Bring Your Own Welcome Mat

At the local ping pong club on a Thursday night in Portland, a thin middle-aged Asian man stalks with hands clasped behind his back around one of the tables where two players are practicing their serves. He lasers in on every nuance of their technique and they feel his presence as they try to execute what he has taught them.

The man also serves as ball boy, and as he makes his slow circuit around the room he does not simply bend down to pick each ping pong ball up, but rather uses a modified badminton racquet which has had most of the strings removed and orange mesh attached as a makeshift baggy around the frame. He presses the racquet down onto each ball, the strings give way, and the ball pops into the mesh—when the netting is full he unties the end and pours all the balls into a container on the table.

As elegant as it was comical to look at, this little contraption was but a pragmatic, unself-conscious little tool in the arsenal of the Asian take on this sport: humorless, pitiless, swift, and precise. Whereas we white Americans would probably not be able to get over the absurd spectacle of a 50-year-old man holding an orange net full of ping pong balls, ours is also the culture whose main focus is to right every perceived grievance, smooth all feathers, and strive for no hurt feelings or offensive opinions. What we are not focused on is getting work done.

And while we get soft the millennia-old, strong Asian countenance plods forward slowly, unencumbered by political correctness or shows of inclusiveness. This came home to me vividly as I dropped in for the first time at the public club and what I thought was going to be a mix of races and ages engaged in intense but social play.

Cut to wide shot of a tall white guy standing to the side for twenty minutes while being snubbed by a room full of foreign-born Asian men intent on their games. Apparently the cheap paddle in my hand was a dead giveaway that I’d be no fun to play against. Gritting my pride between clenched molars I decided not to run away with hurt middle-class feelings but to respectfully wait out their brusqueness.

As the two young players prepared to leave I asked the coach for one game, which was granted and after the quick trouncing he said to me, “Very hard to beat. He is professional. Look at posters on wall.” And indeed, this 20-year-old kid was pictured on some the club’s promo material. Likely American-born, he had been gracious in humoring this earnest amateur as I scored 5 points against his C-game.

After more of me standing around like the village leper, the older guy who appeared to be in charge finally took pity on me and ran me around for a few games, and eventually once the others had gotten in sufficient playing time with their friends, one guy came over to me with a friendly greeting.

He was even nice enough to show me where I could find a “respectable” paddle to borrow, and we then proceeded to have a spirited practice rally for over an hour. Once I showed that I could hold my own he began to hit hard enough to consistently keep me under pressure but was supportive and encouraging, only throwing in the occasional unreturnable laser shot not to dominate but with a wink that reminded me his game—all their games—had a whole other level I was not ready for.

In the end, whether these men actually thawed or simply patronized me with the hope I don’t come back is an irrelevant middle-class-American nervous reading into things, a psychotic symptom of the mental infection that is political correctness. People raised in old cultures come at you in a straightforward manner so that you don’t have to second-guess their motives—and that is damn refreshing to encounter after hacking through the passive aggressive fog of our own culture’s present mindset.

So I’m going to buy a proper paddle, watch some online ping pong tutorials, work on my technique, and then go back for another beating. We white Americans need to fight our spiritual atrophy by seeking out challenges that can’t simply be massaged away with touchy-feely Newspeak or whiny legal cases. There is a room full of ping pong players impervious to these machinations who will shred my game for the next year and nothing Oprah Winfrey ever said can save me from that fate. Good.

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