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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Owen Jiejie

“我可以打吗?Wo keyi da ma?”

Blank stares.

It was my first day of work at HHCC’s children’s community center** and I already felt like the new kid in school. Characterized by popped collars, a reverence for the sport of table tennis, and an aura of swagger, the posse of elementary schoolers scanning me skeptically was the epitome of a boys’ club.

Unsure if they couldn’t understand my Mandarin or simply didn’t want me to join their game, I gulped, and tenuously asked again, this time being sure to point at the table, “Wo keyi da ma? Can I play?”

After several seconds of frenzied silent communication, the group’s apparent leader, Xiao Rui, shrugged his shoulders in apathetic consent and another boy reluctantly handed me a paddle.

The serve. My swing. A curve. A miss.

The paddle was eagerly snatched back; my chance to prove myself a worthy opponent had slipped away.

For the next few weeks, the usual boisterous gang continued to play religiously, until one day I arrived at work to find a single boy, Ai Xingtao, idly bouncing a ball on a paddle. “Where are the others?” I asked him. “The upper-school boys are studying for exams,” he explained, “they’ll be back next month”. This was my chance. Ai Xingtao and I trained together every day. He became the Yoda to my Luke, the Mickey to my Rocky. Eventually, I mastered the very serve that ousted me on Day 1.

Exams month lapsed, and one afternoon, I entered the center to find the boys lined up, rather than clumped around the table as usual. After Xiao Rui, the presiding King of the Court, beat each challenger, the defeated boy would sullenly circle back to the end of the line. The kids were so engrossed in the game that none of them noticed when I slipped into line.

My serve. A curve. A lunge. A miss.

Taken off guard by my newfound ability to apply backspin, Xiao Rui had not been able to reach the ball in time. With a new impetus and glint in his eye, he served. After a grueling thirteen stroke rally, I took advantage of my extra foot-and-a-half of height and smashed the ball down with tremendous force. It soared over the boy’s head and out of the reach of his little arm. Fourteen small jaws flopped open in disbelief. I had done the impossible; dethroned their insuperable king.

When I arrived at work a few months later and ascended the stairs into the noisy chaos, one of the boys noticed my arrival and whipped around to whisper in his friend’s ear. Gradually, the room fell silent. The ball stopped bouncing. A boy stepped forward and presented it to me — the good paddle. Padded on both sides and stored in a special case, this paddle represented the utmost honor that could be bestowed upon one at the center. I graciously accepted and began to rally with Ai Xingtao. The usual boisterous arguments and guffaws refilled the air.

“Owen Jiejie” one of the boys asked, addressing me with the term “older sister”, “How do you say ‘feiji’” in English?” “Airplane,” I responded. “Airplane” he repeated.  A few seconds later another boy piped up, “Owen Jiejie! How do you say tan-ke in English?” “Tank”, I responded. He seemed disappointed. After a rally with each of the ten boys, I attempted to sneak back to the attached office to work on my translations. I was merely steps away from the safe haven of the “adults only” office-space when “OWEEEEENNNNNN JIE JIE” comes wailing from the other room. “You’re going to miss your turn!”.

**HHCC, or Heart to Heart Community Care, works to support Kunming’s floating population (those who do not have official residency papers). The children’s center in the Wang Jia Qiao migrant community provides a safe and enriching after-school and weekend hangout spot for kids.