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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Pickleball Trip to Japan

DSC_5755AI try not to use my blog very often for personal endorsements or business purposes. However, rarely do you get to do what you’re interested in and passionate about as your job. For myself, taking a pickleball trip to Japan is just that. I am currently in the process of moving to Japan, where I want to help people have the vacation of a lifetime, experience the real Japan and have an adventure in the process.

Pickleball is also a great sport to be involved with. I think it’s starting to rally a generation of baby-boomers off their couches into a healthier, more active, and more social lifestyle. And younger generations are following.

With that, I want to my readers know about two exciting developments in my recent life. First, I am starting a company called Travel Nagano, see the facebook page here. The website is not quite there yet, but I have a blog, travelnagano.wordpress.com, which, like this blog I have been neglecting as of late.

Second, I am involved with a couple of the nation’s top pickleball players to bring a pickleball reconnaissance mission to Japan. We are looking for evangelical pickleball players who want to spread the sport, want to get better by learning from the best and are interested in learning about another culture with insight from tour guides who have lived in Japan for over a decade. You might also be asked by your fellow Americans to scout the future global competition…

10464351_10152551400018637_8169661294252424377_n 10.48.54 AMPlease let me know if you would be interested in something like this and I will send you more details.

Contact: pickleballdaniel@gmail.com

Dates: October 19-27, 2015 (This is time in Japan, excluding flights)

Price: $1950.00 (Does not include airfare)

There are a limited number of spaces available on this trip. The final number has not been decided but it will most likely be 15-20. Please let us know as soon as possible to ensure your place on this amazing trip!

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Starting Pickleball in Japan

The Japanese have three standard responses when faced with a complete foreigner like myself speaking fluent Japanese. The first (and the most common in Tokyo) is complete denial that they have seen anything out of the ordinary: They just can’t be bothered. The second is utter bewilderment (most common in the countryside), which generally leads to me giving my life story and ends in an exchange of business cards or a request for me to marry their daughter, niece, cousin or granddaughter, depending on the age of the parties involved. The second group has led to many interesting conversations, some friendships and even me being interviewed a few times as the representative for foreigners living in Japan. The final group refuses to believe that a person with my face can speak fluent Japanese. When I speak to them, they reply in marginal (at best) English, preferring to speak in one word sentences to accommodate the Gaijin who couldn’t possibly understand them.

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The participants of one of the first pickleball events ever held in Japan belonged to this third group of people. When I arrived, the organizers told me that I could only speak English, telling me they would translate for me because they had told everyone I was the US champion, and it would detract from the champion’s coolness if I spoke Japanese. Feeling rather like a trophy on display, I begrudgingly agreed to their request, resigning myself to being a circus animal performing tricks for the next 3 hours.

30 people attended, which I thought was a remarkably respectable number for an unknown sport in a new country. However, as I quickly found out, the reason I was not allowed to speak English was that 20 of the 30 participants were from a local mentally handicapped club. This was their weekly exercise event, and the organizers were accommodating these people, who they thought wouldn’t be able to comprehend the racial/linguistic gap. This actually proved false as I broke down a couple of hours into the event and started ignoring my translators. The handicapped people understood me perfectly well, and some were remarkably good players after just a couple of hours. I was still on display, as everyone simply called me champion even after I repeatedly told them my name was Daniel, but I didn’t mind so much 🙂

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The pickleball event, and my subsequent weekend trip to Korea have made me think about a few things. At first, I wrongly thought of handicapped people coming to our event as something depressing, like those were the only people we could gather. Then I realized how great it is that pickleball is accessible to everyone. They never quite grasped the rules (having 3 numbers in the score is confusing for anyone), but they had a great time. What a great testimonial for the sport. It is the only sport I know of that can accommodate grandparents and grandchildren, athletes and couch potatoes, wheelchairs and handicaps and to an extent, allow these people to have fun all playing on the same court. When I really thought about it, there might not have been a better way to launch the sport in Japan.

And second, I was reminded of the invaluability (that’s not a real word) of language. Taking away my linguistic ability in Japan, then traveling to Korea turned me from a fully functional, intelligent adult to struggling with basic communication. I’m reminded how thankful I am that I grew up speaking two languages, that Japan is still home and that there is a reason for me having grown up here. The reason is not entirely clear yet, but it is gradually becoming more apparent. Japan is weird and there are things that bug me, but that’s true of anywhere. It’s a pretty cool that I get to live here.

That is my story of starting pickleball in Japan. It’s going to be a long time before it’s mainstream, but you have to begin somewhere right?

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