The sound of children playing does not change with their language. In Shaoxing last week, in San Francisco now, they scream and run in games I no longer get to play. Much of the nostalgia for childhood stems from that inability to join. Easter egg hunts, bouncy castles, and no-touch-ground tag are forbidden pleasures. Hearing adults mourn the loss of youth, speed, and freedom I think that our desire is not just to escape current responsibilities but to return to a world where foursquare or tetherball were defining tests.
In fourth grade, at Waldorf school, the tetherball rankings went down into the thirties, with a complex system for challenging those above at morning break and recess, or before the busses after school. By sixth grade the scene had shifted and wall ball, played with a racquet ball against the school’s yellow rear, was the kingmaker.
In two thousand ten the children yell and run and I try to understand their games. Outside of the Shaoxing train station they play a strange version of freeze tag while I cart my suitcase up the low concrete stairs. The frozen child counts down and, if not re-touched, becomes the “it”, the chaser. In San Francisco they streak down the sidewalk, an aunt or family friend repeating one line over and over without using either of their names. “Do you see the sign,” she says of the red man blinking as they approach the intersection with eyes only on their race. Around the lamp post they spin and back again. I step aside, laughing. I am certain they do not see the sign. As they sprint back past her still warning form I wonder how long it would take them to join the Shaoxing game? Mere moments, probably. Children do not have the restraint that we do. And having it, we call it fear.
Could that be what we’re wanting, remembering youth so fondly? Not the game itself, but the lack of fear in challenging the eighth best tetherballer in school, a seventh grader, to a lunchtime battle? The lack of fear of injury, or humiliation. Indeed it’s opposite, eager acceptance, or perhaps total blindness to risk. Yet that is not true, and the humiliation of not scoring a point against an older student was well known. But the rewards for bravery were so tangible in the oral rankings every student knew.
This weekend I saw my cousin, six, on video chat. It was the first time she’d seen herself projected, or me. The first time she’d seen me at all in a year, more. Around her the adults watched, impressed by the technology.
“I found a bunny in an egg this morning,” she told me.
“It’s orange and fuzzy.”
“What’s it’s name?” I asked her as she raced off to find it.
Last year while he was bored at a reception I handed another boy my iPhone, which he’d never seen, a baseball game on the display. He grabbed it and sat down, experimenting with the tilt and tap controls. The timing took him several tries, but the understanding of what he needed to do barely a second. The context of my conversation with my cousin, or of the baseball game, mattered not at all. Were it in my power to place either of them amidst those Shaoxing children, or vice versa, would they be too stunned by context to absorb the games?
As I wandered Changsha’s back alleys last week, exploring half-abandoned railways, two girls playing some game of balance and chatter shouted at me, testing English words and my ability to respond. When I did so, in both English and Chinese, they turned away, back to their game. Their lack of surprise at my ability to speak Chinese, their entire manner of easy comprehension and acceptance shocked me because it seems globally so lacking in their elders. I think they would fit in well, those two girls in matching uniforms, at this street race in the Sunset. Indeed it is this comfort, this ease of exploration, pleasure at strange games, and quick acceptance of facts that I am often searching for with travel.
Perhaps it is not something that needs discovering, but remembering.
Title from an Alphanumeric hoodie I once owned in Japan, whose tagline was “For adults with childlike eyes,” a classification I aspire to.