Thursday, January 17, 2013


One of the constants in our lives is our bowling league, baoulingqiu in Chinese. Every Tuesday night Bob and I meet at a Subway sandwich shop in the basement of East Gate mall not far from us, where we order our usual tuna subs loaded with vegetables and a bottle of water, and then head off down the hall to the underground bowling alley.

It's a very Chinese setting in some ways. While smoking is technically not allowed inside the bowling alley, men gather in clumps just outside the open glass doors, standing so that they pretty much block the doors with both smoke and their bodies.

But when we push our way in, the place could almost be any bowling alley in America, with the noise of balls knocking down pins, beer for sale (10 rmb Chinese beer, which many bowlers buy five or six at a time), and bowlers giving each other high fives after every strike or spare. I get my shoes, size si, or four. Bob gets ba, 8.

We greet the regulars: a team of gay Chinese men who make the approach to rolling a ball down the lane look like a cross between ballet and Cirque de Soleil;  a team of Filipino men; another group from the American embassy, and then a whole lot of mixed-nations groups: Brits with Turks, Chinese with Spanish, Australians with Germans, and so on.

We've bowled so much with all of them that I know who has a mind-bending spin on his ball each time, who plunks the ball in the lane as if she were dropping a block of concrete, who takes little stuttering steps, and who nearly falls each time he bowls.

I am known for my....enthusiasm, which is a hard-won happiness that comes from the fact that I'm a damn mediocre bowler. If I get a spare, I hiss out "yes!" And if I get a strike, it's always a "woo!" Then I get in a generous round of high-fives among my team, the opposing team, and often teams in the next lane if I can catch their eye.

Bob's bowling has improved beautifully over the year, and his most recent games have been some of his highest ones yet, strike after strike delivered in his low key way. As for me, I'm what you might call inconsistent. I'll get a strike and a spare and then a gutter ball and a 4. There's no evidence that I learn from my success or have more than a passing sense of what I did wrong. I don't even really know if I should use a heavier ball to knock down more pins or a lighter one for better accuracy.

I think a lot about these things.

Tuesday was what was called a "fun night" for the league, meaning that our scores didn't affect our rankings. We always have fun. And as always, I had mixed success, one decent game, one middling, and one bad game. I drank no beer although the fellows bowling with us downed plenty and had lifetime high numbers, so I'm wondering if maybe I should rethink that part of my strategy.

At the end of the evening as we tallied the scores, Beth, one of the league organizers, handed me a large tin of butter cookies. Somehow I had scored second place among the women. First place winner got Belgian chocolate.

A few facts. There were three women bowling that night, and it appears that Beth, who consistently bowls 200 games, had taken herself out of the running as the organizer. That left me and Hannah, who also has a nice way of getting those last few pins. Add in my massive handicap, and my score doesn't look all that bad.

But I felt my tin of cookies was unfairly earned, a sugary reminder that gender and the ability to start the season with just shameful scores creating an enormous handicap can actually bring a reward, a guilty reward.

It didn't stop me from a little gloating on the walk home. "You had all the strikes, but who got the cookies?" I asked Bob. "Where are your cookies, Bob?"

Not that I'm competitive.

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