Paddled: Why China Rules At Ping Pong
September 30, 2012
Finding my way in Beijing was tougher than I’d ever imagined. But sharpening my skills at a local youth academy for ping-pong—a game at which I’d dominated friends back home for years—seemed like an opportunity not to suck. So what if it meant beating up on little kids at the school and old men in the park? This would be my key to assimilation. Nice plan—but then I stared down the pre-teen pong machines and got my first real taste of China’s national pastime
On my first day at Shichahai Sports School, the elite athletic academy in Beijing, Coach Chang introduces me to his ping-pong class. “We have a new American student,” he says, peering out from behind the prescription sunglasses he wears indoors. As all eyes turn toward me, I feel a rush of nerves. It’s like day one of kindergarten again, only this time I have chest hair. “He claims he’s been playing for more than ten years,” Chang goes on, “but from what I’ve seen, it looks more like ten days.” The class erupts into high-pitched giggles.
We’re lined up in one of the school’s three basement ping-pong halls, a huge gymnasium with 27 tables, a Chinese flag hanging on the wall, and video cameras mounted everywhere. (“For security,” says Coach Chang.) Whereas most students attend Shichahai after distinguishing themselves at smaller regional schools around the country, I just walked in the front door mid-semester and paid the exorbitant $25-a-class foreigners’ rate. (Chinese students pay $1,500 to $5,000 a year for morning academic classes and twice-a-day ping-pong lessons, plus room and board.) I enrolled knowing I’d be one of the older students. I didn’t realize it’d be by a factor of three. Flanking me are two dozen gangly 9-to-12-year-olds in bright jerseys, hiked-up shorts, and near-identical buzz cuts, yet I’m the one who looks foolish.
You could call it karma. I have a history of cruelty when it comes to ping-pong. As a kid, I’d trounce my little brothers so badly over our family’s table that they’d cry. When I lived in a group house in D.C. after college, I’d plant myself at an end of the table my girlfriend bought me for my birthday and pick off challengers one by one. It wasn’t their fault. I simply operated at a higher level, unleashing slices and cross-slams and sidespins unfit for social settings. I took it seriously too, chatting away while ahead but getting real quiet and whispering to myself when the score tightened. Eventually, friends stopped accepting my invitations, roommates made excuses. Most people know a ping-pong jerk, and all my life, that was me.
When I left the comfort of D.C. for a job in Beijing last summer, ping-pong seemed like a natural in. The sport was everywhere, and I figured the history of “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the re-opening of relations with the U.S. in 1971 might lend my presence some much-needed gravitas. It also seemed like a rare opportunity to not suck. Moving to a new country, especially China, is an exercise in crippling humiliation. Hailing a cab, asking directions, ordering food, even attempting to digest that food (with occasional ugly results)—every activity reinforces one’s ridiculousness. Even friendly encouragement—Chinese people tend to lavish praise on foreigners for their Mandarin, no matter how shoddy—can feel infantilizing. I especially feared the challenge of making and keeping Chinese friends. Ping-pong would be my salvation. It would not only help me meet Chinese people, it would earn me their respect. Whereas in the U.S. ping-pong enjoys about the same esteem as dodgeball, China puts its champions on prime time. I’d prove I was more than just a big-nosed idiot foreigner—I was a big-nosed idiot foreigner who could excel at a sport they revere. If ping-pong could make Chinese people like Nixon, I just might have a shot, too.
My first opponent at Shichahai, a smiley kid named Wang, stands eye-level with my chest. On the orders of Coach Chang, we edge up to a nearby table and start rallying. Though rallying couldn’t be less accurate. Wang serves. The ball bounces over the net and hits my side of the table. I strike it with my paddle, it springs over the net, and does not hit his side of the table. It doesn’t hit anything. This must happen 25 times in a row. The physics are all wrong. It’s like instead of a paddle I’m holding a pancake.
I get ushered off to a side table, where an older coach named Zhang is making like a human ball machine. Standing at one end of the table, he draws balls from a bucket and sends them skimming over the net. Each serve travels at the same speed, same angle, same rhythm. A student, hunched over like a wrestler, returns them in perfect metronomic time. All at once ping-pong looks like a sport.
When it’s my turn to rotate in, Zhang begins by correcting my grip. I use the traditional “handshake” hold, same as most Americans, and the paddle hangs loosely in my fingers. I expected to learn the “pen” grip used by many Chinese players (and Americans trying to look cool). No need to switch, Zhang explains, but he moves my thumb in a way that keeps the racket locked against my hand, and bends my wrist sideways to make the paddle an extension of my arm’s line. My forehand stroke now looks like a robot ninja salute.
Coach Zhang serves to me. Using my new stroke, I don’t hit the ball so much as graze it. The ball topspins its way down, the table exerting its own gravitational pull. Zhang serves until the bowl is empty, and another student steps up to drill. “Good!” Zhang says in English, giving a thumbs up. I feel gleeful, if also condescended to by his big English “Good!” But mostly gleeful.
The floor is littered with hundreds of balls. Drenched in sweat, I get down on my hands and knees to collect them, and as I crawl an errant shot smacks me in the face. I stand up and prepare for the next lesson. Coach Zhang says we’re doing forehands again. “What about backhand?” I say. “Maybe after another eight or ten classes,” he says. Some of these students have been training since they learned to walk. “No rush.”
As the weeks progress, my classroom humiliations don’t disappear so much as take on subtler forms. I arrive one morning during my second month to find two kids facing the wall. I ask Coach Zhang why. “They were being stupid,” he says. After several minutes, they receive the second part of their punishment: They are forced to drill with me.
Another day, I come to class with a cold. When I line up with the rest of the students, Coach Chang tells me to stand on the other side of the room, lest I contaminate China’s future. Most of the students at Shichahai go on to regular high schools and universities, many of which recruit for ping-pong, but the best ones graduate to Beijing’s youth squad, the Beijing team, and, in a handful of cases, the national team. It’s entirely possible that I’ve been getting wrecked by a future Olympian…