Team Rudderless

I just returned from a long (long) day at the dragon boat races. In late May/early June–the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar–Chinese all over the world celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. The origin stories for this festival vary, depending on region, but most have to do with concepts and values of Chinese culture like honor, spirit, and loyalty.

Dragon boats from the race in Hartford, CT.

Back in 2010, I helped with a dragon boat race in Hartford, CT. I never thought I’d get the chance to take part in a boat race, let alone one in China and on the famed festival day!

My team was mixed–some Chinese students, an Australian woman, a British woman, an Irish woman, and me. None of us had done this before. We trained a few Sunday mornings and showed up early this morning just hoping not to get last place.

(Organization and planning are not Chinese specialties. This event proved to be frustrating in a variety of ways. I’ll leave out the ugly details, but share the ones that are, in retrospect, funny.)

Our team of lovable misfits after our first practice.

When it was time for us to race, someone on our team was missing. Throughout this whole experience, I was sure that we non-Chinese speakers would be the ones left clueless, but, no, this was one of the students…

We had to go! The race organizers were urging us. There was no more waiting. As we readied to push away from the dock, she showed up. (Infuriating for those of us on time…) We halted, knowing that we were holding up the race at this point, and let her board.

Once we got settled and balanced, we lightly paddled to get in our lane for the race when it became clear that we could not steer. I was in the front, so I called to the back to ask what’s going on with our rudder. Ah. The Chinese guy who is our rudder man failed to tell us that his long paddle is broken. <<Insert angry face here. >> Seriously?!

We tried to get lined up and couldn’t! We were already in the water and away from the dock. No going back, so we did the best we could… we shouted at each other to row and at the other teams who shouted at us… in English and Chinese… to no avail. The race had to start.

The horn sounded and we got caught in the wake of our neighboring lane. We paddled and paddled, but we could NOT steer! We had no rudder! All of the other teams were way ahead of us. The race is only 300 meters, but we were way behind. There was no way we could even compete, but we kept paddling.

All the other teams finished, but we stuck to our plan: 100 meters fast, 100 meters at regular pace, and 100 meters fast. In the last 100 meters, I let out a war cry. My team joined me, and we screamed all the way to the finish. We yelled and cheered like we had won the race, which we obviously didn’t. Other teams laughed at us, but we didn’t care.

When we got to the docks, some of us were really angry about the rudder (me included) and some people were brushing it off… My point: our sponsor paid ¥15,000 (about $2200) for us to race and we had busted equipment. NOT okay. Our organizer heard our complaint and we thought we might get to race again, but we didn’t.

Baking in the hot sun…

After sitting for a few more hours under a flimsy tent in the hot sun (93º today with so-so air quality), we got the news: we had won the “best team spirit” award. Literally, the award is “best team hard work prize” (最佳团队拼博奖; zui jia tuan dui pin bo jiang).

They felt bad. It might have been a pity prize.

And we did not care! 😀 We got to line up with everyone else to get our trophy. We yelled and cheered again like we had won the whole event. People loved it. Foreigners going crazy. Oh, those silly waiguo ren… (外国人; other country people) 😉

Speaking of those silly foreigners… our colleagues on the other team? Yeah, they capsized their boat. 😮 So we’ve been joking that we were Team Rudderless and they are The Titanic. Lots of love for us waiguo ren today…

A news story about my colleagues’ team… The last line in red, roughly translated: “We do not have to worry too much. This is normal in these games.”




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