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China, November 7, 1999

Just Ping-Pong the Day Away

Watch Out! We're playing Ping Pong here!

all day, every day, they are pinging and ponging around
The one and only dominators
The sun lazily drifted through the window, illuminating delicate puffs of dust as the focused combatants swirled around the table. Quickly, they darted from side to side in the pale light, never allowing their opponents to achieve what they so hope for, and opening in their defense. Finally, through pure skill and a little luck, a weakness appeared and instantly through it, flew a little orange Ping-Pong ball, glowing brightly as it passed into the sun's rays.

Yes, this is China, and I am watching the national sport, Ping-Pong, or table tennis. No, it is not on TV, though it is televised, and no, I'm not in a park, though every park has occupied tables all day long, I am at work, and its the midday championships. Every day, starting at 11:30, we have a two and a half hour lunch. Nominally, this is so those who come into work at the painfully early hour of 8:30 am (definitely not me) can take a nap, but its actually used by the Chinese staff to improve their Ping-Pong skills.

Up here, in an old meeting room on the top floor of our work building, is the scene of the most brutal action. After the staff works its way upstairs, playing in the minor leagues on each floor of each building in this compound, they attempt to hold their own against the ruling Ping-Pongers. The action is quick, with that little orange ball getting one hell of a beating as two person teams compete against each other amid foot stomping, laughter, and howls of anguish.

I personally like my boss's style. As he serves, he will stomp his foot and yelp to try and psychologically distract his opponent. I would think his eyesight, requiring glasses, would slow him down, but I underestimate his skills. As far as I can tell, and I'm no expert, he is one of the best here. On this day, he doesn't have the best teammate and he is playing two good opponents, but he still holds his own.

Watching this game, I realize why it is so popular here. Like badminton, the other odd game Chinese are fanatical about, Ping-Pong allows for aggression and brute force, but only when properly contained and controlled. I imagine that with one billion people packed close together, there really isn't much room in China for raw power sports like rugby and car racing. Every aspect of life here has to be aligned to keep the entire country from flipping out.

Me, I'm OK at Ping-Pong, but I will never be good, for those very reasons. I, as an American, am used to raw power sports, not that I understand rugby or car racing, but I have a problem keeping from launching that little orange ball into the stratosphere.

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