I’m wide awake. That’s so typical. I’ve always been resistant to time zone changes. It’s 10 PM in Shanghai, China. All my classmates, except for my best friend, Derek is asleep. Drained and exhausted, they are the normal ones and pass out. My body screams, “It’s 10 AM in Chicago, you can’t fall asleep even if it has been 24 hours.” Derek understands me.
We flip on an old, boxy TV in our dorm room. A news anchor elaborates on a top news story, but it means nothing to us. We don’t understand a lick of Mandarin. We keep flipping for something that can hold our interest…music video for traditional music, a soap opera drama, commercial, more commercials. Then, we see something different. Are there athletes playing volleyball with their feet?
It looks like it. I didn’t necessarily see a ball. On two sides, men jostle their feet sideways, knees bent up to their chest. They stick out their chest and then they are back to some fancy footwork. I call it a cross between step dancing and soccer.
The camera zooms in to the players . What is that? Were there feathers sticking out of that ball? I never heard of this game before, neither has Derek. I am intrigued and set on finding this feather ball. This will be my souvenir.
After a couple of weeks in China, it is down to the wire. I need to find this feather ball. Derek and I go on a hunt, because I am all about the unique things; I can’t find this in the U.S.A.
We stop by a stall, run by an elderly lady, near campus. I circle the stand and see
1. Tennis balls
2. Soccer ball
3. Gym bags
But no feather balls. The lady asks me a question. I don’t know her exact question, but it probably goes something like, “Are you looking for any thing in particular?” She looks like my grandma and I had an immediate affinity for her.
I crack my winning smile, partially because I don’t know how to answer her- a potential sign on how awkward I get when I am lost. Luckily, I can draw fairly well. I whip out my notepad and pen, turn around so I don’t feel any pressure and scribble away.
Anyone would think I am drafting a masterpiece, and I am…if I am five. I show my doodle of stick figures, a net and a feather ball to the shopkeeper. She gives a look of eureka, and I gain a satisfaction of being to communicate without language.
She tells me, Meiyou. I at least know that means “No”. But it doesn’t end there. She gently places her hand on my wrist and leads me and Derek to another street. We follow her with a blind faith; We come to a full stop in front of another stall full of children toys. She points to the feather ball.
I smile, a big smile. Xie Xie, I tell her. I buy two of those things. She must have thought I don’t know how to play, because she took one of the feather balls and kicks it. She extends her leg for one, two, three kicks before the toy flies too far to catch. I pick it up. “Here, Derek!” I uncontrollably kick it to him and Derek (the more athletic one) chases after it.
He drops the ball and pretty much gets five hops in a row. The shopkeeper gives Derek two thumbs up: “Number One,” she cheers in broken English. Derek passes the ball to me, and my uncoordinated self misses. The lady smiles.
I pick up the object and place it back into my bag. Xie Xie again to her and I waved goodbye. She waves back and I feel humanity work its magic. Two people from two different countries, two generations, share a moment of joy. This is my favorite memory from China, it even beats climbing the Great Wall.
Oh, and by the way, the Chinese call this feather ball jianzi. It only takes me 7 years later to search for the correct name.