The Quiet Moments

On Tuesday I have class with my coach. We do it in the morning, so no one else bothers us. There are no other players, and the only other people there are Lao Shushu, the old uncle who lives at the courts. It’s the best time where we just work on my problems, and go at my pace, and I love it.

We arrive at 10 and leave at 11:30. It’s not long, but intense.

This week at the end of our lesson he had me practice serving, since my technique has eroded over time. He showed me what I was doing wrong, watched for a minute to make sure I got it right, then went to sit down and chat with Lao Shushu and two other guys hanging out.

“We gotta go in a minute,” he yelled at me after a few minutes. “It’s 11:30.” (He picks me up and drives me home on days I have class.)

“Okay,” I nodded taking a few more birdies.

“Actually. Do you have to go home? Do you have something to do right now?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Why don’t you stay and keep practicing. Go when you finish.”

I looked down next to me at the big cardboard box filled with practice birdies. “Sure,” I said. And I just stood there practicing my serve. My coach left, and soon after, two other people who were hanging out also left to get some lunch. It was just me a Lao Shushu.

You can see the three positions I practiced serving to. All the shots at the nets are the ones that were too short.

You can see the three positions I practiced serving to. All the shots in the front are the ones that were too short and hit the net.

Lao Shushu lives and works at the courts. He isn’t married, and doesn’t have much of a family (he’s a family friend of my coach) and is maybe late 40’s early 50’s. He doesn’t play badminton at all, but he’s there all the time. He has a small bed in the back, and showers in the bathrooms.

You’d think we’d be good friends but truthfully, I barely talk to him. His Chinese is so bad. He’s uneducated (I don’t know how much schooling he had, but definitely not high school) and speaks the local language. His Mandarin is garbled and for me, unintelligible.

I like him a lot. When I come in he always gives me a big wave from behind the counter, and I always say good night when I leave. Our biggest conversation is when I grab a drink from the cooler behind his desk and he says “Xiao Bing! Bing, bing bing!” (My chinese name means “little ice” and I am known for always drinking the coldest drinks possible. So it’s kinda a joke in Chinese but doesn’t really translate well.)

So he was just sitting there, drinking tea and watching me as I practiced my serves. I didn’t know he was there until I hit a serve and I heard him say “ping,” mimicking the sound of the racket as I hit the birdie over the net. I looked over and laughed, and he laughed, and I continued serving.

A few birdies later, he did the same thing. “Ping!” he said. Then very quietly he added,

“It sounds so nice.”

Until that point I had been practicing my serve: Where to stand, how to hold my arms, the position of my body, and the desired placement point. I wasn’t really listening to anything.

But then I changed my focus and started paying attention to everything. The day was gorgeous. Sun was filtering in through the door and the openings on the building. I could hear the breeze outside and the chattering of birds.

And the noise the birdie made when I served WAS fantastic. A nice crisp, clear, pinging sound that rang out in the dark and empty courts. And aside from that?

Total blissful silence.

A rare moment in China.

I continued serving, enjoying how much more pleasant everything was now that I was paying attention to it.

Ping.

Ping.

Ping.

I finished the box, cleaned it all up and said goodbye to Lao Shushu. I’d be back that night, when the courts would all be full, the lights blazing and players energetically having fun. Badminton is a sport that you need others to play, and I love the excitement and energy of the game. But in that moment, while I was serving in the quiet, it felt so peaceful and so still. And I really appreciated it.

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