A five-year summer love affair

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During the last summer Olympics the world shared, I went back to China.

My relationship with China has always been complicated, inextricably intertwined with family history, my American citizenship, international politics and language barriers. I’ve struggled with the idea of home, with having a motherland, an ancestral place, a true north because it has always felt like a betrayal, either to the land I grew up in or the land I keep coming back to. Sometimes, it is embarrassing to be Chinese. Sometimes, it is embarrassing to be American. Sometimes, it is embarrassing to be both.

But within these dual, warring identities, there are pockets of peace—safe havens I found during the summer of 2016 where picking a side didn’t feel like deception and unfaithfulness. It felt right—to be surrounded by China and her sights and smells and people, and to wish for her success on the Olympic stage. To bleed red and gold, stand up for the national anthem and remember her players’ names. I guess that’s the beauty of sports: more than just entertainment, sports is an art form, an expression of how competition inexplicably breeds unity.

My first and only idolization of an athlete informed this period of discovery and reconciliation. I remember my first impression of Zhu Ting, her title as captain of the women’s volleyball team slightly marred by their opening loss against the Netherlands. I remember wondering whether other people would make fun of her last name, zhu sounding exactly like the Mandarin word for “pig.” I remember my initial indifference, and how my apathy eventually gave way to pride and joy and admiration as she led her team through Brazil and Serbia en route to the Olympic gold.

But I don’t love her like I love my favorite athletes. I don’t follow her season, don’t buy her jerseys, don’t stalk her significant other on social media. I loved her from an August five years ago in the context of an Olympic volleyball court—fleetingly, sparingly, easily. I don’t know her anymore or want to cheapen my words by calling it love, and yet: my admiration for her is unconditional. What is love, if not unequivocal reverence?

In this way, sports transcends time, transcends the game-watching, statistic-memorizing motions I always considered synonymous with being a fan. I don’t have to prove anything, and I think that is what we forget too easily in the face of pride. I can love Zhu Ting even though I have not seen her since the summer of 2016. I love her because to me, she is not a franchise, a legacy, a means to a championship. I love her because in the most magical, boundary-eclipsing way, she has become emblematic of family.

She is a widescreen TV next to a fish tank I have known since childhood, a prism of water an ocean away, the closest I’ve ever come to having a pet. She is my grandfather’s quiet concentration, peaceful and comforting. She is my cousin’s curiosity and the gravitational pull that draws her to the couch, towards us. I’ve never been quite capable of bridging the gap between our years, our birthplaces, the silence that sometimes stretches awkwardly between us; the words I find are often wrong and strange and foreign, coming together in such jumbled messes that I am embarrassed to call myself Chinese. But volleyball—I know the language of volleyball, and this is how my grandfather, cousin and I come to understand each other.

Sometimes we watched her from the couch, and sometimes we watched her from the dining room, our flour-streaked hands pinching together dumplings to the rhythm of her scoring. I associate these things with her—the smell of raw pork mixed with chives, chopsticks tapping a nervous staccato beat on the table, my grandmother’s soft, strong palms kneading dough. She bleeds into my family, and I could not—cannot—stop her relentless flow: she bleeds into China, red and beautiful and proud.

It is this self-perpetuating cycle, my relationship with Zhu Ting: I love her because I love China, and I love China because I loved her first. Because she represents family and all the memories that connect us. Because she reminds me of the home I’m still trying to find. Because sports are universal, and I will see her again this summer.

During the last summer Olympics the world shared, I went back to China. And I found something better than gold and glory: I found this feeling of peace.

Cynthia Ge covers men’s swim and dive. Contact her at [email protected].