Sunday, July 8, 2012

There Be Dragons

Up until this weekend, I had only rowed in a dragon boat on Houhai lake in the heart of Beijing. Dragon boats are long and narrow, and for practices, one is prevented from tipping over by a kind of pontoon rigged at the back. Rowers sit in twos, and the idea is to be in synch with the first two rowers who set the pace.

The movement of dragon boat rowing is different from any other kind of rowing or paddling. You corkscrew your body and push forward with your torso, holding your arms stiff, and letting that motion propel the boat through the water. It's not a natural movement, and if you don't get the hang of the forward lean and thrust, each pull sends a searing pain through the shoulder.

And when we practice, many of us are dragon-boat novices. What that means is that often the rower in front of us will send algae-laden water spraying back on our faces. I try not to swallow it even as I watch Chinese men swim and float through the brown-green waters.

And then our team, the Beijing International Dragon Boat Team, got invited to a race: the 2012 Bacheng Cup China Longzhou Open. Of course, we started the weekend with the typical scenario that is flying in China, especially if there is any hint of rain. Our flight to Shanghai was one of those times. We boarded the airplane on time and then sat on the runway for an hour. This would have been bad enough on a packed plane, but they turned the AC off. Finally, we took off and flew through bumpy skies. At this point it was late so I fell asleep, waking only on landing.

The pilot made an announcement in Chinese and there was suddenly much chatter and loud cell phone calls. Turns out we landed in Hefei, a city about an hour by plane from Shanghai. We waited there on the runway for another hour, the scene in the un-air conditioned plane starting to feel like a combination of the set of “Waiting for Godot,” “12 Angry Men,” and “Snakes on a Plane.”

By then time we landed in Shanghai it was 1 a.m Talk about being Shanghaied. And by the time we got to Kushan, the site of the race, another hour or so by bus, it was 2. We had to get up at 6 for the races.

So we got a couple of hours sleep, put on our nifty team tee shirts – a brilliant blue with a kind of Rorschach test of a parallel dragons in yellow on the back – and grabbed our paddles. There were teams from Thailand, the Phillipines, Macau, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Gongzhou, and elsewhere.

Heming, our stalwart team leader had decided I had the job of hitting a gong in the middle of the boat, not rowing. Some might consider this a demotion. Others saw it as an easy way to have the fun of being on the boat without actually killing yourself with effort. Bob thought the power would go to my head. "You don't know what you've done," he told Heming.

In any event, each boat is led by a drummer who faces backwards and looks at the rows of rowers, calling out strokes and pounding a big drum. The gonger, though, sits in the middle of the boat and  hits gongs alternating with the drummer. In the first race I couldn't find anything to hit the gong with so I used a plastic bucket that was supposed to be for bailing water out of the boat. The sound it made -- and the fact that I couldn't quite get the alternating bang, gong, bang, gong rythmn right -- made for a cacophony of sounds. It was so noisy out there on the water I don't know how anyone heard anything.

Plus, I felt kind of stupid just trying to hit a gong. I was literally not pulling my weight. I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that we lost.

For the second race I got a wooden stick to hit the gong and it sounded much more sonorous and pretty. Plus, Heming decided I should time my beats to go with the drummer, which was much easier.

But I felt useless. Who needs a gong? True, it was a return to my cheerleading days when my job was to get the team going.

But before the third race I approached Heming. "Coach, I want to row," I said. He smiled. And for the rest of the weekend I was off gong duty. Who was given gong duty? And who considered gong duty a demotion?

Let me just answer that his new role was not a reflection on his power or stamina. But Bob, who is newer to dragon boat racing than me, has been struggling with timing. Of course that raises other questions, ones I'll leave for him to answer. In fact, if you want his take on it, send him an email ( and he’ll put you on his “in lieu of blog” list.

The fact that we were disqualified in two races because gongers are not supposed to row at all doesn't really matter since we were dead last all weekend.

That doesn't matter either. What matters is that we all did finally row as a team -- Chinese, Americans, Australians, Turks, and one German -- and that there is something amazing about being out on a wide lake in a boat with a dragon head, rowing to the beat of a drum -- and sometimes a gong -- while we all yelled in unison, "jai yo" -- add gas.

What also matters is the fun we had as a group. After Saturday's races and dinner, we were all looking for something fun to do, and Kunshun is not known for its nightlife. We ended up in one of the hotel’s karaoke rooms, where we took turns belting out “Poker Face,” “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” and -- for the old folks – “Mr. Bojangles,” “Proud Mary,” “Sweet Caroline,” and a rendition of “I Got You Babe” that Bob and I nailed.

Then Heming jumped up on the glass table to dance. I couldn’t let our fearless leader dance alone, could I? There is photographic evidence, but you won’t see it here.

The next day was the 5,000 meter race, which was five laps around a section of the lake. To say it was a killer is an exaggeration, but to say that as the winds picked up and we heard thunder I may have wished for a capsize because we would have been able to stop is no exaggeration at all

The good news is that we finished. We came in 16th. And as Bob later said, if there were 17 boats in the race, we would have come in 17th. No matter.

Later we attended a banquet that -- even without baijou -- evolved into a bacchanal of sorts: people grabbing the microphone to sing songs  in Japanese and Thai, teams moving from table to table to toast each other with warm beer and Sprite, speeches made in honor of friendship, a Kung fu demonstration from our teammate Rhoda, and then a dance party on the stage overlooking the restaurant, where we all ended up in a weaving conga line and one wiry guy from Thailand did a back flip. And then, of course, the group photo.

So we may have been the Bad News Bears of dragon boat racing, but we did finish the weekend without disaster and we had an awful lot of fun.

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