A few days ago I bought a Pittsburgh Penguins beanie, a t-shirt and a jacket. Not only because they are one of the omnipresent souvenirs in town, but also they will remind me of my first ice hockey team as I prepare to leave Pittsburgh after two years of study.
Coming from Guangzhou, China, I’d never considered myself a sports fan. Two years ago, holding my acceptance letter from Chatham University, I told my folks ecstatically I was going to study in Pittsburgh. Their first reaction was “Oh, Pittsburgh?! It’s a heavy industrial city, isn’t it?” I wasn’t sure, only knowing from my American professors in China that Pittsburgh is a sports town. But I still couldn’t locate the city because Pittsburgh doesn’t have an NBA team. The NBA has huge audience in China. For my generation, the frenzy started before Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets, in the era of Michael Jordan. Naturally, I came to associate American cities and states with their respective NBA teams.
So I expected Pittsburgh to offer a sports layman more than sports. And it does. The breathtaking view of the Golden Triangle where the three rivers join together never tires me. The mirrored fortress of the PPG Place complex shimmers with the glory of modern Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Library, the Cultural District and the Drue Heinz Lecture Series makes me feel proud that I’m living in one of the top five most literate cities in America.
Yet, I still felt disconnected with the Pittsburghers in the first few months. While travelling in Pittsburgh’s suburb, I saw several yellow banners read: You’re in Steelers Country, flapping in the wind like welcoming hands waving. I didn’t understand what the Super Bowl was. What’s the attraction of a sport with a score of muscular men chasing and piling together in the field? Why even our Chatham University president, Dr. Esther Barazzone, called for support of the Steelers in her emails to the whole campus? Just a week before the latest Super Bowl, she encouraged us to wear Steelers jerseys or dress in black and gold. Who would expect the top leader of a Chinese university to make a similar announcement? If any campus-wide notice isn’t about academic matters in China, it’s usually political. Say, a delegate from the Department of Education of Guangdong province would be visiting our campus next week, please be ready and give our warmest welcome. If economic achievement is what Chinese cities nowadays are competing for, sports championships must be what American cities are vying for.
Pittsburgh, like a human being, has her own unique temperament. Only after you spend more time with her will you understand her deeply. I’ve had many firsts with her: the first American city in which I have lived and consider a home away from China, where I learned to drive and bought my first car, where I published my first article in America, celebrated my first snowy winter, watched my first baseball and hockey games, sipped my first matzo ball soup (now my favorite), spent my first Fourth of July watching the spectacular fireworks with thousands of Pittsburghers and was even moved to tears hearing the Star-Spangled Banner.
Not until the night at the end of 2010 sitting with a full house of Washington Capitals fans in DC’s Verizon Center and watching the Pittsburgh Penguins’ visiting game did I understand how Pittsburgh’s sports bring a strong cohesion to her denizens, near and far, young and old, women and men, and even outsiders like me.
Before the game started, after knowing I cheered for the Penguins, the red-clad couple next to me said, “Oh, too bad. You’re rooting for a team which will lose.” I grinned but felt injured. A wave of heat burnt inside me. What’s this? It’s only a game. Why do I care so much about who wins? But looking at the signs hung up by the Capital fans while booing the Penguins, I felt irritated. Whenever the Penguins defended a goal or scored, I stood up and clapped. Together with the few other Penguins diehards in the crowd, we were the odd ones crying “Go Pens!” in a sea of red jerseys rooting for the Caps. With a 3-2 victory, the Penguins didn’t let us down. Overwhelmed with joy, I turned around to the couple beside me, who’d long gone.
This is when I deeply feel Pittsburgh’s sports unite people. This is what excites me when the Penguins fever warming up my Chinese blood. This is how I find a mutual language to connect with Pittsburghers. And this is how Pittsburgh brings me a sense of home.
I assume there is no other American city like Pittsburgh, whose people are so deeply in love, and actively supportive of their sports teams. Can you wear your favorite sports team’s jersey on all occasions, seven days a week? The Steelers fans do. Sports are in the veins of Pittsburghers. My first attendance at an American funeral also took place in Pittsburgh. Within the eulogy came tidbits about the departed’s love of the Steelers, a mournful moment filled with tearful laughter.
When the Steelers lost the latest Super Bowl, the sadness that clouded the city felt no less, if not greater, than the entire nation of Chinese feeling defeated when Beijing lost the bidding for 2000 Summer Olympics to Sydney by two votes. Even though I know little about American football, I can identify that sense of belonging.
Perhaps my American friends understand now why I turned down a dinner on a Penguins game night or I’d rather go for a Pirate game than a spring trip. As my stay in Pittsburgh is coming to a countdown, I really want to say to my first teams. Thank you Pittsburgh, for making a lonely expatriate feel homey. This is what will draw me back to you from ten thousand miles. Go Pens! Go Bucs! Go Steelers!