I try pool-hall diplomacy in China

In China a month ago, in a small town called Zhouzhuang, I walked away from my tour group. We had another hour before the bus was finishing the trip to Shanghai, and I didn't want to spend it buying souvenirs.

Five minutes later, I was the only non-Chinese in sight. The townspeople glanced at me and went about their business. I took a few pictures of what I considered their "real" world, which was more drab than the glorified flea market that lined the canal behind the main street. And then, incredibly, I saw a pool hall.

An open-air pool hall. The front of it was simply empty space, though there was a roof over the three tables and a wall in the rear. I stepped inside. The humidity and heat were so prevalent that I looked around for talcum powder as I watched two men shooting a game of eight-ball.

All I saw was a slate board dangling from one wall. There was no furniture whatsoever besides the tables. No cue rack, just two cues sticks lying on the empty table that I stood beside. That table had a cloth patch three inches by four inches covering a tear in the felt midway up the table. The cue sticks, I saw with relief, had tips.

The men played with enthusiasm. They celebrated every shot made and spouted what I knew to be excuses in Chinese for every miss. When the game ended, I gestured toward the empty table and lifted a stick.

I tried to make it clear I wanted to pay for a game, but they smiled, and one of them racked the balls. The other rolled the cue ball my way. When I broke, the balls drifted so slowly apart that I knew I'd received the softest rack in China.

They both smiled again, but my opponent missed after making two shots, and he left the table open. I drove an easy shot dead-center, and it caromed off the back of the pocket back onto the table. The men grinned.

A slow learner, I repeated the same shot on my next turn. This time they made the universal, palm-down sign for "slower."

And so the game settled in. On my third turn I slid a soft cut in the center pocket, and they smiled and nodded. When I managed a four-ball run, they beamed.

By now, 20 men surrounded the table, a murmur of approval or disappointment following every make or miss. There was no sign that anyone but me knew a word of English.

When faced with a shot that required a bridge, I didn't even look for one. I leaned so far over the table that my feet nearly left the floor. When I missed, my opponent used my ball for a combination shot - anything was legal, apparently - and got a wrong-pocket shot to drop. Nobody called a pocket in Zhouzhuang, evidently. Then he tapped in the eight-ball.

I shook his hand and asked for another game. He chattered to the crowd and broke. When I stepped up, ready to use the anything-goes rules to my advantage, I dropped five in a row, heard a chorus of approval, and saw that the crowd filled the room. The other tables were quiet.

I was rolling now: That pool table in my basement half a planet away was paying off. I won that game, making a bank shot to the audible pleasure of the crowd, and we started a third game.

I ran four balls and then, with a ball sitting in front of the pocket, I had to shoot across the patch. The cue ball veered three inches left to a murmur of sympathy and knowing nods.

I managed two more wins, muddling along on the unreliable table. It was the most fun I'd had in months of shooting pool. I shook hands with my opponent after each game. The crowd smiled. Knowing that our tour bus was ready to leave, I gestured "enough" and pulled out my disposable camera.

The two men I'd played and the man who'd racked happily posed for the oversized American wearing a T-shirt proclaiming Republic Records.

I shook hands with half a dozen of the spectators. If this was "cultural exchange," I was all for it. Three blocks later, I was still smiling.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK