Some come to China to study Kung Fu with the masters. Not me. I came for the ping pong.
I went to Chongqing Universtiy to find a translator, which I did. I also found two PE teachers who specialize in ping pong.
As it turns out, I’ve spent the first 28 years of my life holding the paddle completely wrong.
Before I can even think about my last shot, Chen Li launches another ball at me. He is armed with a plastic basket full of balls.
Old habits die hard and Chen Li is a ruthless killer.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Pong. Pong. Pong. There are at least a dozen balls bouncing and rolling around the room. I’m working on my forehand. Here’s what I’m thinking about:
Swing at the elbow. Wrist locked. Eye on the ball. Turn at the hips from a horse stance to a bow stance. Follow through forward and up to my left eye. Aim for the newspaper that Chen Li placed on the opposite side of the table.
When my form breaks down, Zheng Chen stops collecting balls and demonstrates. He even stands behind me and we sort of recreate one of those romance movie moments where he guides my limbs and hips. Of course this isn’t romantic at all. It’s ping pong and it doesn’t get much more manly than that.
Before we begin again, Chen Li offers me some zen, “You must keep your heart on the ball.”
I have no idea what he means by this, but it must work. Everything comes together – my elbow, my hips, the follow through, the newspaper, and, I suppose, my heart. I’m cranking balls back at Chen Li who nods and says “Beautiful” with each perfect shot.
Sweat drips from my brow. I play through pain in my knees and elbows. My hands and eyes are one. I’m in the zone.
Somewhere someone is playing Rocky music. Somewhere a Russian ping pong champ is quaking in his stinky little table tennis shoes.
“Beautiful. Now we work on your backhand.”