ATLANTA — It’s true, I admit, I’ve done my share of knocking badminton at the Summer Games. Like millions of others, I couldn’t understand how something you play after roasting marshmallows could qualify as an Olympic sport. Birdies? Shuttlecocks? The jokes were almost too easy, and I took every one.
But Monday, I was wandering past a briefing room when I noticed a small press conference. I went in — there were only a half-dozen reporters there
— and I took a seat. On the podium was — you guessed it — the U.S. Olympic badminton team. All three of them. Two women and one man. The man was Chinese. He spoke with an accent. I wondered about that — seeing as this was an American team — so when the thing broke up, I sat down to talk with him, hoping to find an amusing little badminton story.
What I found was something else entirely.
Kevin Han is his name, although Kevin is not the name he was born with in Shanghai, where he lived for the first 17 years of his life. He was being groomed for greatness in China. He was tall and quick, and at 13 he went to a special sports academy, where they trained him five hours a day in his most promising sport: badminton.
In China, they don’t laugh at badminton; it is enormously popular. Badminton stars are cheered, they are considered heroes, thousands come out to watch the matches. Han was on his way to all that.
Unfortunately, his father wasn’t there to see it. Han’s parents divorced when he was young, and his dad emigrated to America, in hopes of a better, freer life. Han’s great- grandfather had been a sailor who jumped overboard and swam to the shores of San Francisco. Ever since, in the Han family, America had been the land of dreams.
Now, after six years away, Han’s father wrote to his son: “I want to be a better father to you. I want to make up for the time we were apart. I have arranged for you to come to live with me in America. Please come.”
And because we often do things with our hearts rather than our heads, young Han packed a single suitcase and two badminton rackets and turned his back on a glorious future for a father he hadn’t seen enough, and a country he had never seen at all. The adjustment was difficult . . .
“When I first got here, I stay in our Brooklyn apartment 26 days,” Han said, his long frame draping over the chair as we spoke. “I was too afraid to go outside. I couldn’t watch TV — I did not understand it.
“I learned that my father was out of work. He had no money for me. So every morning, we go to look for work together.”
Han’s first job was in a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, packing up the takeout. He understood the orders in Chinese, but didn’t know the words for the food in English. There is no “egg foo young” in his language.
After three days, he was fired.
His next job came as a delivery boy in Manhattan. During the day, Han walked the food to office buildings. At night he delivered by bicycle, navigating the dangerous New York streets. Three times, he was hit from behind by people in cars — the last time, on purpose. The passengers threw things at him and laughed out the window.
“That night, I go home and cry,” Han said. “I think, ‘Why did I give up my easy life in China? I could be with national team, traveling around the world. Instead I am in the street.’ ”
Han had not touched his beloved badminton rackets in nearly two years. Nobody he knew played it. He didn’t even know where to ask. He had gained 20 pounds and had lost all his conditioning. He was nothing like the promising athlete he had been in China. He was a stranger to himself.
Then one day, a new friend told him about a gym in Queens where they played badminton every Wednesday night.
. . . but he learned to love freedom
Wednesdays led to Fridays, and Fridays led to leagues, and soon, it was obvious that this Chinese kid was far better than everyone he was playing. He got involved with the Olympic training program and eventually moved to Marquette, then to Miller Place, N.Y., and finally to Colorado Springs. He studied English. He began to understand TV.
One day, a few years ago, he went to an office in Chicago and took an oath. And three weeks later, a blue passport arrived in the mail. Kevin Han
— he chose the first name from a book — was now a citizen.
“You are a real American now,” he told himself, and he looked at the photo
Today, at 23, he is the best hope America has ever had for a medal in his sport — although he is still an Olympics away from that. Last week, at the athletes’ village, Han ran into the Chinese team, some of whom were his old training mates. He showed them how to order food, how to get to the buses.
“They envy me,” he said, “because they want to experience this country, but they don’t know how.”
Han knows how. He gave up a lot to live here. When he sees his old team, he wonders if, had he stayed in China, he might be competing for a medal now.
“But I would not trade my life in America for any medal,” he said. “I am happy.”
He got up to leave, the room was empty, and I walked with him to the front of the building. I asked what he treasured most about America and he said:
“Freedom. My story is the same as any immigrant’s.”
Which means it is a little bit of all our stories, doesn’t it?
He thanked me and got on his bus. I felt a blush of shame. I had come looking for an amusing badminton tale. What I found, instead, was the Olympics.