar status, but I’m not buying it. And the first time that NBA players were in the Olympics created such intense buzz…it can never be matched let alone topped. It still bugs me that Isiah wasn’t on the Dream Team, by the way.

NiuBBall: Do you think Yao Ming will try to play in the NBA again, and more importantly, should he?

AP: I have no inside information but my guess is that yes he will try. He says his child is inspiring him to get back. I think he should try again, but I also think he should be realistic and ready to move on.

NiuBBall: How would you characterize basketball in China?  Where was it when you were there, where do you think it is now and where do you think it’s going?

AP: It’s in sort of a weird place, actually, because even as the sport gains in popularity, the CBA itself still has a lot of issues. I followed it so closely while I was there, but have been wrapped up in my book and other projects, so I hesitate to make too many proclamations. I don’t know what the heck happened to NBA China but it seems to me have imploded. I’d love to do a great story on this. Shhhh.

My friend Jim Yardley of the New York Times has written a book about basketball in China that will be out early next year and I’m sure it will be both a great read and full of information.

On a totally unrelated note, I am sad to see what has become of Chen Jianghua. Maybe I got caught up in some hype, but I thought he had a chance to be special.

NiuBBall: Anything else you’d like to add, either on basketball, the book or China?

AP: Thanks for the interest. China was obviously a grand and very rewarding adventure for me. I was really surprised by the extent to which my years  as a Slam senior writer opened doors for me there. I had no idea that would be so relevant.

I feel very happy about how the book came out. I think I captured my own China experiences and did so in a way that puts it into context and isn’t just about me. I’m proud of it and hope that you and your readers enjoy it. Please visit me at www.alanpaul.net and always feel free to drop me a line.


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