Bad Bildungsroman with Table Tennis

Jane Wong


I painted my nails on my father’s brand new ping pong table. The table was set up in our garage. I remember it unfolding like the limbs of a praying mantis, charming but creepy. The table was so large it pushed everything to the side like a bright green bully. Deflated basketballs: sad little planets, piled up against a wall. Our box of Christmas ornaments: crushed in a corner, helpless in their slow, red shattering. There was barely any room to stand on either side of the table and so you had to practice close to the edge—a stance my father surely knew from playing round after round of blackjack, teetering dangerously toward twenty-one.

* * * 

The nail color was not a color. It was glitter and I know this because I was thirteen and all I wanted then was glitter. I wanted to be a chandelier of blinding beauty. I had this antibacterial hand gel from Bath and Body Works that had glitter suspended inside, flecks of iridescent silver and pink that I swear—held to direct sunlight—could burn a laser straight into your eye. I’d rub this gel all over my shoulders, neck, armpits, legs, even behind my knees, and sashay like a spinning disco ball. This glitter killed germs. This glitter attracted cute boys like moths (my wingless hope). I even imagined my organs burgeoning with glitter—my heart and stomach and pancreas shining like a midsummer lake so sun-startling, you could fall right in. All that sparkling circulation within me. Didn’t I deserve something this extraordinary? 

I especially loved the feeling of glitter nail polish once it dried, rough and jagged to the touch. I’d brush my nails against my cheek, envisioning the future scratch of beard stubble. How I loved this topography of beauty, this simple self-celebration. At an age when everything and everyone tells you to pick yourself apart, to feel terrible about something as small as your cuticles, I glittered carelessly.

* * * 

My father loved playing ping pong. He grew up playing it as a young adult in southern China. I imagined him playing on watermarked tables in parks full of songbirds and on dusty kitchen tables after hours—a cigarette dangling in his mouth like a fishing pole coming up empty. In New Jersey, in his twenties and early thirties, he often went to his friends’ houses, practicing his topspin and lightning fast serves. They played barefoot or in too-big floppy sandals that resembled marshmallows. I’ve always loved how Chinese families have these sandals, often candy-colored, perched by the door—so irresistible to dogs and babies to put in their mouths. Playing ping pong seemed like a very dad thing to do, fitting neatly into the stereotypes of what dads do on TV—play sports poorly, make bad jokes, nap on the couch, grill burnt burgers, give terrible but earnest advice about growing up to their children. Instead of deadbeats and gangsters and liars and abusers, for once I saw these skinny men playing ping pong as regular dads—trash talking in guttural, gesticular Cantonese, hurling bad puns about each other’s sloppy serves or so-and-so’s slowly creeping baldness. At least I don’t look like a winter melon! Sweat dribbled down their foreheads, rivulets of volleying concentration. Sometimes, their moves appeared elegant too—the cursive swish of a conductor’s arm, the swift and precise ballet footwork. They always played with worn paddles, the rubber flopping off like a cold pancake. 

This hopeful version of domesticity seemed preferable over everything else: my father’s stinging anger circling my mother like a lasso, his penchant for disappearing in Atlantic City casinos, his nonchalant disregard for us, bills, chores, daylight. More often than not, he would refuse to use words. He’d just grunt like a rock falling off a truck bed. As someone who fell in love with words at a young age, devouring book after book at the library, this always unnerved me. Around him, I felt like a thin sliver of self—barely there. As a young child, I imagined my father saving his words like pennies in a jar, keeping them for someone special. That, one day, he would spew out a tangled monologue of everything he kept inside, the script unfurling gloriously like an anteater’s tongue, copper coins pouring all over the spit-covered floor.

The ping pong table was expensive and superfluous; he wanted to show it off. To hear the clean ping of the ball against such newfound money. I always thought the game sounded like a grandfather clock with arrhythmia. I still find this sound pleasing today, especially as a poet—its unabashed onomatopoeia. I remember the coat of paint on the table smelling sharp like a lime dipped in all-purpose cleaner. The white lines were as crisp as a collared shirt my father would never wear. The table was painted Astroturf green. When I first saw it, I thought of ants running across the vast dimensions of the table, searching for tendrils of real grass. 

* * * 

There were lima bean sprouts in yogurt containers all along my sixth grade language arts teacher’s windowsill. Their little green heads bowed heavily, almost kissing the dirt below. I stared at them often, watching for the slightest change. After our unit on The Giver, my teacher asked the class, “What’s the lesson learned here? What’s the moral of the story?” I had trouble with this question, scribbling jumbled thoughts about Elsewhere and the freezing snow in my notebook. I wrote down I have no idea I have no idea I have no idea I have no idea I have no idea I have no idea in bubble letters and thought about all the red marks my teacher would bestow upon me. I turned to watch the lima beans instead. A fly was washing its face under a stubby stem.

Here is a story. The chapter about the school week with my father: while he slept soundly from a late night of gambling and drinking, snores rising and falling like a rusty seesaw, I’d steal a couple of bucks for lunch money from the back pocket of his jeans on the floor. I’ve always wondered why he never gave me lunch money directly, why I had to sneak around this way like a raccoon stealing cat food. Take it from his wallet, my mom would direct me. Take as much as you want. He doesn’t pay for shit. Except his wallet only ever had a few dollar bills, and oftentimes nothing at all. And on those no-bills days, I’d steal my friends’ gnawed pizza crusts during lunch time. He splurged on this beautiful ping pong table while my mother paid the bills, cooked, cleaned, and worked night shifts at the postal service. As I dug around his empty wallet, shaking out coins like Tic Tacs, my father dreamt about the precise cut of his top-spin, about the hidden ways one could win.

What’s the lesson learned here? What’s the moral of this story? That I’ll always work harder than a man? That I must prepare for labor I didn’t ask for? Is this a story or is this real life or is this both?

* * * 

You can use nail polish remover in a variety of ways, including getting rid of leeches. You simply pour the stuff on top of the leech and peel it off your skin. Whether or not the leech makes a terrible sizzling noise, its soft body shrinking like a dying star, is unknown to me. Nail polish remover also cleans your computer keyboard, dissolves superglue, and removes stickers from glass jars. All these usages offer me a strange sense of relief. I’ve spent so many hours trying to get sticker gunk off spaghetti sauce jars, stupidly determined to reuse that which we throw away. 

Nail polish remover can also strip paint really well. 

* * * 

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong heralded table tennis as China’s national sport, in part because it was an economical game. When Rong Guotuan won the men’s singles title in the World Table Tennis Championships in 1959, he was China’s first world champion. In a photograph taken upon his return to China, Rong cradles his trophy and a bouquet of flowers, smiling in a suit slightly too large for him. He’s standing in front of an airplane, handsome in his youth, with his hair cut so cleanly, you can see little loose barber hairs if you look closely. His soft eyes peer off into the distance, not quite focused. Mao celebrated his victory, eerily calling table tennis China’s “spiritual nuclear weapon.” In 1972, the year of the rat, President Richard Nixon visited Beijing—his decision shaped in part by table tennis. “Ping pong diplomacy” was real, referring to the exchange of table tennis players from China and the U.S. in the early 1970s, right around the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. 

What I discovered too: Rong was persecuted as a possible spy during the Cultural Revolution and placed under house arrest by the Red Guards. He committed suicide in 1968, years before Nixon’s visit. He was a librarian and spent his days surrounded by the fluttering pages of books.

* * * 

When I tell people that I love playing ping pong, they say: of course you do. You probably started playing as a baby. Meaning: you’re Chinese and your parents made you train for seven hours a day at the age of four and you must be really, really good. You’re probably a shark. Truth is, I’m terrible at being Chinese, I don’t have strict parents, and I’m just okay at ping pong. I can serve pretty well and I love lunging for impossible volleys along the edge or barely over the net. I’m quick on the return, but not quite mantis shrimp quick. I’m from Jersey and I talk a bigger game than I have. I double-over laugh when I accidently hit a ball with my hand instead of the paddle. I love playing doubles and diving out of the way like a defective firecracker for my partner. I barely have spin. I never played as a child and I never played with my father. 

And yet, I still hold a certain affection for the game. My brother and I play it sometimes, well matched in our passable skill set, earnest in our decent serves and terrible backhand. Now in our thirties, sometimes we play at this hole-in-the-wall bar in Jersey called Players Billiards, where they are required to pull a netted curtain around us to avoid hitting pool players. The ping pong “table” is just a wooden slab placed over a pool table. You can still see the deep pockets of the pool table underneath.  It’s definitely lopsided, with little teeth-mark dents, which we avoid like potholes. This is what I love about ping pong. In this little cozy shell of a game, we laugh, drink cheap beer, and completely lose track of the score—generous in our recalibration.

A few years ago at a dive bar in Seattle, some man I was on a second date with slammed the ball hard on me. The slam actually cracked the ball like an egg, which was sent flying toward the back of the bar. He dropped—no, threw—his paddle to the beer-sticky ground and raised his arms above his head like massive antlers, yelling: I fucking got you! Did you see that? I fucked you up! I could see spit frothing from the corners of his too-white smile. An older woman nearby turned. She looked me up and down with such pity and disdain, I nearly rotted into compost and crawled under the mandibles of the table. What was she thinking? What was he thinking? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry in the bathroom, stunned by his assholeyness and my earnestness. How I hated feeling so small, so stomped upon, so terrified that this—this is what I’d have to (continue to) put up with.

* * * 

Part of being a teenager is the desire to destroy something. To break something apart so fully, you can see its seams, its tangled organs. At thirteen, I felt this feeling churn within me, this rage, this pimple-popping lusciousness of rudeness, this gleaming desire for sudden destruction. I had no interest in diplomacy, no interest in sportsmanship. There must be a special kind of joy you get from no longer taking shit, from teaching someone else a lesson, from rightful revenge and teenaged feminism that can see far into the future. Is there a word for this? 

At thirteen, I leaned against the Astroturf green of the table, glitter nail polish inches from the net. My father had bought the table just a few days prior, and the garage bowed at its newness. I picked up the nail polish remover and held it upside down, pressing a cotton ball against it, ever so loosely. Cool dollops of acetone fell on the table like dog drool. Did I relish in the slow bloom of the remover as it ate away the fresh green paint, my mountain peony of joy? Leaving little splotches of white, like curdled milk, like clouds I saw so many wild animals in? 

Later in the day, my father would discover his table ruined and come running for me in the house; he should have known I was in school. That his daughter goes to school. Searching the perimeter, I imagined him wordlessly seething, mumbling his bottled up fury—a fury that reached so far back, he, too, was teenaged and frothing destruction. 

Of course, none of this was on my mind at the time. In the early morning quiet of the garage, I cleaned my nails carefully. I took my time. I wiped the crescent moons with the devotion of a mother cat. The crickets were still chirping outside, pearlescent dew on their muscular legs. I shook the bottle of glitter polish so that it radiated something I could only know at thirteen. Isn’t this how it really is? Returning to the wisdom of a younger self? How strange it is to learn in reverse. Against the ruined green backdrop of the table, I held my glitter fingers out, glimmering tangents of my full self—victorious, bad. For once, I grew dizzy with power.