My coach, two other people and I were sitting at the “tea” table at the courts. I had just finished 5 hours play and was spent. I was not going back out to play yet I couldn’t muster the energy to go home. We were just sitting, and chatting.
“Xiao Bing!” my coach said. “I want to tell you a story!”
“Once upon a time there was an old man who sold cooking oil. He would transfer the oil from a big jug to smaller ones. The small jugs had very tiny openings. You had to put the oil in drip by drip, and most people would drip oil down the sides. There was a little boy who wanted to buy some oil and the old guy put it in and didn’t spill any on the outside. Each drip went directly into the bottle.
‘So amazing!’ said the young boy, but the old man demurred.
‘It’s not amazing,’ said the old man. “It’s *something, something, something, something.*”
This is what life is like for someone at 80% fluency of a foreign language. I get the gist of things, but miss the details. And sometimes that’s fine. My life and happiness wouldn’t depend on the ending of this little fairy tale. But my coach wasn’t finished.
“And you see, Xiao Bing,” said my coach, pointing his finger at me. “That’s what badminton is.”
It wasn’t just a little fairy tale, it was a story with a moral! And the moral had to do with badminton! I realized this was something I couldn’t miss so I fessed up.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Xiao Bing!” he said in his disappointed voice.
“Say it in English!” I laughed. That’s my usual retort when he makes fun of my Chinese. But this time he thought for a moment and actually began speaking English.
“Long, long…time….A old man…..have oil……….”
The funny thing is I’ve never heard my coach speak a full sentence in English. He’ll say a few words, standby, nice, good, oh my god. But a full sentence? Never. So I was shocked as he continued slowly and painfully, literally scratching his head at points and scrunching up his face trying to think up words, telling the story.
“Bottle top wery wery……..*scratch head*…small,”
His English is about a hundred times worse than my Chinese, in both vocabulary and pronunciation, so the story almost made LESS sense then when he said it in Chinese. But this time I did get the moral of the story:
The old man said to the young boy wasn’t awesome because he could naturally get the oil in without spilling a drop. It was because he practiced everyday.
That was the moral: practice makes perfect. (In Chinese the idiom was shú néng shēng qiǎo 熟能生巧.)
I like this because my coach isn’t a believer in natural skill or ability. He truly believes that shu neng sheng qiao, practice makes perfect and therefore anyone who practices enough can become a high level player.
So while it was a little story told to inspire me, it actually revealed more of my coaches character than anything else. And for some reason, it’s become a bit of a joke between us and he keeps bringing it up again and again. He doesn’t know I write this blog but he knows that I am a writer.
“You’re gonna write about the oil story, right?” he asked me a few days later.
“Yep. I will,” I said.