Friday, February 03, 2006

Column 4 Here we go Steelers.. posted from Phuket

I don't really want to post my columns, but I am in Phuket, thailand right now and I wanted to get this one out while it was timely.

Thailand is beautiful, people are really nice, food and beer as good as you would expect. I'd also say that good Thai restaurants in the States are pretty authentic. Nothing radically different.. just all really good and fresh. We are going to the rainforest for an elephant trek.. Red eye home from Bgok on Sunday night will be interesting.

Full stories and plenty of pics to come next week.




The Steelers and Tsingtao
At the Goose and Duck
February 2, 2006

By ALAN PAUL

I'm a die-hard Steelers fan. It wasn't really a choice. I grew up in Pittsburgh in the '70s when rooting for the Steelers was as natural as breathing or eating. From September to December and hopefully beyond, you didn't ask a fellow Pittsburgher what he was doing on a Sunday but where he was doing it, as in "Where you watchin' the game?"

This devotion is way more than surface deep and it doesn't diminish much when you move out of town. In fact, it may even grow. Pittsburgh holds a special grip on the heart of many of its children and the Steelers embody the city to a degree I believe is unprecedented among major sports teams.

The only regular-season NFL games readily available for viewing here in Beijing are the Sunday Night and Monday Night games, which show here on Monday and Tuesday mornings. That gave me four or five Steelers games this season. I followed the rest online, poring through stats and reading the play-by-play summaries like a legal scholar studying the Magna Carta, envisioning each drive in my head. But that wasn't quite good enough for the playoffs.

I was in the U.S. on Jan. 8 when the Steelers began their postseason by dispatching the Bengals. A week later, I was back in Beijing, 13 hours ahead of the East Coast, ready to rise at 2 a.m. for the Colts game. It was the first night promising normal sleep after a jet-lagged week, but this was a must-see game. Unfortunately, ESPN International didn't concur, preferring to show Brazilian beach soccer. I went back to sleep, rising at 5:20 to log on to ESPN.com and pounding the "reload" key as I tried to follow the convoluted end to an exciting 21-18 victory.

I took solace in knowing that the AFC Championship game would be on TV, but my dark and lonely den at 4 a.m. didn't seem a fitting place to view it with the Super Bowl on the line. I needed a Black and Gold gathering. I knew that outposts of Steelers fanatics dot the globe and it was time to find one in Beijing. I logged on to the Pittsburgh paper's Web site, clicked over to http://www.post-gazette.com/steelers/steelerbars.asp and found bars in Al Hillah, Iraq; Whangarei, New Zealand; and Hong Kong. But not, alas, in Beijing. A quick Google of "Steelers Beijing" turned up the following ad:

Steelers Fans Converge
Time: 4:00 am
Date: Monday, Jan, 23rd
Place: The Goose and Duck (Chao Yang Gong Yuan Xi Men)
Let's see if we can gather the faithful together to support the Steelers and witness Denver's demise.

I emailed the poster and cyber-met George Shader, who grew up in my neighborhood before moving to Phoenix in 10th grade. He said he posted the ad because he was disgusted at being overwhelmed by Patriots fans a year ago and thought it was time for the Steelers Nation to flex its muscles.

I called my friend Eric Rosenblum and we agreed to attend. Eric and I met because his three-year-old son was wearing a Hines Ward uniform while toddling around the wonderfully named indoor playground FunDazzle a few months ago. Eric also has roots in Squirrel Hill, the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where George and I grew up.

That Sunday night, I put the kids to bed, bid my wife adieu and headed to Eric's apartment, right around the corner from the Goose and Duck. Eric said he'd get me up by 3:45 a.m., but my internal Steelers alarm clock was primed and I was wide awake and checking my watch at 3:40. I threw my contacts back in – sorry, eyeballs – pulled my Terry Bradshaw jersey on and set off.

We walked into the bar at 4:05, just as the teams were lining up for the kickoff. We found George, settled onto our bar stools and greeted Terence Chang, a longtime Steelers fan from Albany, N.Y. There were eight to 10 Broncos fans there, as well as three or four Chinese guys and gals playing pool and drinking heavily, oblivious to the game. We ordered up some coffee and settled in.

The Steelers got off to a quick start and we cracked our first Tsingtaos right after the good guys went up 17-3. It was 5:15 a.m. Moments later, the Steelers went up 24-3 following an interception and we nearly fell off our stools in a frenzy of high-fives and hugs. Moments after the Broncos scored to make it 24-10 early in the third quarter, a guy walked in pulling a suitcase, approached us and asked, "May I join you? I live in Pittsburgh."

We pulled up a stool for Ping An, a native of Xi'an, China, who lives now in the very heart of our beloved Squirrel Hill. It is difficult to calculate the odds of four guys with connections to the same 25,000-person neighborhood meeting up in a city of 14 million 6,800 miles away.

Ping was on his way home to see his brother and parents for Chinese New Years and, after being stuck in Tokyo for 30 hours, took a cab straight from the airport to the pub, where he knew the game would be on. That impressed me and also made me pause for a brief moment of reflection. Chinese people consider it essential to "hui jia" (go home) to their familial town or village for the New Year and hundreds of millions of people are boarding trains and planes every day for two weeks. On some cosmic level, this is what we members of the Steelers Nation do with every kickoff.

When the game ended, we high-fived and clinked our beer bottles and coffee cups together, took some celebratory pictures and bought a round for the bar, including all the desultory Broncos fans, with whom we had shared a kinship that would not exist in the States. After all, in this faraway place, we understood each other.

Then we pushed off into the just-brightening cold morning, heading to Eric's place for pizza and coffee, an unusual combination that tasted wonderful in our ecstatic state. Ping pulled a brand-new wool Steelers cap out of his pocket and put it on; perhaps he doesn't yet understand it should have been on his head all game. We recapped the game and shared Beijing experiences and Pittsburgh memories before realizing we wouldn't be able to replicate this gathering for the Super Bowl.

George and Terence will be looking for new companions, as Ping will be with his family, while I am stumbling home from a week's vacation, praying to the travel gods to deliver me home for the 7:30 a.m. kickoff. The trip was booked months ago and I will be lucky to make it to my den where two companions will be waiting. As much as I would like to return to the Goose and Duck for the big game, I can't risk the half-hour-plus drive in Beijing's nightmarish Monday-morning rush hour.

Lucky dog Eric will be watching the game in the bosom of the Burgh. He is celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, Christmas in Bethlehem, the Hajj in Mecca. And he only had to pay $1,000 to rebook his family's tickets to stay with his folks another day and avoid the anguish of flying over the North Pole while the Steelers play in the Super Bowl. None of us even thought to question this expenditure.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com