My first night playing volleyball with a local Japanese team was more horrible than I thought it would be.
It was like being in Grade 9 all over again. I basically stood in the middle of the court alternately praying for the ball to not come near me or ducking and screaming when it did.
Joining a volleyball team wasn’t my idea. I was riding my bike down the street my first week in town when I was flagged down by a guy driving a delivery truck. He brought the truck to a screeching halt in the middle of the street, jumped out and demanded “You play volleyball with me!” How do you say no to that?
Things got off to a bad start before I even set foot in the gym. I showed up without a pair of “indoor” running shoes to wear inside the gym. I haven’t mastered the art of Japanese shoe etiquette. There are outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, toilet shoes and, apparently, even gym shoes.
I tried to explain in Japanese that I only own one pair of running shoes (this involved a lot of gesturing and pointing at my feet while holding up one finger). I then pulled a towel out of my bag and started wiping the bottom of my shoes, thinking they would let me in the gym if I cleaned off my shoes. This was greeted with expressions of horror until one guy took pity on me and volunteered to drive back to his house in order to lend me a pair of shoes.
It went downhill from there. While we were waiting for the guy to come back with a pair of shoes, I started chatting with one of the girls who spoke a little bit of English. She asked me how often I played volleyball and I said “never.” I told her I was horrible but she reassured me that she was really bad too. And then she told me that everyone else was really bad. I started to relax a bit. I began to think that maybe volleyball would be okay. That we would all just have fun and laugh about how bad we all were.
When the guy finally returned with a pair of shoes for me, we started warming up by tossing the ball at each other in pairs. And then we had to hit it back and forth with our forearms. After about five minutes of this my forearms were hurting so badly I had to stop. Seriously. Who invented this game? What sick person decided hitting a ball against your forearms was fun?
After about 15 minutes of this painful forearm torture, the game finally began. Of course, everyone turned out to be Olympic caliber athletes. (I am learning that when people in this town say they are really bad at something what they really mean is that they are actually really, really ridiculously good.)
I was told to stand in the middle of the court where I prayed for the ball to not to come my way. Every time it did, my heart sank. Instinctively, I ducked whenever it came near me. Or I stood frozen in one spot hoping that someone else would go for it.
This went on for about five minutes until one of the guys started yelling at me in Japanese. I assumed he was trying to tell me hit the ball if it came my way. And so I did. But every time my burning forearms made contact with the ball, it went wildly out of bounds or hit the net.
At this point, I could tell they were getting exasperated with me and I was not having fun. I was almost hoping the ball would hit me in the head and knock me out so I wouldn’t have to play anymore.
And then all of a sudden the game stopped. There was an emergency huddle in the middle of the court. The girl who could sort of speak English came running over and told me to get off the court. She made me spend the next two hours in a corner of the gym by myself in order to practice hitting the ball against the wall. (It was like the scene from the Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel-san clean his car for hours on end).
Did I mention that this went on for two hours? Have I painted a clear enough mental picture? Can you see me standing alone in the corner, hitting the ball against the wall while everyone else is playing volleyball?
So while I’m alone in the corner, I start desperately thinking of ways to get out of playing volleyball for the next year.
After the game ended, I tried to say things like “I am not good enough to play with you” hoping that they wouldn't invite me back. But they did invite me back. And they want me to play for the rest of the year.
Maybe they were just being polite but I felt it would have been rude to decline. Plus, I’m desperate for friends. Any friends. Even friends who make me stand in a corner by myself for two hours.
So since I’m stuck playing volleyball every Monday night for the next year, I may as well figure out how to learn to like it. It can't possibily get any worse than it did the first night, right?