29 August 2008

Lang Ping, Chinese volleyball hero

The Beijing Olympics have been good for me. I learned a bit of history from the opening Ceremony ("who the heck is Zheng He?") and discovered judoka Ronda Rousey. Last week, I read about Lang Ping (郎平) in the New York Times.

Being Chinese-American, I should know more about my "other half." China made its first appearance at the Olympics in 1984. So it was a big deal when the Chinese women's volleyball team defeated USA in the gold medal match. Due to her team-leading performance, Lang Ping became a huge celebrity and a living historical icon. Her nickname is the "Iron Hammer" 「鐵榔頭」. (I want a nickname like that!)

Apparently, the celebrity eventually became suffocating and Lang Ping decided to leave her home country for a "normal" existence. Life has now come full circle for Lang Ping. She returned to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as the USA women's volleyball head coach. The USA women eventually won silver, defeating China on the way to the gold medal match.

I found this amusing interview with Lang Ping. Most people probably won't understand why I find it funny, but Lang Ping talks a lot like my dad and my dad's sister. It's not just the strange grammar and word choice of a non-native speaker. Something about the innocent and earnest yet frank tone that I find refreshing and familiar.

Here is a humorous example:
Yes, many people were concerned about my safety when I went to carry the torch in San Francisco. Apart from friends and relatives, the person most concerned was the chairman of the United States Volleyball Association. He called me daily. Before I flew to San Francisco, he even told me that I could give up my position for safety reasons. But I was very calm. How can a Chinese person give up her right? I told him not to worry. If someone should try to grab my torch, they should know who I am! "The Iron Hammer"! I will strike him down with my torch!
The part of the interview I found most relevant to myself was the cultural differences between China and the United States. My parents ingrained in me some of those oft-stereotyped Chinese mannerisms -- stoicism, putting too much pressure on yourself, not celebrating small accomplishments because you're still working towards a bigger goal -- but like Lang Ping, I have gradually come to appreciate the "relaxed" American attitude which "puts the emphasis on participation and whether you have done your best." Perfectionism makes me unhappy and creates "excessive nervousness" as Lang Ping notes. Most importantly, perfectionism is not emotionally sustainable. You have to stop and smell the flowers regularly.

There are aspects of Chinese culture that I do like and that I want to keep. For example, Lang Ping says
When I criticize them for not playing to their potential in games, they usually respond by saying that they are "not in shape." This is somewhat distressing. In China, you cannot use the excuse of "not being in shape" for a lousy performance. You are not allowed to relax because the eyes of the nation are watching you. The honor of the state needs your success to sustain, and you cannot be emotional as if you please.
Being mentally disciplined to do things that need to be done despite your feelings is a great, great skill. All good leaders and athletes have this skill. Mental discipline is a wonderful Chinese tradition and I hope to keep it up.

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