This week is special. It marks the last week of my bachelors degree studies. The exams are finally over, and they went really well. (At least, that’s what I want my parents to think). To commemorate this milestone, I’m going to write a continuation to the first blog post I wrote.
Da-Ye & I typically play for about 2 hours, resting every 20 mins or so. During these breaks, we sit on a small bench beside the table and have amazing conversations. (Now, I look forward to these conversations even more than the game.) Keep in mind that when I first met 大爷/Da-Ye my conversational Chinese was not that great. So besides talking about table tennis, we talked about a simple passion we both shared. We talked about food.
I have to be honest. When these conversations started, they were more like monologues, with the occasional “Ah”, “I see”, or “Wow” from my end. I didn’t understand 90% of what he was saying. At some points, I was just so overwhelmed with words and sounds I’d never heard before, my brain couldn’t ever try keeping up. Lucky for me, he enjoys acting out what he’s talking about. During one of our early conversations, which lasted about 30 mins, he started off talking about how different lake fishing is from sea fishing. He moved on to explaining the variety of lake fish around Beijing (I started to lose him here). A few minutes later I was completely lost. Suddenly, with a big smile of his face, he exclaimed, “很香，很香” – Yummy!
One obstacle preventing me from challenging him competitively was my racket, which he soon pointed out. During one of our breaks, he said it’s time for me to get a ‘proper’ racket. “Where from?”, I asked excitedly. He began giving me directions. He started mentioning subways stations, followed by bus numbers, and then started describing the street and name of the shop. To say I was lost is an understatement, and he could tell. As we started laughing, he said, “Saturday morning at 7… We’ll go together.”
I met him outside the gym, the next morning, and we were on our way to get a table tennis racket. After spending over half an hour in the subway, we finally got out of the station. We walked for a few blocks, and as we turned left, dozens of badminton and table tennis shops appeared on both sides of the road. He pointed at a small shop in the far corner.
As we entered, it became apparent that Da-Ye knew the store owner quite well, and Da-Ye told him about that I was interested in buying a racket. The store owner started firing questions about my style of play and preferences. I learnt about the different types of woods, the thickness, and their effects on the game. As they were demonstrating the importance of a good wooden frame, Da-Ye grabbed two and gave one to me. He held the handle lightly with two fingers and hit the rounded part of the frame on the top of his head. “Cliiiinnnngggggggggg.” As he mentioned, the tone was clear, the pitch was high, and the sound faded away smoothly. I held the frame I had similarly with two fingers, and imitated him. “Cluck.” Either this was a bad frame or I was doing this completely wrong.
After evaluating the different options and prices, we decided which frame to buy. Next up, the store owner showed us the different types of red and black rubber. After making the next decision, we cut the rubber pieces and glued them onto the frame. Our mission was finally accomplished, and after all this, you simply can’t imagine how much I wanted to play.
I highly anticipated our Sunday afternoon appointment. As we began rallying the ball, I could feel the power and potential of this new weapon I wielded. Unfortunately, my performance deteriorated. It took about 20 minutes to adjust my bearings and get familiar with this new horizon. Then, as we both anticipated, our games reached another level.
Nevertheless, Da-Ye continued beating me at almost every game for the next few weeks. Then, as he taught me more and more, I started to win sometimes. What happens next is fascinating. Da-Ye noticeably analyses the game and challenges me again, focusing on my weaknesses and surprising me with unexpected combinations. He returned to winning.
The matches progressed in that fashion, and the cycle continued. His superior experience and ability to analyse the game gave him a stretch of wins, and as he won I would realise my weaknesses. As we excelled, my weaknesses became strengths, he continued to discover and magnify new weaknesses. Reaction time and speed were on my side, but Da-Ye had experience. This experience enabled him to gain valuable feedback from every bounce and contact with the ball. He subconsciously understood the language of the game, and played according to the feedback he gained.
We became so familiar with each others’ style of play, it became a form of communication. It’s difficult to explain, but we knew to a high degree of certainty exactly what the other was thinking. At some points of the game, we’d just break into laughter. To both of us, this was much more than just a game. As you can imagine, our relationship continued, our rallies got longer and games intensified.
We had an unforgettable lake-fishing experience. I met his family in friends during some public holidays which we spent together. He also invited me to his home for a delicious hot-pot dinner.
During the Fall semester of 2014, we played religiously, at least 5 times a week, and it seemed like it just couldn’t get any better. Then, during one of conversations he stated, “Lee Fei, you’re leaving Beijing soon. I’m also getting old, I can feel it. Once your gone I don’t think I’ll play table tennis anymore.” This caught me by surprise. Over time, I guess I just took his age for granted. Over the last few months, he began getting sores and pains in his knees, my school-work intensified, and our time playing table tennis decreased. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it more than ever. A few days ago he said, “Lee Fei, before you leave, we need to have a special game. 7 sets. A decider.”
I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to meet Da-Ye, and if it had been that only thing I’d have gotten from coming to China, I’d have been more than pleased with that. It’s a rare and beautiful connection – and it’s been challenging to put this into words. To sum it up, it’s probably the most simple relationship I’ll ever have. There are absolutely no expectations of one another, and there’s a somewhat surprising yet complete understanding of one another that crosses many borders, cultures, and decades.
My father recently said, “Make the most of every moment because once it’s over it’ll never be the same. Even if you end up going back its going to very different.” My experience in China can be symbolised through my relationship with Da-Ye. Meeting him, I felt that I became part of China. Getting a racket, I became linguistically equipped to maximise the experience. Mastering the game, I fell in love with this country. As his injuries frequented and we played less and less, I realised that end of this chapter was nearing I had learned as much as I could from being here. I’m so grateful to have had the wonderful opportunity to come to China, and have no regrets whatsoever. I hope that my relationship with Da-Ye will continue long into the future.