Saturday, December 02, 2006

Last week's column

Soccer Season Turns Into
'Bad News Bears' in Beijing

Soccer has been a big part of our social life in Beijing. Within a few weeks of arriving here, we had signed our boys up for Saturday soccer with Sports Beijing, an organization that runs a host of youth sports. Close to 600 kids from countless countries play soccer every weekend and we solidified a lot of friendships on the fields, helping us begin to feel a part of life here.

I signed up to coach both my boys, and while now-six-year-old Eli has yet to show more than a vague interest, the sport has developed into an important part of almost-nine-year-old Jacob's identity. We kept his core team together through two seasons last year, led by co-coach Scott Kronick, who has become a good friend since our random pairing. (He was also mentioned in my previous column1).

Unfortunately, we lost many kids this year, including Jacob's good buddy Lucas, who scored 90% of our goals. We had to start from scratch, without a star player to depend upon. Sports Beijing runs try-out-only development teams and the participating kids, mostly European, are emerging as real forces. Some teams had three or four of them. We had none.

[expatlife]
The mighty Sports Beijing 98 light blue Scorpions

There is one big difference between coaching youth sports in Beijing and New Jersey; in this highly diverse international community most teams have at least one kid with whom you can't communicate. The best instruction I could offer the German Swiss boy on our team last spring was constant yells of "Schnell! Schnell!" ("Fast! Fast!") Bad communication also contributed to our skewed team this year. Lucas wanted to play with us but was accidentally assigned to another team. On the first day I asked all the mothers if one would mind switching teams so that three friends could remain together. They all looked at me blankly. I sensed that those who understood me at all felt like I was somehow firing their kids, so I just let it go.

Help is always available for the Chinese kids with poor English skills but the Korean players, whose omnipresent mothers generally do not speak much English either, are more challenging. We had two such players this fall and I admire their pluck for being there, even while puzzling how to get through to them. Easier to coach was Cameron Lee, a newly arrived Seattleite who is one of the few girls in our age group and was the best player on our team, deepening the Bad News Bears vibe.

We lost our first four or five games badly. With the kids losing interest and Scott out of town, I abandoned my laissez-faire style in favor of stalking the sidelines, screaming at kids to run, attack, stay focused. My friend Greg walked by midgame, slapped me on the shoulder and said, "Take it easy coach. You look like you're about to pull a Woody Hayes." Hayes was the legendary fiery Ohio State coach whose career ended when he attacked an opposing player. That was a double insult to a Michigan man like me, but Greg was joking and the kids were clearly having a blast as I barked encouragement and instructions. We lost 2-1 and we all felt as if we had won, so I figured my new approach was the right one with this group.

The next week, we were decimated by the best team in the league, even with their coach, my friend Steve, pulling his stars back to defense halfway through. The score ran to 8 or 9 to nothing before Cameron took the ball full field and slammed a shot past the German kid who had scored three or four goals. He promptly told her he had let her score out of pity.

I was worried that this would sap their will but the kids responded the next week with another close loss. The year ended with a four-game 90-minute tournament and as soon as the first match began it was obvious that the whole team was playing with a newfound passion. The first two games ended in 0-0 ties and the kids were feeling good as we moved over a field and saw Steve's black squad waiting. Our players visibly slumped but we called them together and said, "You can stay with anyone if you play like you have been. You have as much right to the ball as anyone. Go get it!"

Then Scott and I walked off the field, just hoping not to get wiped out too badly. But the moment the ball dropped it was as if we had been transported to a feel-good movie. Our international band of misfits was playing with lion-hearted valor. Jacob anchored the defense, playing like a whirling dervish while his line mates, the Taiwanese Ethan and the Korean Ji Yoon displayed far more aggression than they had all year. They were meeting and reversing virtually every charge and when a shot did get by them, Scott's son Samuel made great saves. We continued to cheer them on, screaming to never give an inch.

One of the stars on the opposing team took off down the sideline, feeding another streaking player whose eyes grew wide as he spied a clear lane to the goal. But Jacob flew over, put his foot out, stripped the ball and fed it to Ethan, who passed to Cameron in the middle of the field. She took off toward the goal, with a clean breakaway, taking a strong shot, which the goalie snagged with a fantastic leaping save.

This game was now officially unbelievable and the parents were cheering wildly. A few minutes later, sweet, good-natured Korean Chet had another breakaway attempt foiled. We were dominating the action, and I suddenly found myself tearing up behind my dark sunglasses for reasons I can only barely fathom. I was just overwhelmed with pride that these kids were all putting themselves on the line, tapping into something I'm certain they didn't know was inside of them.

"You guys are like a different team," Steve told me. "No one has shut us out all year." The mother of his star player approached me, saying, "I can't root against my son but I can't root against your team either." Their elevation was that obvious.

Meanwhile, the game was dragging on at least 10 minutes beyond its 20-minute slot. Noting that my kids were losing steam, I encouraged them to stay focused while praying for a whistle. Black attacked, with three or four kids in front of our goal. Jacob took the ball, found himself boxed in and tapped it back to the goalie to control -- but it squiggled in. And just like that it became clear that this is real life eight-year-old's soccer and not a Disney movie. The whistle blew, about two seconds too late, as the other team hopped around in celebration and my guys glumly lined up to shake hands.

We gathered in a circle and I was happy to see that no one looked too dejected. Even Jacob felt certain he had made the best possible choice in a bad situation and no one else seemed to notice who had actually scored the lone goal. "I have coached two kids for four years," I said. "And I have never, ever been prouder than I am of you right now."

At least one kid wasn't buying it: "But we lost," said the friendly Hong Kong kid who seemed to live his life with a joystick in one hand and a candy bar in the other.

"I don't care. We've been telling you all season that winning doesn't matter. We only want you to play hard and have fun and this is what we meant."

They held it together for one more 0-0 tie, giving us an experience that I hope they will all remember. It's hard to imagine a winless season ending on a more upbeat note. Why do we all have our kids play sports? What are we trying to accomplish? We want them to have fun while learning the value of exercise, teamwork and consistent effort. I think that during these four games, every kid discovered a fifth gear they didn't know they had. If that knowledge stays with them, no matter how deeply buried … well, that's why we want our kids to play sports. And that's the same in any country and in any language.

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Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about buying celebrating the holidays in Beijing.

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I am a 10-year U.S. expat in Osaka, Japan, and you have captured the Asian expat experience better than anyone else I know.

Your statement "kids...running wild through the streets in a manner more similar to what I did 30 years ago than to what you see in most contemporary American neighborhoods," was as usual spot on. We have a great Halloween celebration in the neighborhood surrounding the Osaka International School, and the older U.S. expats all agree that it reminds us of our childhood.

Watching my 5-year old run around in a costume with his friends and fill a large trick-or-treat bag with candy is an experience that he probably wouldn't have in the U.S. anymore, and it is priceless for us as parents to see the joy that he gets out of it. These are the times that I really love living here.

-- Steven Roberts

Thanks for all the kind words. For the record, my kids did some pretty heavy trick-or-treating in Maplewood, N.J. But there is definitely more roaming freedom here.

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I enjoyed reading your piece about Jewish worship in Beijing. My husband, daughter and I lived in Beijing from 2000 to 2001, and then again from 2002 to the end of 2005. My daughter and I attend Mass at the Visa Section of the British Embassy in the Kerry Centre. I know that the Capital Club has service for a Christian group each Sunday, but I had no idea that the Jewish community worships there on a Friday evening!

I hope you will continue to enjoy your life in Beijing as we did our time there. We miss it a lot.

-- Maria Brown (now living in Australia)

Thank you. I will send your regards to Beijing.

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We just moved back to the U.S. after a year in Pune, India. It's amazing how many parallels run through what is really a very different experience, in very different countries.

We were nowhere near as successful as you all in celebrating American holidays, probably because we only knew a handful of American families, who were scattered throughout the city. We skipped Halloween completely, but my husband really wanted to honor some of the holiday rituals around Thanksgiving. He had called me on a trip to the U.S. and asked me to bring a pie plate back to India, and on the day before Thanksgiving, he asked our cook to buy apples and then worked with her to figure out how to fire up our tiny gas stove. Later that evening, he pulled a beautiful apple pie out of the oven. Our cook seemed to think the whole thing was a little strange, but she withheld her comments. The next day, we cracked open the pie, took a big bite and … spit it out. The salt in India comes in large crystals, and my husband had mixed the apples with salt, thinking it was sugar. Our cook, it turned out, had snuck a small taste of the pie filling and knew it was inedible, but hadn't been willing to say anything that might possibly seem critical.

-- Cindy Carpenter

Constant misunderstandings are a daily part of life as an expat. That's a classic one. I hope your transition home has been smooth.

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Oh, where do you buy the turkey? Never having seen turkey in a Chinese restaurant here in the U.S., I'm wondering whether Chinese eat it.

-- Tom Farrelly

You can get frozen, imported turkeys or fresh local ones, which I believe are raised and sold strictly for foreigners. There is no real domestic turkey market. Last year I asked our then-cook to get a turkey because he was always able to get good meat cheaply. He proudly showed up with a frozen Butterball.

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My co-workers here in Kazakhstan, both locals and many other nationalities, got their first taste of Halloween this year. We had good fun scaring a few then making our peace by offering a piece of candy. Our bags of candy were all imported from the U.S. this year but with better planning we are hoping to expand on the tradition next year. My favorite time in sharing U.S. customs is at Thanksgiving; last year our local caterers put on whatever U.S. costumes they had to help us feel special while we had our dinner, something I was truly thankful for.

-- Rick Roy