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When we showed up at the fields, we got stared at from the moment we walked through the gates. That was normal, though. We were in the middle of Hoi An, Vietnam, a medium-sized beachy tourist town that doesn’t see many white-faced Americans with pretty, blonde girlfriends. We were even more out of place here than walking the streets though. Like the dirty, magical street market that we’d stumbled into a couple days earlier, this place wasn’t on any tourist maps. We’d been driving our rented scooter home from the beach in a random part of town when she saw the lights.
When I saw some of the players didn’t have shoes on, my hopes were raised. This couldn’t be a league. There were some teams playing that looked slightly more organized, with matching jerseys, but mostly it was a hodgepodge of light shirts vs. darks, the same collection of “you guys over there vs. us over here” teams that I’d played with countless times over a lifetime of pick-up soccer in the States.
No one spoke a lick of English. That’s not to say they weren’t nice–we got a broken hello from an older guy, and plenty of smiles, but when I asked a couple spectators, “Is this a league?” I got blank stares and some giggles.
We found our way to the last of the five small fields, a game of shirts vs. skins with a mix of younger, probably college-age kids and mid-40 somethings, all skilled players. Each field was half the size of a regular soccer field, with tall nets surrounding them and small goals at each end. The artificial turf was nice–better than many fields in my hometown of Nashville if I’m honest, and the lights were bright. The weather was perfect.
The handful of watchers didn’t point at us, but they did say things to each other and laugh as they were looking our way. You know that YouTube video where NBA players dressed up as old people and showed up to Seward Park in Chicago? That was exactly me–an American fish in soccer-flavored water, an analogy that makes as much sense as we did being in that place.
I finally ascertained through gestures that this was, in fact, a pick-up game where anybody could play, which was harder to do than you might think with a complete lack of language. I had tennis shoes on, but my clothes didn’t help I’m sure. My shorts were dressy, black with a white pinstripe if you must know, with a gray V-neck t-shirt that was obviously not made for sportsing. I pointed at myself, then to the field, then back to me, and the guys mostly just laughed some more.
Eventually I walked onto the sidelines. To save my shirt I joined the skins. After only a few minutes, someone got tired and came off. Everyone sort of stopped and looked at me. The guy subbing off pointed, and I trotted on. I saw one younger spectator slap the shoulder of the guy next to him and laugh.
When you’re visiting a foreign country, nothing seems right. Mattresses are all hard. Toilets are shaped funny (if they have them). Money is weird. They use toilet paper for napkins (not kidding). Coffee, while often delicious, never tastes quite right. I’d been traveling through Southeast Asia for two and a half weeks, stayed in 3 countries and 8 cities and loved every second, but hadn’t felt really, fully comfortable once. Every now and then I would break down and have a Big Mac or something to try to get the taste of freedom in my mouth, but they use local meat, which I can tell you is not up to ‘Merican standards.
But soccer is soccer (except when it’s football, and even then it’s still soccer.) A field is a field, and a size-5 ball’s always the same size.
It wasn’t just about feeling comfortable either. My whole time traveling, I’d been looking for a way to get behind the tourist curtain. The local market we’d accidentally wandered into was great, with bizarre rows of weird fruit and produce, unidentifiable meat carcasses hanging in non-air conditioned booths next to booths with Thai ladies getting their hair did, next to 5 year old perfect little girls wielding unforgivingly-sharp carrot peelers. Wandering those aisles as locals stared at us was awesome, but it was impossible to participate in the experience, only observe.
On the field, though, I was just another dude. No decent player has to talk on the field anyway. A look, a nod, a point, and ball and player are where they need to be.
There are definitely other ways to connect with people without talking. Music’s one. In the few weeks I was overseas, if I had been a musician, I would’ve had the chance to jam once or twice. I’m sure it would’ve been great. But sports let me throw my whole body into the game, literally. It also gave my experience a scale that would’ve been hard to pull off anywhere else. I was on the field with 15 other people, connected through sweat and effort, sprinting, jumping and falling (only once–stupid flat tennis shoes).
There’s also something about competition that evens playing fields. Those guys who giggled at me? It didn’t take long to win them over. I’m not going to say I “wowed” them, but I did play college soccer once upon a time, and not to brag but I was the starting central midfielder for my over-30 men’s league championship winning team back home.
I left the field after a ten-minute shift, huffing and puffing, suffering from two and a half weeks of street food and no workouts. I high fived a couple of the guys, said thanks to everyone, and mostly just smiled a whole lot.
My girlfriend, completely accommodating through the whole ordeal, was encouraging me to keep playing, but I’d gotten everything I’d needed. I’d fulfilled my dream of playing pick-up soccer in a foreign land. I’d danced behind the tourist curtain with some Vietnamese guys who might never have met an American before, and loved every sweaty second of it.
While behind the curtain I learned that when it comes to connecting people across language barriers and continents and crafting memories you won’t forget for the rest of forever, sports are better than food, music, bicycle tours and walks through smelly local markets. As it turns out, sports are better than everything else.
So if you ever find yourself in a strange place with people who aren’t like you, bring a basketball or a football or any sort of ball. Find a field or court or alleyway or street. And play.