Join the Club

By • Feb 6th, 2012 • Category: Diary

banerThe following is an excerpt from a forthcoming collection of short stories about living abroad in Taiwan.

The relationship between a teacher and student is not unlike the divide between Dorothy and the great and powerful Oz. Teachers are overpoweringly flashy, and students respectfully cower in the presence of the proverbial pyrotechnics and smoke-and-mirror routines. Inside the classroom – just like Oz inside of Emerald City – a teacher’s rulings become truth.

Because a teacher’s decisions are final, when students seek an answer – or courage, or a heart, or a way home – they demand a solution quickly, and they anticipate that it be given with conviction. They expect the correct answer. Telling a student something incorrect has lasting ramifications. It’s not because students need to believe that teachers are infallible. Rather, deep down, they want to believe it. If a student trusts that a teacher is the authority on a subject, the youngsters are comfortable to laugh the day away in their merry ol’ land. Believing in that aristocracy cements a classroom’s social order.

If a student inquires about the world’s smallest country (Vatican City, 0.2 square miles) or the longest word in an English dictionary (45 letters), there’s little harm in saying, “I don’t know; I’ll look it up,” … as long as the teacher provides the answer sooner rather than later.

The cracks in the infallible facade start to show when a teacher is discovered to have presented a wrong answer as fact. When teachers appear flawed, when they appear human – when the curtain gets pulled back and students realize we’re nothing more than crotchety old folks with booming voices – worlds get thrown into upheaval. Suddenly, everything the teacher has said gets called into question. How can pupils trust that “buses” is written correctly on the whiteboard if the teacher once had misspelled “quizzes”? Why wouldn’t students double-check a final grade if a spelling test score previously had been miscalculated? Each mistake diminishes credibility. In a classroom, credibility is all a teacher has. Lose it, and with it goes the students’ respect.

Students count on teachers to breeze through their respective subjects; they expect teachers to know it all. Children assume an encyclopedic brain is the lone criterion to becoming an educator, so the trick to maintaining the students’ respect is to avoid failing publicly.

It’s opposite to the dynamic between a parent and child. Parents become more respectable when they no longer are flawless. When a child realizes that parents merely are older versions of themselves – with evolving hopes, dreams, failures and regrets – the level of appreciation grows. Learning that your father is terrified of heights turns the time you went on a rollercoaster together into a feat of unconditional love, instead of just another thing that came effortlessly for him. If you find out that your mother is lactose intolerant, all those ice cream cakes she made at your behest taste a little sweeter.

Conversely, students feeling that teachers are just grown-up versions of themselves creates a level of uncertainty. I hate to think that my elementary teachers went into education as a backup plan after giving up on a first career, and I wouldn’t want students to find out that’s the truth about me.

Perfect teachers are beacons of light worth following, whereas perfect parents are beacons of light that cast intimidating shadows. Parents’ successes become more impressive when their flaws are revealed, but after a teacher publicly fails, their successes seem like dumb luck.

Unfortunately, failing publicly isn’t reserved for the classroom. Once, it came at 7-11 when a student witnessed me stumbling through a broken-Chinese order and clarified for the clerk that I wanted one latte with two packs of sugar, not vice versa. Another time, the public failure came courtesy of my secondhand scooter that wouldn’t start, revving the engine hopelessly in full view of a student as he stepped out of a BMW convertible.

Failing publicly means having students feel sorry for you. It’s hard to look up to someone whom they pity. It’s hard to trust in someone whom they doubt. It’s hard to lean on someone whom they deem unstable.

So when one of my junior high students heard that I recently had begun playing badminton and invited me to join him for a game, nothing short of a spell by Glenda the Good Witch would have caused me to accept the invitation. I knew better than to volunteer for a situation to fail publicly. At the time, I’d been playing the sport for only a couple of weeks. I had a tendency to unleash diatribes of mumbled expletives after botching serves, whiffing shots entirely and lumbering around the court as though I were in sandbag shoes with maple syrup soles. It would be hard to reprimand my student for using lazy grammar after he’d heard me string together a certain four-letter word as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb.

That’s especially true since sports in Taiwan are far more recreational than in the United States. Games still are played competitively and favorite teams certainly are followed passionately, but these are done so with a realistic understanding that it’s entertainment. Athletics are hobbies on the island, and they come without the pressures or delusions of grandeur that kids – and parents – harbor Stateside. Games have a sandlot feel to them: they’re played for pleasure’s sake, to break up the monotony of school or work, and to ensure a healthy lifestyle.healthy

And badminton is one of the sports of choice in Taiwan. For every tennis player on the island, there are dozens of badminton fanatics. Monstrous facilities resembling university athletic centers are commonplace, yet instead of housing running tracks and exercise equipment, they’re badminton hubs. Hundreds of players lob shuttlecocks back and forth on rows and rows of courts late into the evening.

Badminton’s popularity is second only to basketball. Despite Chinese Taipei’s history of success at the Little League World Series, baseball ranks a distant third in the hearts of the Taiwanese. Had the New York Yankees not capitalized on Taiwan’s greatest baseball export – Chien-Ming Wang – children on the island would be as interested in baseball as they are in hockey. But because of a heavy marketing push, Taiwanese kids carry Yankees pencilboxes and wear navy blue socks with Wang’s number stitched in, paying no mind that the pitcher last donned pinstripes in 2010. Consequently, New York Yankees merchandise all but surpasses the combined sales of the Chinese Professional Baseball League’s four squads, the pro association in Taiwan that features several former minor league castoffs.

If it weren’t for basketball, badminton would dominate the Taiwanese athletic landscape. But the NBA has palmed the hearts of at least two generations on the island.

When I mentioned to a student that I am 6’5” tall, he exclaimed, “Almost as tall as Kobe Bryant!” Outdoor basketball courts are packed from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, with people of all ages drafting pickup games. It’s hard to spend an hour in a crowded shopping mall without a Kevin Garnett or Derrick Rose jersey strolling passed. When a shoe store employee found out that I grew up near Chicago, he replied without a hint of hyperbole, “Michael Jordan is a god to every person in Taiwan.”

My belief in his theory grew every time I elaborated on where I was from. If a person wasn’t familiar with the Windy City, I’d list famous Chicagoans to jog their memory. “President Obama?” … “Sears Tower?” … “Michael Jordan?” The third time usually was the charm, and their eyes would light up with exhilaration.

Yet badminton flourishes without the momentum of an international superstar like Wang or Jordan. Taiwan’s infatuation with the sport bleeds over from China, the country responsible for almost one-sixth of Badminton Hall of Fame members. The Chinese astonishingly won 30 medals – including 11 of 24 golds – between the sport’s Olympic debut in 1992 and 2008. China’s influence is felt everywhere in Taiwan, but few lines are drawn as directly as badminton’s migration to the island.

The sport’s appeal eventually hooked my friend, Maurice.

After several months of rendezvousing on Fridays for coffee, Maurice proposed a change to our breakfast routine.

“I want to play badminton,” he said casually between sips of his crème brûlée latte. “I want to get a regular game going. Everyone here plays, and it looks like fun.”

He was right; everyone in Taiwan does seemingly play badminton. Not just at the mega complexes, either, but also in the streets, at parks, on rooftops and along sidewalks. Anywhere that two people can volley a shuttlecock, there’s bound to be a game, … even if there’s no net and nobody to keep score.

The only two people who didn’t play badminton, it appeared, were Maurice and I. He had played squash frequently while growing up in South Africa. I occasionally had joined friends for tennis matches during college. How different could racquet sports be?

“Could be fun,” I said to Maurice. “Count me in.”

So began the quest of Maurice (who used to play squash) and Derek (who occasionally played tennis) to become badminton competitors. After the idea had been broached, there was no stopping its momentum.

The plan was hatched on a Friday, and by the following Thursday – less than a week after we scrapped coffee in lieu of something sportier – Maurice had found a badminton mega complex between our two apartments. We’d bought matching racquets and a tube of shuttlecocks. We even had independently spent a few hours watching Internet videos to brush up on rules, techniques and strategies. I had taken a few pages of notes.

On that initial Thursday morning, we walked into the Ming Sheng Badminton Center decked out in proper athletic attire and ready to conquer a new hobby.shuttle-sign

“We’d like to play badminton,” Maurice said to the man behind the counter. The excitement in his voice was childlike, and apparent given the obviousness of the request. It was like walking into a restaurant and proclaiming that he’d like a meal or entering a movie theater and announcing that he wanted to see a film.

“OK,” said the attendant. He reclined behind the counter with arms folded, scanning the facility with the same slapdash disinterest that pool lifeguards bring to their jobs. “When?”

“Um, now,” I thought. Maybe he hadn’t noticed my gym shoes.

“Next week,” the man suggested unprompted, “You can reserve one or two hours.”

Maurice and I stuttered through an answer that included more blank looks than complete sentences. Our enthusiasm dwindled quickly.

“Uh, yeah, … sure, next week, … sounds good,” Maurice eventually confirmed. “One hour, … next week, … not today, … next week.”

Deflated, we slinked out of the facility with our heads hung low. We may have dragged our bags behind us like Charlie Brown. I don’t remember. It seems likely given our disappointment. We’d spent so much energy gearing up for that first badminton experience that the setback felt catastrophic.

The doubts from our registration fiasco lingered the following week. We arrived at the badminton complex jaded and cautiously keeping any excitement in check so as not to get let down by unforeseen delays.

But those skepticisms eroded as the attendant pointed us toward our very own court. Instead of the nonchalant employee whom we had dealt with before, we were greeted by a sparkplug of a woman who’d obviously spent mornings downing energy drinks and gnawing on ginseng root. Beyond the bustling center courts – where players darted around like hummingbirds and onlookers cheered each point – we were directed to a vacant net in the corner. After the lights were turned on and the playing surface dusted off, it was just like I had imagined.

“So, now we play,” Maurice said, the lights still warming up overhead.

“Yep. Now we play,” I replied. The two of us paused as though we expected something more ceremonious like a whistle or buzzer or legion of trumpeters would commence game play.

But the lackluster beginning set the tone for the remainder of that morning. Besides a few casual glances from the other courts, Maurice and I played for an hour virtually uninterrupted. The only breaks came as we guzzled water the way two out of shape men playing badminton for the first time guzzle water. In fact, when we approached the front desk after our time was over, we had to drag the attendant out of a doubles match just to take our money. We had been practically invisible.

“Can we play at the same time next …” Maurice started to ask.

“OK!” she said before Maurice could finish the sentence, and she scurried back to join her teammate without marking the reservation in the board.

“Do you think she got that?” I asked hesitantly.

“Meh, we’re OK,” Maurice assured. “I think we’re regulars now.”

The next week was much of the same: Friday timeslot, … dark court in the corner, … ignored by general badminton population.

We were captivated by our makeshift version of badminton. We used what we thought were proper fundamentals and adhered to what we thought were the proper rules. To onlookers, we must have resembled an awkward toddler slapping at a ball in the driveway who believes he’s playing basketball. inside

Contrasting the speed of our game with the other courts’ was like comparing the pace of Sunday brunch at grandma’s house to a New York deli during the lunchtime rush. Our court was quiet, simple, slow, and it felt like sudden movements could result in something being broken. On the other courts, people bounced around, flailed their limbs urgently and shouted at one another. And they shouted loudly. And they shouted in English.

“Shit!” … “Damnit!” … Swear words echoed through the facility with alarming regularity. The certain four-letter word that I didn’t want my student to hear even made an appearance now and then.

More than a few times growing up, I heard my father angrily shout, “Chinga tu madre!” – at the lawnmower, at the TV, at rain clouds – whenever things weren’t going his way. But when he’d curse in Spanish, it didn’t sound so vulgar. It was almost elegant. Special. As a naïve youngster, it was exotic because I assumed that not everyone could decipher what it meant. But that wasn’t the case with the foul-mouthed members of the Ming Sheng Badminton Center. Those folks were just angry. They knew everyone could understand their tirades because English was prevalent at the club.

It was the cursing that first caught the attention of Maurice and I, and we soon realized that many mid-game conversations were held in English. “Outside!”“Change!”“Second serve!”“Inside!” Courtside rulings were being conducted with ease. The club’s clientele was apart of Taiwan’s upper crust – doctors, lawyers, teachers, pampered housewives – and English wasn’t spoken to welcome foreigners, but, rather, to exclude simpler locals who weren’t bilingual.

We began to notice these trends during our second week at the club. How people spoke. How they dressed. What they drank. That’s when we realized that we were the only court playing singles. Everyone else in the club was engaged in heated doubles matches, but we chocked it up as a veteran price-saving technique to split the reservation fee four ways.

Maurice and I were content to ramble through amateur singles sessions. So we felt a little confused – and more than a little infringed upon – when two women strolled onto our court a half-hour into our reservation and said, “We can play with you two.”

It wasn’t a question.

The women were in their mid-50s, and before introductions had been exchanged, they’d divided the four of us into doubles partners. Maurice was paired with Pier, who had a tendency to stomp a foot on backhand shots and liked to yell, “Smash!” prior to slamming the shuttlecock toward her opponent’s face. My partner was Jan, whose Gucci eyeglasses coordinated with her matching shirt/skirt ensemble.

Jan and Pier were friendly. They hinted about how to keep score and where to stand during serves, but otherwise seemed happy to shepherd Maurice and I along slowly. At the end of our second reservation, the two women disappeared back into the center court mob.

The third week followed the same schedule. For 30 minutes, Maurice and I were left to our own devices, free to chat and casually volley without purpose or conviction. But on cue, presumably after scouting report was compiled, Jan and Pier emerged from the crowd and took control of the final half-hour of our timeslot.

This week, they brought gifts.

“Use these shuttles,” Pier said as she tossed aside the birdies that we’d purchased. “These are better.” She handed us a couple of the club’s regulation shuttlecocks, which were sturdier than the discounted ones we’d been using. The new equipment slightly legitimized our game.

Jan’s gift wasn’t physical; it was motivational.

“Playing doubles will help you get more skills,” she said, careful not to outright tell us that we sucked. “You can learn from other members. Learn the rules. Learn some skills. The more people you play against, the more you will learn. You can get more skills.”

Although she was well mannered, Jan wasn’t the subtlest teammate. And with those words of advice, the two women disappeared at the end of our reservation just as they had done the previous week.

Before taking the court on the fourth week, I asked Maurice whether he felt a bit strange about how the previous two sessions had transpired. On one hand, Jan and Pier’s tutelage had brought welcomed improvements, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being groomed for something bigger. We were a month into our badminton experience, and Maurice and I no longer bothered to reserve the dimly lit, corner court. Nonetheless, each Friday when we arrived, it was prepped and ready at the same time. Maybe Maurice was right. Maybe we were regulars now.

“Do you think they’re training us?” I asked him, as though we’d stumbled into the club’s rush week and had unknowingly pledged the Ming Sheng Badminton Center.

It felt Jan and Pier were doing someone else’s bidding, following orders to coach Maurice and I. It felt like there was a boss – a leader – watching over the club from behind a curtain somewhere. I could envision a meeting where the leader had culled the members, and these two women had drawn the short straws.ming-sheng-sign

“Fix them,” the leader would have said, pointing toward the dark court in the corner. “Whatever that is, it’s not badminton. Either bring those two idiots up to speed quickly, or drive them out of here. This is the Ming Sheng Badminton Center, damnit, and we don’t permit idiocy.”

After expressing my concerns to Maurice, Jan and Pier joined us, as usual, for an unofficial, half-hour training session. By the fourth week, we’d learned how to keep score, where to stand, how to hold the racquets, and even some unwritten etiquette. In one month, Maurice and I had gone from complete badminton novices to slightly informed players.

When it came time to leave, this week, our badminton moms loitered for a few moments instead of doing their usual vanishing act.

“You can join our club,” Jan said.

It wasn’t a question.

She elaborated on the perks of membership. We’d get twice the weekly court time for half the price. We’d have unlimited access to the club’s surplus of regulation shuttlecocks, the same kind that the women had loaned us previously. Most notably, we’d be upgraded from the dimly lit corner to the center courts. Jan was the club’s accountant, so her sales pitch focused on finances. Pier, on the other hand, chimed in with an angle that sounded eerily familiar to something I’d heard a few weeks earlier.

“You can get more skills,” Pier said. “If you join, you can play with other members. Playing with other members will help you learn the rules. You can learn more skills. Your ability will get better.”

It was like a mantra.

Maurice and I bought every word of it and agreed to a seasonlong membership.

“I’ve never been asked to join a club before,” he said proudly. “I feel exclusive.”

Our memberships took a couple of weeks to activate, and during our first official day as members, we were given a special introduction.

“This is our club’s leader,” Jan said, presenting a slightly older woman. “She is happy that you joined the club.”

I knew it! Not only did they have a leader, they called her “the leader!” It validated my suspicions that Jan and Pier had been carrying out orders.

“I am happy that you joined the club,” the leader repeated.

She bowed slightly and then disappeared into the crowd of minions, probably back behind a curtain somewhere like the great and powerful Oz.

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