In China, bowling is an icebreaker

Don’t think sports are an international language? Try living abroad without a game or two

Olen Sanders is a Sacramentan who decided to try something different, so he lived in China for two-and-a-half years.

I’ve never been much of a bowler. I never really thought it was much of a “sport.” And that meant that I’ve always thought if it was necessary, I’d be able to pick up a ball and not embarrass myself.

It wasn’t until I moved to China and experienced life as a fish out of water that an activity from the outermost periphery of my personal radar became something that I actually sought out. Bowling became a thread tethering me to a previous existence that didn’t involve struggling with even the simplest of communication attempts. Bowling was a way to feel less lost. As a foreigner doing something so familiar, I could enjoy a couple of hours of insider communication by creating a bubble of denial. I could deny the feelings of being lost and helpless, deny the culture shock that followed me with tireless abandon.

Bowling in China wasn’t without challenges. I was led to the bowling alley without knowing how to get back to my starting point. I was given shoes even though I did not know the word for “shoes.” I paid without understanding the total cost or the rate at which I was charged. I simply surrendered my strange new money and trusted, if I got change, that it was correct.

Bowling became a trust-building exercise with my new foreign friends. I was able to take a sense of pride from our bowling excursion that was unrelated to my ability to roll the ball down the lane. Bowling allowed me to gain control in the chaos I had jumped into. So much of my autonomy had been sacrificed, taken out of my control by the lack of Chinese language skills that in the act of taking a ball, aiming it at pins—and picking up the occasional spare—I could, ever so briefly, ignore the feeling of helplessness that permeated every other aspect of my new existence.

I’ve always enjoyed a game of pool, although I never really thought it was much of a “sport.” I’ve always thought that if it was necessary, I’d be able to pick up a stick and not embarrass myself.

Pool, in Datong, is a street game. I could walk down the street and find a table in the open air. With the most minimal of language skills, I could enjoy a few beers, a couple of games and a bit of autonomy. Pool became a break from constant reliance on others. This truth was reinforced when I relayed to the Chinese handlers how I had spent my time. They would inquire who had helped me, and I could proudly say that I had done it myself.

To carry out even a simple task helped to ease the struggle of the life-changing experience I was undergoing. What had once seemed a minor pleasure became a major expression of personal independence. Particularly during those first days in China, games—hardly “sports” at all—made all the difference.