I’ve never been much of a bowler. I never really thought it was much of a ‘sport’. I’ve always thought that if it was necessary I’d be able to pick up a bowling ball and not embarrass myself. I never really expected to seek out bowling. Bowling always seemed like golf for the uninitiated.
It wasn’t until I moved to China and I experienced a pure form of life as a ‘fish out of water’ that an activity that had only been on the most periphery of personal radar became something that I and my fellow compatriots actually sought out. We were able to enjoy bowling as a thread to a previous existence. An existence that didn’t involve struggling with even the simplest of communication attempts. Bowling was a way to feel less lost. We, as foreigners, were able to enjoy a couple of hours of communication with ourselves by creating this bubble of denial. We could deny the overwhelming feelings of being lost. Deny the overwhelming feelings of helplessness. Deny the overwhelming culture shock that followed us with tireless abandon.
Bowling in China wasn’t without challenges. We had to be led to the bowling alley without knowing how to get back to our starting point. We had to be given shoes without knowing the word for shoes. We had to pay without clearly understanding the cost or the rate at which we would be charged. We had to give of our strange new money and trust that if we got change that is was correct. Bowling became a trust building exercise with our new foreign friends. We were able to take a sense of pride and accomplishment from our bowling excursion that was unrelated to our ability to successfully roll the ball down the lane. Bowling allowed us to control something in the chaos that we had jumped into. So much of our personal autonomy had been given up, taken out of our control by our complete lack of Chinese language skills that by being able to take a ball, aim at the pins and pick up the occasional spare we, ever so briefly, could ignore the feeling of helplessness that permeated every other aspect of our new existence.
I’ve always enjoyed a social game of pool. I’ve always thought that if it was necessary I’d be able to pick up a cue stick and not embarrass myself. Living in China elevated the importance of a pool table in my life.
Pool, in Datong, is a street game. We could walk down the street and find a pool table in the open air and with a minimal of language skills enjoy a few beers, a couple of games and a bit of autonomy. Pool became an outlet for an expression of independence in the face of constant reliance on others. The truth of this was further reinforced when we would relay to our Chinese handlers how we had spent our time and they would inquire as to who had helped us. We could proudly say that we had done it ourselves.
The specific activity wasn’t nearly as important as our ability to be able to do it. To initiate and carry out even a simple task helped to ease the struggle of the life changing experience we had placed ourselves into. What had in the past been a mindlessly enjoyable pleasure became an expression of independence. An escape from the quixotic struggle of a life transformed. Revisiting familiar activities in unfamiliar circumstances was important in those first days in China.
As originally written before edits on acceptance for submission in the Sacramento News and Review. Published in August 14, 2008 Sacramento News and Review.