Dark table tennis match of the soul

The Western stereotype of Chinese people, and Asians in general, is that they are inscrutable.

This is balls. They are as scrutable as anyone else. Thick face, black heart; Art of War; it all feeds the mythology. As one of my colleagues, an experienced China hand, has pointed out, the Chinese themselves and the consultants who make zillions brokering deals for foreigners in China are happy when Westerners see the Chinese as indomitable super-businessmen who cannot be beaten at the negotiating table.

But it turns out that what many people took for amazing business prowess was simple cultural ignorance, poor preparation and a shaky legal framework that could be exploited by those who knew the ropes. Anyone who thinks the Chinese aren’t emotive has never walked down a street in Beijing. And it turns out that there are plenty of situations in which Chinese people will reveal their inner character.

One of these situations is during a ping-pong match. This was demonstrated to me during our Autumn company outing yesterday, during which I was challenged to a game by Wendy (not her real name), one of the more recent arrivals to our company.

Wendy is one of those tiny, irrepressibly cheerful, twenty-something Chinese girls who chirps around the office like a pony-tailed swallow leaving a trail of sparkly effervescence and gossip in her wake. She radiates the kind of relentlessly happy mood that I had previously thought was limited to the hosts of Children’s television shows. But she revealed her inner character to me across that ping-pong table. In reality, Wendy is the The Merciless Serpent Lady.

The transformation began the moment I stood at the opposite end of the table to receive her first serve. Wendy’s smile remained, but her eyes narrowed dangerously and took on a steely glint as she evaluated me: 85 flat-footed kilos and clutching my paddle the way a three year old might clutch a large lollipop. I was dismissed as unworthy before the match had begun. Wendy, forty kilos dipped in concrete and rolled in chocolate sprinkles, went onto the balls of her feet, folded her paddle oddly behind her wrist, with the face parallel to the ground as though she was hiding it and planning to prestidigitate it mid-swing, turned from the hips so her left shoulder was facing me, and bounced the ball off the table.

From the moment the ball hit the table, things happened very fast but with stunning clarity, like they do in a car wreck, which is pretty much what I had. The ball floated up from the table. Wendy’s left hand extended out from her body, palm towards me like awuxia master. Her front shoulder dipped and she uncoiled from the hips. Halfway through the turn, the paddle flicked into being from behind her wrist, turning flat towards the ball. When she hit the ball, it ceased to be round and stretched out into an orange blur with a crack that sounded like the noise a housefly might make if it broke the sound barrier on the way from the window to your half-eaten Danish.

Newton’s second law of motion settled over my body like one of those lead aprons the dentist drapes you in just before he goes and stands behind a concrete wall in the next county while shooting your head full of X-rays so he can justify why he’s going to charge you $500 to drill into your skull. By a coincidence, a lead apron would have been useful to me as the ball drilled into my sternum and dropped to the floor. Wendy’s point.

And so it went. Wendy, flinty eyed and nimble, slid and shifted like an oiled cobra while I flailed like the Michelin Man on an Army obstacle course. The ball went past me. The ball went through me. The ball ricocheted off my paddle and went into the squash court, onto the foosball table, onto the pool table and into the sink on the far side of the cocktail bar. Final score: some astronomical number to one. I think it was a “face” point so I wouldn’t have to resign from the company. Doubtless that point was thrown to me to prevent inconveniencing the team rather than out of sympathy. During the process, Wendy’s outer personality of “bubbly office girl” was stripped away and I was treated to a glimpse of her real self. The resolve, the pitiless calculation, and the iron will to dominate at all costs. She still had the sparklies, though.

So I learned a valuable lesson. I’ll never go head-to-head with Wendy across a negotiating table. There is no mercy in her soul. And, when I want to appraise Chinese business partners in the future, I’ll skip the karaoke lounges, godawful banquets and all-night baijiubenders — the usual arsenal of Chinese character tests — and head for the ping-pong table.

Ping-pong doesn’t lie.

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