Not Ping Pong

November 13, 2009

Me: “I’m going to play table tennis with the students after school today!”

Teacher: “Oh really? I’m surprised…I didn’t think they had table tennis in America.”

Though it is never explicitly revealed, the exchange above sums up the difference between table tennis in Japan and America. In Japan, table tennis is a legitimate sport that appears on TV. People train for absurd amounts of time to be an ace at this. On the other side of the Pacific, I played table tennis either in a garage or a college dormitory. I have jumped from table tennis to writing a paper to playing table tennis again. Suffice to say, it’s not nearly as serious an affair in America, to the point where some Japanese are stunned we Americans even know what it is.

Oh, but do I know what table tennis is. Excuse the minor bragging (it’s really really minor) but table tennis is far and away the one sport I’m pretty good at. I play lots of sports, but have never exceeded the skill necessary to play any part beyond “guy who runs on other side of field” or “kid who gets hit by the baseball.” When I made a three-pointer during a dorm basketball game I nearly did the “ANYTHING IS POSSSSSSIBLE” Kevin Garnett scream. But table tennis…I can beat people at table tennis. More tellingly, I can at least hang around with legitimately awesome players, and even if I lose 21-4 I can keep it semi-competitive. This is a big deal for someone whose biggest sporting achievement was earning the “Most Enthusiastic” award for soccer.

I’ve started participating at the table tennis club at a couple of my schools thinking it’s the one after school activity I might not make a complete fool of myself at. I figured, hey, I’m pretty decent at this game I bet nothing will happen to make me look pathetic in the eyes of young adolescents!

Wrong wrong wrong.

Sure, the students were happy that I showed up to play with them, but they must have been ecstatic when they realized I hadn’t practiced table tennis remotely as hard as they had. These kids destroyed me. I shouldn’t have been surprised in retrospect – they go to table tennis everyday after school and spend about an hour doing nothing but playing table tennis. And since they take this game super serious, they learn all sorts of crazy serves and spin hits – techniques I never learned in my family’s garage.

So for the most part the students crushed me. I pulled off a good shot every once in awhile and the kids sometime hit the ball too hard, off the table (they always said “I’m sorry” after doing that though I wanted to thank them profusely for not destroying me). But for the most part they schooled me. First, I played with the boys who were great at spinning the ball around. Then I played the girls…who were even better. They served better than the boys and hit it even harder. Nothing makes a 22-year-old dude feel more emasculated than having a 13-year-old girl playing with a pink ball completely overwhelm you.

Though I’m not positive the students picked up on it, as a fair number of them insisted on teaming up with someone else to take me on. These 2-vs-1 games usually ended up better for me, though, as the kids were more likely to get confused about who was supposed to hit what. I savored the small victories, even if they were against children.

Regardless of how badly my ego was damaged by being beaten by junior high students, I enjoy the table tennis clubs and the kids like my presence, even beyond the easy wins and ability to laugh at my ineptitude. And if nothing else, I’ve taught them that, yes, table tennis exists in America.

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