A Morning with Ma Ma

Ma Ma and Ba Ba Wang were an older retired couple — he an ex-military officer, she a rotund local tennis star. I lived in their apartment in Nanchong, China with their dog, Er Wa, and a turtle that mysteriously disappeared after a few weeks. Neither parent spoke a word of English, but their bubbly personalities, the deep bowls of noodles ready each evening, and their strange daily routine of stripping down to their underwear after a long day out on the town — it all became my world for a few months, so dear to me over time.

The Wangs were an odd duo, as many fellow SST friends would attest to after spending an evening with them. They were always eager to teach me everything there was to know, despite the language barrier. They’d tell me where to place my hands when I slept, scolded me for having a pimple on my face, and instructed me on how to correctly sit at the table. What seemed overwhelming at first, I understood later as a way of trying to shelter me, they just wanted me to feel at home with them. They were goofy, and made me feel goofy. We soon made one happy family.

A Moment, Not a Movie

One afternoon in Kemgesi, Serengeti District, Tanzania, I crouched watching elderly men play a local variant of Bao, similar to the game Mancala. They were scooping up beans from the weathered board and counting in Kingoreme, the local language, as they re-deposited them, one by one, into each cavity on the board.

One of my neighbors, a man known as Mwalimu (meaning “teacher,” though he didn’t teach at any school as far as I knew), walked up and started a conversation. He was dressed in a jersey and shorts — usually a no-no for adult men in Tanzania unless actively involved in sports — and held a ball.

“Do you know how to play volleyball?” he asked. A teenager joined us, holding his arms behind his back, who was also dressed for sport.

I followed Mwalimu and the teenager to the village soccer field. We stopped there, but I didn’t see a net. The three of us formed a triangle and Mwalimu started to pass the ball back and forth. Soon, we became a circle as more and more teenage boys congregated, as if drawn by the gravity of the volleyball itself.