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Posted on Sun, Jul 31, 2011 : 5:52 a.m.

Facing the terror of sports culture far outside my comfort zone in Recreational Paddling class

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Sports: Why does it seem so much easier when the kids are the ones doing it? My son, Little Brother, on the Windemere soccer field. | Frances Kai-Hwa Wang contributor

When my teenage daughter, Hao Hao, started rowing crew for Huron High School, the president of the crew parents’ group recommended that we parents also get involved by rowing with the Ann Arbor Rowing Club. I thought he was nuts.

Hard enough to take a child to and from five crew practices a week, how was I supposed to find time to add in my own practices as well? Still, the group of parents who also rowed looked pretty cool at 5 a.m., dressed in their own red and black spandex outfits, unloading the boats alongside the kids.

Yet here I am, climbing into an outrigger canoe at 7:15 in the morning.

Hao Hao took a course called “Recreational Paddling” last summer, and I happily drove her down every morning, watched the canoes take off, then sat in the car writing on my laptop until they returned. A bad shoulder saved me from all the friendly, “Why don’t you join us?”

Unfortunately, my shoulder got better.

This summer, Hao Hao begged me to go with her, said it would be fun.

However, as I drive to class this morning, I find I am gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly, chattering nervously, asking too many bizarro questions. She thinks I am nuts.

I do not do sports.

This is not my culture.

I am scared to death.

“How are you?” the teacher asks before class.

“Terrified,” I answer.

When was the last time I learned a new sport? Horseback riding in fourth grade? Mountain biking when I was 22? My heart is in my mouth.

I remember taking a Chinese dance class as an adult and feeling the muscle memory kick in from years of childhood ballet lessons, but for this, I got nothing.

There are so many things to keep track of. Drive with your top hand. Push off with your front foot. Sit up straight. Lean into the stroke. Grab the water with your paddle. Reach with the gut. Watch your timing. Twist.

Then as I finally start to get into a rhythm, the stroker shouts, “Hut Hut Hu!” and it is time to switch to the other side and start all over again.

When the steersman tells us all to shout along together, it is one thing too many, and I simply cannot.

Then we hit some waves. Whoa. Unlike the ground which always stays where you last left it, the water moves and changes beneath us. A big wave crests and we are in the air! I put my paddle in and there is no water there.

Thank goodness I do not have to steer away from that breakwall, too.

“So how was it?” the teacher asks at the end of class.

“Terrifying,” remains my answer.

A sportier person would be able to figure all this out gracefully, but I am so far out of my comfort zone, I need a passport. Or a space suit.

“Recreational Paddling?” I cannot even figure out the banter, let alone where to put my feet. How many weeks until this becomes fun? I know it will become fun soon; until then, I stay close to the teacher.

I marvel at how often we throw our children into completely new situations with all different kinds of new people and expect them to adapt and make friends whatever the circumstances.

I am amazed at how my mother, at 70 years old, is still trying new things — hula dancing, tap dancing, ceramics, taiko drumming, ikenobo flower arranging.

As we try to comprehend the madness unfolding in Norway, I have been thinking (since before it happened) that this overwhelming anxiety I am experiencing with sports must be just the tiniest hint of how it feels for those who fear and resist change — generational, cultural, demographic, whatever — where even the ground does not follow “normal” expectations, where even children of color or another faith are perceived as a threat.

Yet what rewards if we can face our discomfort and learn from our fears.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog and a contributor for Chicago is the World. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


Mike D.

Sun, Jul 31, 2011 : 2:25 p.m.

I can relate. I had the same terror when someone tried to get me to play darts. But I threw myself into it, because if you can't learn something new, you may as well curl up and die! (And, like you, I was terrible.)

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Fri, Aug 5, 2011 : 7:07 p.m.

Thanks for sharing your story! Glad to know i'm not the only awkward one! :)