2006 China Trip Journal

October 3, 2006

By Masaaki Tajima

U.S. Junior Boyís coach

 

On August 15, we left for China for three weeks of summer training and competition for the U.S. Junior, Cadet teams and for some members from the New Jersey club. This was my first time in China -- the land of table tennis goliath that I had studied so much about -- so I was looking forward to it.

 

The members of our contingent were: U.S. Junior Girl's coach Lilly Yip, Berry Dattel, Ben Wolski from the New Jersey Club, Adam Hugh, John Leach, Trevor Runyan, A.J. Brewer, Joseph Wang, Justin Yao, Atha Fong, Stephanie Shih, Barbara Wei, Olena Sowers, Areil Hsing, Amaresh Sahu, five New Jersey team members and myself.

 

August 16

 

No problems with the 10-hour flight, but Trevor forgot, or didnít think he needed, a visa, so he missed the flight and arrived a few days later after getting it. We arranged his pick-up at the airport, which is about a four-hour drive from the training center.

 

When we arrived at the Beijing airport, I was informed by Atha and by the people who came to pick us up that Barbara Wei was supposed to meet us and we were to go together to the training center. We debated what to do and waited. I had no information where to meet, what time she was to arrive or her flight number. Since we couldnít get hold of Lilly and it was a four-hour drive to the center, we decided to go to the center and deal with it there. I later found out that Barbara had arrived on an earlier flight with Lilly. I was annoyed that I wasnít informed of this.

The host had planned a very elaborate dinner for us and we met at one of the nicest restaurants in the area before we went to the training center. Because it was nearly 10 p.m., we had to cut the dinner short. When we got to the center, I was relieved to see Barbara, having arrived safely, in the lobby.

 

The first day of training went as usual, with physical warm ups and routine drills. There were two sessions a day and training started and ended exactly on time. The first session went from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., followed by a long lunch break. The second session went from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The number of hours doesnít seem long when one thinks about the image of training in China, but while it takes place, it is non-stop until official break times. For the first few days, the training venue was divided between two halls ó one for the girls (40 tables) and one for boys (48 tables). When the ITTF training program started few days later with players from other countries, there werenít enough tables, so half of the table had three players, which made concentration difficult.

 

The local media came and interviewed us and we saw it on TV the next day. As you know, table tennis is big in China and the training center in the city of Zheng Ding is very well known.

 

The host of the training center planned another elaborate dinner -- this time for the entire U.S. contingent, with local city officials and the media present.

 

After the dinner, the coaches were treated to massages at a large hotel, which included a restaurant and bath facility. This massage process was a new experience for me. You shower first; that is expected. But then I got a body scrub with something like a rough terry cloth that almost burnt my skin. Then I received a rubdown on a bench with what seemed like granulated salt, then with the salt-like mixture still on, I was entered a sauna. I thought as I baked in the sweltering sauna, "First they cleaned me, rubbed me with salt, and now they are cooking me. Whatís next?" But then it got better, as the real massage began and it lasted about an hour. As I got relaxed, I lost track of time and started to fall asleep.

 

I got sick on the second day, most likely from the food (the center provides three meals a day). I took it easy for a few days and I stayed on the sidelines, mostly observing. All other foreign coaches also stayed on the sidelines, observing the Chinese coaches and monitoring their players. There were about five former world champions who were coaches and some lead players coached the training. I think I was the only "nobody" there.

 

It is the ninth day here and Iím getting withdrawal symptoms from the lack of my usual dose of green tea in the morning, cappuccino in the afternoon and my routine of wine, coffee and cognac after a good dinner. For a table tennis nut, this is heaven, but if youíre used to civilized (spoiled) living, this is hell. The only food I could keep down was obtained in a few trips to a 5-star hotel that was, luckily, only a block away. The bathrooms in the rooms at the center reeked with combination of urine, mold and fungus. Cockroaches were frequent bedmates and hot water was available only three times a day.†††††

 

The two weeks of training was interrupted by banquets, opening ceremonies, shopping and sightseeing trips. At one banquet, with all the local media, city officials and foreign players and coaches present, some players from different countries were invited to get on the stage and perform. They had prior notice, so they had time to rehearse. Most of them did a pretty good job and were entertaining (see attached photos).

 

August 27

We were invited to another dinner at the same hotel with the bathhouse and restaurant. This time, as a token of my thanks and appreciation for their hospitality, I bought a bottle of fine cognac (costing about a monthís wages in China) as an after-dinner drink for all to share. Big mistake. The coaches and officials were delighted and they all took turns toasting me, which meant that I wound up drinking more than them. And, as can happen when toasts are made and people loosen-up, there is always somebody who claims to be the strongest drinker. Sure enough, one of the Chinese coaches wanted to challenge me, shot for shot. We finished the bottle. Right after dinner, several of us were scheduled for another massage session. By the time I got to the bench for the massage, I was out. I was told later that I got the massage but I donít remember it. The last time something like this happened and I couldnít remember what transpired was my 30th birthday party over 30 years ago. But I did get some satisfaction when I was on time for next morningís training session, but my challenger didnít make it.†

 

Overall, the training at Zheng Ding was productive. The boys made noticeable improvements. In most cases, in assigning partnering practice partners, the Chinese coaches selected their players who were rated as a higher level than their foreign counterparts. There were complaints about some Chinese players not trying or giving full effort and this was noticed.†

August 30

Taiyuan International Junior Table Tennis Open and ITTF Junior Circuit Event.

 

It was another four-hour bus ride to the city and province of Taiyuan.

 

We were housed at what was advertised as a 5-Star hotel with the usual restaurant, banquet and bath facilities, but it wasn't up to Western standards or expectations. The staff was very polite and helpful, but the building was old, unclean and in need of renovation.

 

The tournament venue was a 10-minute bus rides each way. We stayed there each day until the competition and dinner were over. (Lunch and dinner were served at nearby restaurant.) Then we rode back. On every bus ride, I was thinking and wondering when I would hear a ďthud,Ē indicating that our bus had hit a pedestrian or a bicyclist. I already had image of China -- the traffic jams of people, bicycles, cars and trucks negotiating the streets -- but not with no one observing or obeying traffic laws. Most streets donít have traffic lights or signs and people and vehicles dodge each other by inches. It is a wonder that I didnít see any accidents.

 

The opening ceremony for all ITTF players, coaches and officials, which took place at a performance hall, was attended by the city mayor, governor and all the regional table tennis officials, with an elaborate presentation and professional performances. (There were police everywhere, outside and in the halls. I wondered what that was all about). What a contrast to the U.S. in the levels of power these people have in the field of table tennis. However, I had heard years ago through the grapevine that Chinese table tennis officials had complained about their budgets being cut because the money was going to expand other international sports.

 

China, of course, won both the singles and team events. But our junior boys played well. We were overmatched only by China. We beat Korea Team Two and lost to Korea Team One, 3-1. I donít remember the last time we beat any team from the big three: China, Korea and Japan. Our cadet boys didnít fare as well.† They didnít play badly; they were just overmatched.

 

Perspective

 

We have a long, long way to go before we can be competitive with the other major countries. People have asked me for 30 years: "What can we do?" Again, as I contemplate the scene, the answer hasn't really changed. We donít have the number of players to work with, and because of that, we donít have the infrastructure to make it better. I think we are on the right track, combining training and competition, being selective to best manage our meager budget, but because we donít have the numbers (players, clubs, training centers, funds, etc.), we canít select the best, the most qualified candidates who have the most potential to become world-class players. We are stuck with what we have to work with and who happens to qualify as the best on any particular day.

Harrowing Traffic Heading Home

 

For the return to U.S., the plan was to drive after the competition was over, at about 1 p.m. Monday, from Taiyuan to Zheng Ding for dinner, which was supposed to be about a four-hour drive, then get some sleep before driving another four hours to the Beijing airport Tuesday morning. The thinking was that it would take too long and be too tiring for the bus driver to drive eight hours straight from Taiyuan to Beijing.

 

As scheduled, we left Taiyuan at 1 p.m., but about two hours into the drive, we hit a major traffic jam on a highway. After being stuck for about three more hours, our guide called for police escort to get us out. When the police came, they directed us onto another road and then left. But we hit another traffic jam and after about two more hours, the driver returned to the original highway. Again there was no movement and the driver called for the police escort again.

 

When the police arrived, because the traffic we were in was not moving, they took us to the other side of the freeway going against the traffic on the shoulder of the freeway. The police got us past the bottleneck and we returned to the right side of the freeway. It was still stop and go, but traffic was moving and we finally got to Zheng Ding around midnight. The officials and staff at the hotel still had food waiting for us, despite the fact that we were supposed to be there around 5 p.m. We left the next morning for Beijing at 5 a.m. because we needed to be there before 9:30 a.m. to go through airport procedures. Thinking about what happened the previous night, I was concerned we might not make it on time. We got there a little past 9:30 a.m.

 

The road and highway infrastructure of China (two lanes compared to mostly four lanes in the U.S.) cannot handle the sudden economic growth the country is experiencing. In the U.S., 90% of the vehicles on the highways are passenger cars, while in China it is 90% trucks carrying supplies, products and equipment, a clear sign of rapid economic growth. A taxi driver in Taiyuan told me that in the city of Taiyuan alone, 50,000 new vehicles are coming onto the road every year. In addition, the crime rate is high and a simple thing like crossing the street in cities requires acute attention and good reactions.

 

I know China has witnessed unprecedented economic growth, which has affected people and countries worldwide, but I think bigger events will happen in the future, which will affect us even more in the coming years.