Migrant with the Machine Gun Arm

Ping pong diplomacy – a short story by Aaron Fox-Lerner



The first time I saw Fang Zheng, he was destroying a park full of old men. One after the other they would step up, and he'd humiliate them all in turn. He didn't play down or patronise them. He never slowed his speed. They'd all watch as he dispatched them as fast as possible, cutting them down with rapid fire arm strokes.

The entire time he played he looked almost cruel, his face showing some kind of malicious calm. Faint flickers of a smile would flash across his face every time he scored a point before quickly disappearing back behind his impassive features. None of these old men, almost all of whom could beat me with ease, managed to even maintain a volley with him. These guys spent their whole retired lives playing ping pong and this stranger was taking them down for it as some kind of capricious exercise.

As strangers go, he was an odd one, too. Dude practically reeked Chinese countryside. His hair had clearly grown out from a sheered buzz-cut, his skin was dark and lined, his hands big and rough, his teeth arranged like cars in a junkyard. His clothes looked like they'd been rejected from the dollar bin; I was surprised that his plain slacks didn't split under his quick movements. He had one of those utilitarian striped canvas bags ubiquitous among migrants tossed off to the side near the ping pong tables.

The only incongruous part of him was the shoes. They were a pair of Butterfly sneakers, specifically made for playing table tennis. They were old and scruffy, but I could tell he'd taken good care of them. From the way they seemed weathered without being destroyed I surmised they were the real thing and not a cheap knockoff. That would make them clearly the most expensive part of his outfit.

He used them judiciously. He didn't react too soon and didn't move if he didn't have to. Instead he lunged or swung in quick flashes, like an instinctual predator spotting fleet-footed prey. His form was all economy, as if he considered unnecessary movements an indulgence. He didn't see me until he was done with the old men. I'd been watching for a while by then.

When he saw me he just stared. I'd get this sometimes from migrants on the ever-crowded Beijing subway, basically the only time I was forced into close proximity with them. They'd gaze at me, literally open-mouthed, fascinated by the fact that there was a foreigner standing right in front them, acting like I were a snow leopard that had just strolled onto Line 10 with all the other commuters. Sometimes they'd start asking me questions in Chinese and wouldn't stop even when I pretended not to speak any Chinese.

As far as I could tell this was what migrants did. They came to Beijing and stared at things with ignorant eyes. At least the working class locals had some kind of wherewithal and ability to try to fleece you. But the migrants, those newly arrived to fill the need for menial labor, they didn't even have any services or goods you would consider getting cheated over. They just weren't worth anything. It was like they'd led entire lives without the agency or ability to do anything but look on dumbly.

Fang Zheng was staring at me in that migrant way. He was clearly right off the boat, I thought to myself. Or well, not boat, but the hard seat section of the overnight train or bus or back of a truck or however these migrants actually got to Beijing, it was beyond me, really. After a little bit I couldn't take it any more.

"Your ping pong is very good," I told him in Chinese.

He just kept staring at me for a beat before asking me what country I was from. I told him I was from Canada and he asked if that was part of America. I told him it was close. He apparently took the fact that I spoke Chinese completely in stride. I have to admit that a little part in the back of my brain was disappointed that he didn't make more of a fuss over it.

Beyond establishing that I was a foreigner from Canada he didn't really have much to say to me. I started grilling him about his ping pong skills, which he also wasn't super effusive about. I asked him how he put that kind of spin on the ball and he just told me that he hit it well. Then he stopped. Something seemed to hit his mind and he suddenly took on a look suggesting a certain amount of guile, the first I'd seen from him since he started talking to me.

"Do you play ping pong?" he asked.

"Yes, but I'm not very good," I demured.

He didn't care. He pressed me with a grin and a narrowing of his eyes. He insisted. He decimated me 11-0. I knew I never stood a chance but I still had to marvel at how concisely he cut me down. We stood there afterward and I asked him what the hell he was doing here.

"Playing ping pong," he told me.

But why, I tried to clarify, was he in Beijing? He clearly wasn't from here. And how did he get so good at ping pong anyway?

"I just had to come here," he said, "to play ping pong. It is my country's capital. I want to play against the best. No one in my village can play ping pong well."

"And, uh, where exactly are you from?" I asked him.

"Shanxi," he told me.

"Oh, so pretty close."

"I guess," he said, "it took me a long time to get here. China is so big! I had to take a bus and then a train. I haven't taken the train since I was a little boy and today was the first time I've ever ridden the subway. It's so clean!"

After this he was silent. I stood there and looked at him and he stayed still by the ping pong table. He didn't look like he planned to move anytime soon. Finally I felt I had to break the silence.

"Where are you staying?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he said, "I just arrived today. Some other people coming to Beijing gave me an address where I could rent a bed, but I don't know where it is. Do you know where this is?"

I looked at the paper he had. The instructions included the nearest subway stop and then the address from there. It was way out by the fifth ring road.

"Jesus," I said, "that's real far out there. How many people are living in that room, anyway?"

"Wow," he said, "you know where it is?"

"Yeah, look, you want some food? I wanna get lunch."

"I don't think I can afford fancy Western food," he said.

"No, no, it's on me. And I was just thinking cheap Chinese anyway."

He hefted his bag and we walked off to the snickers of the old men behind us in the park, joking over the country bumpkin wandering off with the crazy laowai. He didn't even seem to notice their derision, he just loudly introduced himself as Fang Zheng, over-explaining the two characters that made up his name.

I took him to a standard place down the road and ordered us some dumplings and spicy chicken. He goggled at the food, remarked that this was a lot of food and asked me if I knew how to use chopsticks. I wasn't very interested in explaining to this guy that I was acquainted with basic aspects of Chinese culture. I would much rather have found out exactly how this otherwise unprepossessing migrant ended up being such a killer ping pong player.

He insisted to me that there wasn't anything to talk about. He was just good at ping pong. That was it. He'd played it since he was a little kid, and he'd always been good at it. They all said so. I pressed him. Who was this "they?" Everyone, he insisted. Other kids, his parents, the people at school. They'd even sent him to train. They thought he could be in the Olympics. But he didn't make it to that level of training, and by the time he was eleven or twelve he was just back at his school, playing for the school team and nothing else. He never even got to leave the province, he said.

So there I had it, nothing special. Wasn't even admitted into the government's national level training program. A couple of bad games. He messed up under pressure. He kept playing ever since, kept training, kept practicing, just by himself whenever he could. But it was too late for him now. He was too old to be a real athlete. He worked in construction, where his lithe form and ingrained precision could be used to scale bamboo scaffolding and thread wires.

That was it then, he was just an almost-ran. I said that he must have come here to work, then. No, he insisted. He came here to play ping pong. He'd come to Beijing to play ping pong and then die.

This last part naturally required some clarification for me. Actually, the whole thing required some clarification for me. So he just came here for ping pong? Who was he going to play? And why? And how? And then why did he plan to die afterward? What was the point of coming to Beijing for this, why not just do it in Shanxi? For that matter why Beijing instead of any other city? He took a breath and looked at me.

"I was working one day," he said, "and I just looked up and thought my life, it has no meaning. I do not like my life. My job is very hard. I cannot find a wife. But I play ping pong well. I am 31 years old. Soon my ping pong will get worse, and I will have nothing. I decided I will come to Beijing, the capital, and play ping pong. I will try to defeat the best players I can find. This is the capital, there must be great players here. I will play as much as I can, and when I have played all that I can, I will be done. Then I can die."

"Are you serious?" I asked him.

"I want to do what I am good at. Nothing else. I have no other reason to live. These dumplings are okay."

"So you just want to play champions?"

"No, I'll play anyone. As many people as I can."

It sounded like I needed to bring him to the Shida Park Ping Pong Club, Beijing Branch. I was actually the only person to call it this. Everyone else involved just called it "playing ping pong" or maybe "ping pong club." But for me it was always going to be the Beijing Branch of the Shida Park Ping Pong Club, the name my friends had given our informal table tennis assemblies back in Taiwan.

That's where I'd first gotten into ping pong. Growing up in Montreal, ping pong was something I viewed on the same level as tetherball or air hockey, a game you'd use to pass the time when bored at summer camp. Back then if I'd met someone who'd devoted his life to ping pong I probably would've just laughed at him. But when I went to Taiwan to study Chinese, I started hanging out with some Taiwanese kids who were also obsessive ping pong players. I ended up going along to their weekly basement ping pong club and found myself hooked.

I've never risen above the level of amateur, but it's a sport I've continued to enjoy. When I moved to Beijing a couple of years ago to work for a wine distributor, I started up another ping pong club. Most of the other players are also foreigners, ping pong for them is a light little way to have a Chinese experience, like buying an old Flying Pigeon bike or living in the hutongs. The few Chinese people in the club are pretty casual players too. They're basically the Mainland equivalents of my Taiwanese friends, the kind of people likely to not just speak passable English but to know the difference between New York and DC hardcore punk scenes.

I had no idea how they'd receive Fang Zheng, but I knew I'd lucked out in finding him on Wednesday, the day when we had our meetings. I explained it to Fang, and of course he was interested in the chance to play against anyone, but he wanted to keep playing today, right now. Where did my ping pong club meet?

I told him we usually rented a few tables in a basement ping pong hall in Chaoyang, not too far from where we were now. He told me that he had no idea where Chaoyang was, but he'd go anywhere he could play.

Once we got off the subway, he wouldn't stop gawking at the buildings in Sanlitun, but this changed when we entered the ping pong hall. His gap-toothed gape had closed into a tight pursed line; his eyes had also narrowed into parallel determined marks. I could see him scanning the hall as if searching for the best targets.

The only people there were a group of high schoolers. They were good. Clearly part of a school team, quite possibly local champions. Fang walked right up to their table and watched intently as they played. They kept playing as if oblivious to his presence. He didn't seem affected by the fact that they were ignoring him. He kept on staring, not a migrant stare this time. He looked like a swordsman about to challenge a rival dojo. He stood still, almost magisterial, tensed eyes barely displaying the fact that they were closely following the game, right up until one of the high schoolers beat the other 21 to 18.

The minute they finished he blurted out: "I want to play you at ping pong."

The high schoolers finally looked at him.

"Do you even have a paddle?" One of them asked him.

"In my bag," he said, already walking over to get it.

"Alright," the winner of the last game said, "I'll play you."

The teenager was smiling as he said this. It wasn't really a superior smirk or anything. I could tell that this kid just thought he was doing something fun and a little odd by playing against this random stranger. Fang carried a very slight smirk too. He walked up to the table and told the winner that he could serve, no warm up.

The kid served.

The ball shot back and spun off the kid's side of the table, ricocheting towards the proprietor's desk.

The kid cocked his head like a cat before picking out another ball and sending it towards Fang with a ton of spin on it. Fang's arm shot out and the ball was back at the edge of the kid's side, bouncing off it, the kid was running for it, his arm swung out, and he connected, sent it back, but he'd run too hard, it had no control, and it went too far out, past Fang's side, onto the ground. Fang didn't even move as the ball shot past him. His eyes were on the kid. The tightened lips of his mouth moved up slightly.

The next serve was quick and hard, Fang caught it with a quick chop, the kid managed to return it once, but not twice. The kid tried another serve, Fang cut a quick slice through the air that sent it back with a spin that bounced it off the kid's side and out into the far out atmosphere of the hall. For his last serve the kid tried to just send it to Fang fast and straight on, but Fang sent it back with a quick swooping slash that sent the ball off the corner of the kid's side. Five serves, all points Fang's.

The kid returned two of Fang's serves, and one time he almost started a volley, returning the ball a full two times, but that was all. Five of Fang's serves and the game was now ten zip. The kid had lost any hope of coming back, but you could tell he was trying to score at least one point, just to get one in now that the game had reached match point. He cut a risky shot to the side of the table...and overshot. Fang moved slightly before letting the ball dive to the floor.

"Good game," he said, "who's next?"

The kids were interested now. Not in the way that they'd be interested in a sports match, but in the way that young men throw themselves into tests of endurance. They all wanted to play Fang, more as an act of competition against each other than against him.

He stood at his end of the table and let them come against him one by one, taking them down in turn, the same cruel gleam in his eye from before. As always he stood poised like a tree before lashing out in short little bursts, quick pops of his arm shooting out like bursts of flame. The kids lost to him in a steady stream, comparing their games amongst themselves as they watched the next competitor. One of them, a lanky kid with a bowl cut, actually scored a point on him with an unexpected (possibly fluke) return. The bowl cut kid was practically a hero after that.

Finally there were no more high schoolers to play. Fang looked around the room. A couple of my friends had arrived for the club, and that was it. The proprietor, who had started watching the matches intensely, finally decided to hobble over. He was an old man, small and bald, but not unhealthy looking for his age.

"Who have you been training under?" he asked Fang.

"I haven't trained under anyone for a long time," Fang said, "I just play on my own time."

"You're not from here."

"No, Shanxi. Do you know where I can go to play the best ping pong players? I want to play the best there are."

"Do you have a phone number? I know some trainers, they might want to have you play against their athletes."

"Uh, I don't have a phone right now."

"I've got a phone," I said, "you can just use my number."

They both looked at me before agreeing to this. The proprietor said he would try to call or text me tomorrow. We waited as a few more people trickled in for the club.

Until he started to play, everyone was confused about what Fang was doing here. Li, one of my Chinese friends, complained to me that Fang kept asking him dumb questions about how he knew so many foreigners. Mostly people just stared at him as much as he stared at us. There was a good deal of giggling.

Once he started playing them, people's attitudes changed. They were no longer dubious of his presence, but came up to congratulate me on finding him, as if I'd just discovered a great party trick. They talked about him more like a well-trained animal than a skilled athlete.

After the club ended Fang asked me if I could direct him to the address on his sheet and I told him he could just sleep on my couch. Most people had left, but Li was still hanging around and I could see him stiffen as I said this. Fang asked me why and I said that I thought he was interesting. We said nothing but both knew that he'd need to save any money he could.

Li came up to me, his blue Sonic Youth washing machine t-shirt still clinging to him with sweat, and asked me if I knew what I was doing. He told me that I couldn't just trust anyone here. I know, I know, I told him. It would be fine. We both looked back at Fang. Li shot me a very dubious look. I took Fang back with me, made him take a shower before letting him sleep on my couch, and went to bed hoping I didn't wake up to find half my apartment gone.

I didn't, which was nice. I did, however, wake to find Fang just sitting there perfectly still like a decommissioned robot, which was creepy. He complained that it was late and he wasn't sure what he was supposed to have done while I slept. It was 8:30 in the morning. I fixed him some breakfast and then hit my real problem after we ate. What the hell was I supposed to do with this guy until I got the call from the proprietor?

I had some stuff to take care of at the office, but I wasn't supposed to be there until the afternoon. By 10 a.m. I couldn't take it anymore and just went into work early, kicking Fang out of my place and setting a meeting point for later that evening. The previous day had carried the excitement of discovery, but with that out of the way I couldn't think of a single thing to talk to him about. He may as well not have been human for all his conversational ability and points held in common.

Later, once he was out of my way and I was at work I got a call from the proprietor. Would I be able to take Fang to meet up with someone he knew? A trainer at a gym in one of the universities in Wudaokou? He was a very high level coach, he only worked with extremely promising prospects. The proprietor had talked the trainer into at least seeing Fang. The coach was apparently working with some kind of prodigy and was always looking for someone able to play against him.

I took Fang there that night. The gym was clean and well lit, with orderly rows of tables at which dozens of young boys and girls practiced drills with military rigor and intensity. Towards the back a trim middle-aged man was working with a long-limbed, round-faced teenage boy. You know how a river in its continuous flow can come to look like a single long solid object? That was the best way I could describe this boy's movements. He looked like motion was his natural state and the ball was just another part of his body, an extra appendage that always faithfully found its way back to his paddle and then across to the other side of the table again.

I stood and watched him move. I could have kept watching, but Fang had walked over by himself and planted himself uncomfortably close to the table. I couldn't hear what he said, but he started talking to the middle-aged man, who stepped away from the table. Fang was carrying his paddle in a plastic bag, he took it out and tossed the bag to the wall. Everyone else in the gym was wearing shorts and exercise shirts, but Fang was dressed as I'd seen him before. As I walked over the trainer shot me a look to show that he wouldn't be happy if we turned out to be just fucking around.

I managed to hear Fang say that he didn't need any warm up and then the teenager served and the ball hung in the air before making an unexpected pirouette down towards the end of the table away from Fang. And now Fang was lashing out his arms in those rocketing movements of his but the teenager was right back on the ball and for the first time I'd ever seen, Fang was now fully in motion, moving like the kid he was playing against, the two of them whirling around opposite ends of the table, pulsing out a rhythm in pushes and pulls, making the ball float and dive and jump and run across air and board. 

The volley kept on until the kid finally managed to shoot the ball to the left and Fang overshot in trying to return it. The next point was a similarly intense volley, but also eventually went to the kid. Fang managed to get the next point but then the kid got two more. It was Fang's turn to serve, and it turned into another intense volley, this one sending both of them dashing farther out, but the kid finally scored on that one again too. I knew now that Fang was still fallible. He was better than anyone I'd seen before, but he was still below a world-class Olympian.

He didn't seem to notice though. He kept playing, undeterred by his apparently imminent defeat. I wasn't sure the score even registered for him at this point. He was simply here to do the only thing he was good at, and to do it as well as he could. When the two of them launched into yet another rapid-fire volley I got a glance of him, suspended in the air like a ball with perfect spin, his skin glistening, his eyes narrow and burning, his mouth hanging slightly open and curved upwards. I saw him and finally fully understood what he did, that nothing in his life would ever be as worthwhile as these brief flashing moments. I blinked, the ball landed, and he moved once more.

Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and lives in Beijing. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere