I spent most of the decade of the 1990’s in the northeastern city of Changchun, where I was the director of a program for Americans who were studying Chinese. Our program was a joint venture with a university there, so I and the foreign students that I supervised all lived on a campus.
One fall day, the director of the university department that oversaw the foreigner students called me into his office to discuss the upcoming annual sports meet. Part of his job was to make sure that as many of his foreigners participated as possible. He had asked me to recruit students in my program to participate in various events.
After I gave him the list, he asked if I wanted to participate in any of the events. I assured him that I didn’t. I hadn’t been in a sports meet since grade school and that was fine with me.
He wasn’t convinced, and our conversation proceeded roughly as follows:
He: I think you should do something.
Me: I have no interest in doing something. I will cheer my students from the sidelines.
He: How about shot put? Would you like to compete in that? You are very strong. (translation: you are fat)
Me: Shot put? I’ve never put a shot in my life! Of course I don’t want to enter that competition.
He: But I think you would be very good at it.
Me: I think I would drop the heavy ball and break my foot!
He: I don’t think that would happen.
Me: Well, I’m quite sure that I would break somebody’s foot, or accidentally put the shot behind me and kill someone. I am a clutz!
He: What’s a clutz?
Me: Never mind. I’m not going to participate in the shot put competition.
At this point he grinned sheepishly and pulled out a small booklet – the official roster for the sports meet. He opened it to the page where it said SHOT PUT and pointed to my name. I guess the entertainment prospect of them watching a ‘traditionally-built” foreigner hurl a heavy ball across a field was too much to resist.
He: You have to compete. I’ve already signed you up and your name is in the booklet.
The official translation of that statement is of course “if you don’t do this, I and the department will lose face and you wouldn’t do that to me, would you, because after all we have been friends now for 5 years?” Meanwhile I’m wondering why no one ever thinks about my face – the foreigner’s face.
Knowing that I had been check-mated, I glared at him and said “OK, I’ll do it.”
The day of the sports meet arrived and I dutifully took my place with the other shot putters, all of whom were tiny college girls who barely weighed as much as the balls they were intending to throw. As I looked them over I couldn’t help thinking that given the size difference between them and me, I could probably toss them across the field just as easily as I could the ball.
The competition got underway, and I think you know what happened.
I did NOT throw the ball behind me, and I did not drop it and break my foot.
I did, however, throw it way further than the other girls. I was the winner of the event.
And for that, I was awarded a bar of soap!