First Person, Far Flung: Hebei, China
Coach Wu served one Ping-Pong ball after another over the net. I returned those serves using the forehand technique that Wu had demonstrated: elbow low, rotate at the hips, follow through. My 16-year-old son, Eli, caught the balls in a bucket as they bounced off the far end of the table. It was our first morning of instruction at the Chinese National Table Tennis Training Center—an Olympic facility 150 miles southwest of Beijing, in Hebei Province. Eli and I had traveled all the way from our home in New Mexico to better understand the game that we played, without rules or finesse, in our garage. A game that, over the years, had become a form of communication between us. As Eli navigated toward adulthood, I was hoping that we might take that communication to a whole new level. Then I whiffed one of Wu’s serves, and I launched the next into the rafters.
Eli dropped back like a shortstop after a pop fly. “I got it,” he said. My errant return fell into his bucket, which he then emptied into the bucket that Wu drew from for his serves.
Wu laid his paddle on the table, dug his smartphone out of his pocket, and started typing a message into a translator. Based on his previous messages—Always fly in both wings and Do not give up the mountain—I was expecting more gibberish. But when Wu turned his phone around to show me the English translation of what he’d written, it not only made sense, it also seemed to be the secret to life itself. Wu deleted the message before I could speak.
I looked up to find Eli wearing the bucket on his head. He was taller than I’d been at his age. Braver, too. As his dad, I wanted to spare him the world’s pain. Failing that, I wanted to prepare him for it as best I could.
“Hey,” I said. “Jump in here.”
“Why?” Eli asked. His voice was muffled by the bucket.
“I need to write something down,” I said, walking away.
“Write what down?”
Wu’s message came in two parts separated by a comma. The first part was, Fight with me for a moment.
Wu—a cheerful, baby-faced 20-something—was a member of the Chinese Olympic team. He must’ve been a beginner at some point, though, and maybe once after he’d flubbed an easy forehand stroke his coach had given him the same advice: Fight with me for a moment, meaning, Stick with it, young Wu. Don’t give up. Trust in me and I’ll show you the way. But the word “fight” meant something different to me.
I joined the Navy in 1990 and flew a carrier-based aircraft known as the Prowler. In 2006, when Eli was 5, I quit flying to become a joint terminal attack controller, or someone who directs air strikes from the ground. I was assigned to a SEAL team that deployed so frequently that my ideas of home and war became confused. Home turned into a place of uncertainty, whereas the war—or as we called it, “the fight”—grew predictable, even comforting.
I remember one night in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2009, patrolling with my team across the desert, carrying the weight of my armor and weapons, my thoughts turning as slowly as the stars in the sky. I saw my teammates on night vision, emanating light and heat. The same darkness that held them together held me together. This was my third deployment with the team, with many more to come. Back home, Eli endured my absences stoically, as if nothing could be done. However, I knew that someday he’d realize that I’d chosen to go, repeatedly, and he’d want to understand why. My reasons were hard to explain. They went beyond duty or love of country. They had more to do with feeling opposed, and how it brought everything into sharper focus. I remember wanting Eli with me in the desert on that night in Helmand, making tracks in the sand alongside mine, so that he might know that feeling, too.
Wu’s message was as ephemeral as any given moment, and therefore impossible to remember. I needed pen and paper to write it down. From the Ping-Pong table in the middle of the practice gym where Eli and I trained with Wu, I made my way toward the exit. The gym was a warehouse-size space with two rows of 10 tables, all of which were occupied by Olympians. I passed a rally between two one-armed boys who hit the ball so hard I thought it might disintegrate. I walked by the tallest woman I’d ever seen, whose chop floated just over her opponent’s side of the net. A scrap of yellow paper lay on the ground by the exit, and I found a broken pencil in an adjacent trash can. I had to chew the wood away to expose the pencil’s lead. Writing the message down was a huge relief. I folded the paper, put it in my pocket, and rejoined Wu and Eli. For the remainder of our morning training session, I didn’t fret about the past—as is my wont—nor did I obsess about the future. Realizing that Eli and I might never get the chance to do anything this wild again, I simply enjoyed myself.
Back home, just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Eli and I play most nights in our garage. The conditions aren’t perfect. Our Ping-Pong table is warped from the brutal heat of too many summers and cracked from the weight of car parts being piled on it. The green surface of one entire quadrant was eaten away by rubber cement during a botched sprinkler-line repair job. The clamps that support the net were bent by who-knows-what, so the net sags. We lose Ping-Pong balls all the time—inside the cat box, on top of the water heater, and under the jack stands. They roll out of nowhere, faded and brittle. Most games between Eli and me unfold in fits and starts. Shots ricochet off paint cans, bicycles, and the rusty fridge. They tangle in cobwebs behind the shovels. Every once in a while, though, something magic happens, and before you know it, we’re both playing beyond our ability, and it seems as if the game will continue forever.
Which is the main reason we traveled all this way: to learn how to more easily tap into that magic. And to learn from the very best. The Chinese team has won 28 of 32 gold medals since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988. Even if we were only there a day, surely we’d leave as better players, more confident, more focused, more relaxed. This would be something that—no matter how far away we might be from home, or each other—we could return to.
After a long morning session, we broke for lunch. The Ping-Pong school’s cafeteria offered fish heads in tomato sauce, fried chicken’s feet, and spheres of raw dough. Eli and I decided to venture into town to find something else.
From the school’s grounds, with its reflecting pool and statues of championship trophies, with its giant Olympic rings standing in a plot of grass that had gone to seed, we took a sidewalk lined with honeysuckle to a convenience store. Chinese citizens walked by as if we were invisible, while a loudspeaker outside the store blasted what sounded like instructions for them to follow: Chin up! Eyes forward! Shoulders back!
We bought two ice cream sandwiches and sat on a park bench.
“What did you write down?” Eli asked. I reached in my pocket for Wu’s message, but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t in my other pocket either. I’d imagined that yellow scrap of paper becoming a Mackin family heirloom, one that I’d pass on to Eli, that he’d pass on to his kids, and so on. I went back to the first pocket, hoping I’d missed Wu’s message during my preliminary search, and there it was. Relieved, I handed it over to Eli.
Eli unfolded the message, read it, and then, as his ice cream dripped onto the sidewalk, seemed to take a moment to ponder how his life had just been forever changed. Though I knew the proper response to such a revelation was silence, my curiosity got the best of me.
“What do you think?” I asked. “I think Wu needs a new translator,” Eli said.
The Olympians were back in full force for our afternoon training session. An old man with a braided beard did a mean pendulum sidespin. The tallest woman in the world perfected her tomahawk. A one-armed boy stomped his foot when he served, letting loose his war cry. Wu served to Eli, and Eli returned using perfect form. Wu increased his rate of serve and Ping-Pong balls flew off the table faster than I could catch them in my bucket. When Wu’s bucket ran empty, I dumped mine into his. Then Eli and I swapped out.
“Is this all we’re going to do?” Eli asked.
“Practice makes perfect,” I said.
“But perfect is boring,” Eli said.
During our afternoon session, Wu taught us the backhand. He showed us how to add sidespin. We trained through sunset, and finished up after dark. Still jet-lagged, Eli and I retired to our dorm room and changed into our pajamas. We lay down on our beds, exhausted, but I found the room too quiet for sleep. I have tinnitus—from exposure to jet noise and explosions—which means that crickets chirp in my right ear, and a steady ring sounds in my left. I needed an air conditioner, a fan, or a TV tuned to a dummy station to drown out the commotion in my head. Eli lay on his bed, out cold, while I searched the room for a noisemaker. On the narrow sunporch, I discovered a washing machine that had seen better days.
I pushed a button and the machine lit up. I pushed another button and hot water started to fill the tub. A box of laundry soap sat on a shelf. I threw in a load of dirty clothes and let it run. The machine churned, hummed, and gurgled. I drifted off to sleep while dreaming of Ping-Pong the way you dream of waves after being out on the ocean all day. Laying in bed, I felt the flow of the game, how the ball arrived one way and I changed it in return, how that back and forth mirrored life, and how perfectly Wu’s message seemed to explain it all.
I woke in a panic, ran to the sunporch, and opened the lid to the washing machine. Yellow bits of paper floated in the soap bubbles. Fishing around in the slippery water confirmed my fear: I’d washed my shorts with Wu’s message in the pocket. It was destroyed. I tried to remember the whole thing, but I could only come up with the first half: Fight with me for a moment. The second half had something to do with hope.