Pickleball and Language in China

I made it to China! I will be here for the next week and a half teaching pickleball in Dongguan (close to Hong Kong) to a group of coaches, college students and teachers. It’s exciting to be a part of starting a sport in a country as big as China and although it’s at the very beginning, I can see it growing fast.

I’ve been observing recently how language changes experience in another country. In Japan, I feel comfortable to the point of not knowing what to write about in this blog anymore. That might sound strange but living in Japan is normal for me. I can say anything I want, I have close friends, I can tell jokes and am confident that I can do things. I even sleep talk in the language. China is a different story. Today I bought food at a convenience store and asked the front desk for chopsticks. Unable to say “chopsticks”, I resorted to demonstrating my noodles and acting like I was eating them. Later, a student in the pickleball course insisted on taking me to McDonald’s (a cultural discussion for another day). I ordered a cheeseburger with no french fries, but he thought I wanted it without vegetables. On top of being a McDonalds burger, I ate it dry sans condiments… with fries on the side. Admittedly these are first world problems. I’m not saying “woe is me for not getting exactly what I ordered”. It’s just that communication is fascinating. In just a short flight, I have gone from literate and knowledgeable to basically having the oratory capacity of an infant. Maybe less so… when a baby cries we have a basic understanding of what it wants. When adult humans utter unintelligible gibberish to each other, they most often have no clue. Nothing is so humbling as this experience, but I believe it’s a good thing. When language disappears as a means of communication, I find my creativity and observation increases proportionally.

Somewhat related to this, a funny event happened to me while snowboarding before I left Japan. My friend and I like to find powder snow outside the boundaries of the ski area. We find some, but the ski patrol sees us and waits for us at the bottom of the run. I come down first and assuming of course that I don’t speak Japanese, the ski patrol says I’m not allowed in that area. I respond in English, “sorry”, wanting to remain a stupid foreigner and not someone who actually knows they aren’t supposed to be in that area. Then my Japanese buddy comes down and because he is with me, the ski patrol assumes he doesn’t speak Japanese either. My friend knows pretty much zero English so I know that if he says anything, we are busted. And I know that he knows that I know all this. After the ski patrol’s speech on back country safety (he was actually nice about it), my buddy just says “ok” and the ski patrol lets us go! He followed us the next run to make sure we didn’t get into any more fun… I mean trouble and I realized how convenient it is sometimes to be a foreigner. It goes both ways.

All that to say, I am seriously contemplating learning Chinese. The opportunities are huge. Even if it’s not with pickleball, Mandarin is something that will be beneficial forever. But it’s a daunting task filled with visions of trying to say ma 4 different ways and insulting someone’s mother by calling her a horse. Or something like that. Of course, my customers say that about Japan, which is not true, so maybe I am wrong. I find that things are always the most daunting before you start them.

The pickleball club here is serious about spreading the sport. I attended a media day the other day where almost a hundred people attended including the mayor, owners of companies and university professors. Other attendees came from Hong Kong and Singapore to take part. Li Na’s tennis teammate got silver in the competition: I have been teaching her this week and might play with here in a tournament in Taiwan. Things are moving, Asia is coming on the pickleball scene. It’s an exciting time.

The last thing I want to say is that China makes me feel tiny. I still can’t wrap my head around a number like 1.3 billion people. Colorado Springs where I went to high school has 500,000 and there are 800 cities in China with over a million people. I drove from Hong Kong to Shenzhen the other day, and for over an hour straight I saw tower after tower of apartment buildings and businesses. Dongguan where I am working is considered a “medium-sized city” with a paltry population of 8 million. China is mind-boggling and while I don’t want to live here, I want to learn more.

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Around the World for Pickleball

It’s been a crazy summer filled with travel in the US, Europe and Japan. I’m finally back home, where I have a few moments to catch my breath and reflect on everything that happened this summer.

I started in Japan, from where I flew august 6th to Redmond, Oregon for an advanced pickleball boot camp. From there I flew to a still intact Houston, where I did clinics, lessons and played some of the most fun (and drunk) pickleball ever in Victor and Natalie’s backyard. I also ate entirely too much Vietnamese food and survived Chinese torture – I mean massage – with Joe and Agatha. From there it was off to Vail, Colorado for more camps and clinics. Jerry Stevens and the Vail pickleball club put me up in an awesome condo and hosted me so well. Back in Colorado Springs, my Japanese friends Makoto Sato and Tomoko Takami visited for a few days, before competing in the Tournament of Champions, helping at another bootcamp in Colorado Springs, and going onto Europe.

My first stop in Europe was London, but it took me two days to get there because of a cancelled Aer Lingus flight (this is going to be a reocurring theme). So after nights in Chicago and Dublin Airport, I arrived in London, beleaguered but grateful to Louise Stephens for picking me up. An afternoon of sightseeing, evening pickleball session with the Slappers (South London Area Pickleball) and fun pub party later, I was off the Nice, France the following morning. Southern France, where it never rains, had an epic downpour so heavy that our flight diverted from Nice to Marseille. Eventually we arrived though and were treated to two great days with Pierre and Cyril of Pickleball France. A big thank you to my sponsor Paddletek for sending us over to London and Nice. From there it was off to Madrid (after another delayed flight) for the first ever Spain Pickleball Trip and third annual Spanish Open Pickleball Championships.

The tour to Spain was not without its hiccups but everyone was accommodating and we had a great time. The tournament too was not without its scheduling issues, but the multinational participants created great energy nonetheless. I met players from the US, Canada, Mexico, England, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Switzerland and Finland. There were probably even more countries represented. The Bainbridge Cup featuring North America VS. Europe proved a huge success and I was fortunate enough to win the men’s open doubles with Marci Rozpedski. After the tournament, it was off the beautiful Toledo and Barcelona for touring around the country and learning Spanish history. A demonstration outside our hotel in Barcelona for Catalonian independence provided some added unexpected excitement. I should say at this point that we are planning the next Spain Pickleball Trip for September 2018 and would love to see you on the trip!

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The Spain Pickleball Tour ended in Barcelona where we went our separate ways, myself to Japan via Singapore. After of course another delayed flight that caused me to miss my connection, I arrived in Tokyo, traveled home to Nagano, and back to Tokyo the next morning to start the 3rd annual Japan Pickleball Trip. We traveled around Nagano, Tokyo and Osaka visiting pickleball clubs, being hosted at wild karaoke parties, playing pickleball with local players, staying in traditional Japanese inns and eating too much food, among other activities. I was happy how the trip came together and am looking forward to the next edition in May, 2018. It’s so cool to see how pickleball has grown in the 3 years we have been doing this trip and how it has contributed to the development of the sport in Japan. There is excitement for pickleball around the world and Japanese players are starting to talk about traveling to the US to compete. It is an exciting time and I’m lucky to be at the cusp.

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From now, I have a month in Japan where I do a couple of walking tours, planning for next year, and time off before heading to nationals at the end of October, followed by our Pickleball Trip to St. Croix. There is a possibility of me going to Shenzhen, China at the end of October to help a local club there first so we will see. It’s been crazy and I’m glad for a break this month but please stay tuned for more information about upcoming trips and events at pickleballtrips.com!

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The Bureaucratic Machine

Japan is sometimes called the most socialist of democracies or the most democratic of socialists. It’s certainly a more controlled system than many with layers and layers in the bureaucracy. Let me tell you a little about my experience with the machine.

Last month, I decided to work towards my mid-size bus license. This enables me to drive up to 29 people at a time, which is pretty useful for my line of work. I was only prepared for some of what I was getting myself into though.

First, getting a license in Japan is never cheap. For your regular license, it costs around $2500 and takes 2-3 months of attending driving school, practicing a couple of times a week. Driving school camp is another option where you stay at a facility, practice everyday and obtain a license in 2 weeks. There’s an informative Begin Japanology video here if you are interested. A mid-size bus license costs around $1800 and requires 18 hours of practice/instruction. However, you can only do a max of 2 hours a day, and sometimes only one-hour slots are available. So for the month of June, off to driving school I went, religiously practicing my “S-turns”, gear shifting and railroad crossing techniques over and over.

The course is “geared” (haha get it?) for people who can’t yet drive a manual vehicle. I already could, so after the first couple of sessions practicing shifting with my left hand, there wasn’t much to do except keep going in circles around the course. The cranky old dudes would tell me ridiculous mistakes I made, mostly because they needed to say something. I would attempt to roll my eyes without their noticing, while outwardly smiling and bowing. The younger guys, not yet beat down by the system, would chat and tell me “you’re really good at this, there’s not much for me to tell you” and I would think, “thanks, can I skip the preliminaries and just take the final exam please?” But alas, this is Japan, there are no exceptions.

During my many hours of driving purgatory, however, I did arrive at two conclusions. First, much like other bureaucratic policies in Japan, the driving school system is partly about employing more people. There are several driving schools in Nagano City, but the one I attended alone employed at least 30 people between instructors, office staff, managers and janitors. Wages in Japan are low compared to US salaries (educated, full-time entry-level employees typically earn less than $2,000 a month), but so is unemployment. Because costly items like medical care and a pension funds are taken care of by the company, people still have a high basic standard of living compared to similar wage earners in the United States. Some things, like transportation are expensive in Japan but overall I think the “Japan is expensive” stereotype is undeserved. America is great if you have money, but Japan is a more humane place to live if you don’t.

My second revelation is this: I like the fact that other people have to attend long driving school, I just don’t like the fact that I have to. It’s selfish but it’s true. That made me think though, does this system yield results? Are the roads safer because the requirements are more strict? If yes, I’m all for the policy. From my research, Japan has the lowest death rate per 1 million vehicles in the OECD countries, with less than half the death rate of the US. The road fatalities per kilometer driven was actually a little lower in the US, but that’s party because Americans drive so many kilometers on freeways that it skews the figures. The questions then becomes, is it worth adding 10 or 15 hours of driving school and a lot more money to save hundreds of people a year? I think the answer is yes. Realizing that made me more willing to slog through.

But the story of actually getting my license is far from over. After completing the requisite practice, practical exams, personality tests, simulations and driver safety lectures, I went to Nagano’s DMV equivalent to receive my brand new license. At this point, the DMV told me that by Japanese law, I needed to have my regular license for at least 2 years before being eligible for my mid-size license, even though the driving school told me they waved that requirement. If I could prove that I had my US license for at least 2 years, and that I had been in the US at least 90 days after receiving the license, however, I would be eligible. The 90 day rule was implemented because Japanese people were going to Hawaii on a tourist visa, getting their US license for much cheaper, then converting their US license to a Japanese license. So defeated, off I went to get my old passport to prove that I had been out of Japan more than 90 days after receiving my US license.

Two days ago, I finally waltzed into the DMV to triumphantly claim what was rightfully mine. The system, never one to give up so easily, hurdled its final missiles at me. First, there is a new eye-test that supposedly tests depth-perception. There are three sticks in a line. The two outside sticks are immobile while the middle one moves back and forth. You must click a button when the three sticks are aligned and do it three times to pass. Now I think I have decent depth-perception, but for the life of me I could not do the test. I learned from the driving school eye test, however, that when the middle stick came all the way forward, it made a small clicking noise. Exactly six seconds after that, the sticks would be aligned. To my despair, the air conditioning at the driving center was so loud that I couldn’t hear the click! What saved me was that after failing twice, the driving center guy helped me out by saying when the stick started moving backward. I counted my six seconds and voila, I passed. Now I faced the final hurdle. Apparently I was supposed to bring my temporary license this day, which of course no one told me. I forgot it at home so they made an exception if I promised to bring it soon. I still haven’t gotten around to completing my license saga but when I do, it will be all over, at last.

Once again, I hope this doesn’t sound like a criticism of Japan. It is a wonderful place to live and functions so smoothly in some ways because of the bureaucracy. You will never spend time waiting for a late train in Japan even though you spend 18 hours at driving school. There are trade-offs to everything I suppose. I’ve also been challenging myself to think of these bureaucratic hurdles as barriers to entry. They are a pain and they take a long time to jump through, but once through you have differentiated yourself that much more. The more hoops I jump through, the fewer people remain, especially with my particular skill set.

That’s all for today, as always, thanks for taking the time to read.