By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
---- — Kokomo High School senior Craig Simon took off his suit jacket, tucked his tie into his pants, changed his shoes and played pingpong against one of the best players at Donyang Foreign Language School in China.
It was an experience he will never forget.
He was invited to Dongyang by the city’s deputy mayor – a man who leads 800,000 people and is responsible for making 5,000 government appointments.
When the high-ranking Chinese official was in Kokomo in January, he challenged Simon to an impromptu game at the international residence hall.
Superintendent Jeff Hauswald pulled Simon out of trigonometry to play. The 18-year-old dazzled the Chinese delegation with his skills.
“They were so impressed they invited me back there to play,” Simon said.
Simon said pingpong is a pretty obscure sport in the United States. Not very many people play. But in China, it’s the national sport. Kids start playing in kindergarten, kind of like t-ball. They take it very seriously. The fact that they were impressed with his skills was an honor, he said.
Simon got his start in sixth- or seventh-grade playing against much older men at the Kokomo Table Tennis Club. They showed him the ropes, and now he schools many of them during their weekly matches.
But Dave Barnes, director of communications for Kokomo Schools, said Simon impressed Dongyang’s deputy mayor in other ways, too. It went beyond his pingpong skills.
“He was impressed with how Craig handled himself, how courteous he was, how well mannered,” Barnes said. “That really left an impression on him.”
So at the deputy mayor’s request, Simon joined Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight’s delegation of government, business and education officials who recently visited Kokomo’s sister city in eastern China.
He played at least two matches while he was there – one against the Dongyang Foreign Language School’s best player, in his suit and tie, and one against the deputy mayor.
They played the best two out of three games to 11 points.
He ended up losing his match to the deputy mayor in a tight third game.
Kokomo Schools board president Joe Dunbar speculated that Simon intentionally lost the third game as a courtesy to his hosts.
He was the perfect diplomat, Dunbar said.
“Craig’s maturity and insight were highly respected by the Chinese students, Chinese leaders and especially his Kokomo traveling companions,” Dunbar said.
At the school, he spoke to Chinese students about life in American schools. He paused on the streets to take photos with passersby who were captivated by his height (he’s 6 feet 2 inches tall) and blonde hair. He even allowed a college class to interview him about his trip.
Barnes said Simon was the most daring in the Kokomo delegation, too, never afraid to try the unique Chinese dishes. He ate snake from a street vendor and duck’s feet at a dinner.
The people in China noticed those things.
Kokomo High School Principal Mike Sargent said Simon further strengthened the district’s relationship with the schools in Dongyang.
And it all started with a game.
“It really was pingpong diplomacy,” Sargent said. “The relationship starts with that. You try to find common ground.”
That’s the great thing about the sport, Simon said. It’s very international. You learn a lot about other cultures while you play.
He’s met players from France, Germany, Russia, China and Japan.
Simon has even volunteered to umpire at some big tournaments. He helped at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas one year.
His goal is to someday qualify as an international umpire, where he would travel the world and judge pingpong tournaments where big money is on the line.
He never thought, though, that his skills as a player would land him a trip to China while he’s still in high school. It was an incredible experience, he said.
“Being fully immersed in the culture of a country like we were is truly learning since we visited places and attended events where we appeared to be the only foreign visitors present,” Craig said. “Being the minority in any environment is an experience that everyone should have at least once. As I told some of my fellow American delegates, you can learn only so much sitting in a classroom reading a book. I understand now why people say you must go and see it, and feel it, to fully understand the culture.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune Life & Style editor, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org