On a scorching hot Sunday, me and my colleague, Joe, ventured out to the Beijing dragon boating practice at the Houhai Xiyan boathouse. We were greeted with a hardworking team who were gripping heavy-looking wooden paddles as the instructor, Hemija, tossed back and forth between Mandarin and English.
Then, spotting us Westerners out of the corner of his eye, Hemija rushed to our side with a lopsided grin. Gesturing with his hands, and speaking in impressive English for a Chinese native, he asked us one simple question:
“You go with us to boat?”
We looked at each other, half-panic stricken, half-excited, and at that moment, we came to a silent agreement.
Plastering a smile on our faces, we made our decision. Thrusting us some paddles, Hemija gestured us into one of the dragon boats. In a team of nine, we waited patiently to be seated in the rocky boat. At one point, it seemed as if we would all tip over, but Hemija safely stirred us away from disaster.
Seated at the back of the boat, we were given an opportunity to take in the scenery and experience some hardcore dragon boating. And with Hemija’s encouraging “Go, go, go!” we began rowing.
I was surprised at the rapid speed of the boat and quickly shifted my concentration to what my fellow team members were doing in front of me. Miming their paddling skills, I began to follow them in sync. Occasionally, Hemija would adjust my stroke, but I eventually got the hang of it.
Or so I thought.
As sweat dripped down my back, it began to hit me. Dragon boating was definitely not a piece of cake. I soon came to realize that it takes a copious amount of strength to maintain a rhythmic paddle and perfect timing.
With the help of a generous breeze wafting by, I eventually managed to stop thinking about the crippling heat. Encouraged by Hemijia’s “go’s” and countdowns to the next break, I let the paddling take over.
I quickly came to realize that if you throw your whole body into the paddling and work all those lazy muscles in one go, then eventually you achieve a beat. Thumping along with Hemija’s cries of encouragement, the experience became exhilarating. Peddling boats floated past us with people taking pictures of us. A couple of Beijingers braved out the murky waters, and bobbed along the lake. The glare of the sun lessened, and at long last, the heat was no longer my number one enemy.
Hemija did make us stop several times, giving us ample opportunity to drink in our surroundings and catch our breaths. As we rowed back to land, I couldn’t help feeling a little relieved. I was ready to climb out of the boat and treat myself to a long, cold drink. Yet, a surprise waited for us.
“We race” Hemija announced, grinning cheekily. He gestured to the other two dragon boats, rowing in the distance. We were to do a 500 meter race.
Eventually, we managed to reach a straight line along the water with the other two boats. We were situated on the far left of the starting line. Each instructor stood at the back of the boat, poised for the race. Heart pounding in my chest, I prepared my body for the grueling, yet rewarding treat, that waited for me at the finish line. The three boats hushed for a few moments, listening to the gentle lap of the water.
And then suddenly, Hemija roared, “Go!” and off we were. It was a powerful moment as we battled to the finish line, our arms seeming to operate by themselves. As Hemija screamed on, I couldn’t help but sneak in a glance to see where the other two teams were. Reassured that we were in second place, we fought to maintain our position. I found myself shouting along with the rest of the team in Mandarin. Although I didn’t have a clue what I was saying, it helped me get into the team spirit of the race. As the sun beat on our backs, we cut through the finish line.
What I’ve learned from dragon boat racing is this. Timing is everything. But it is not the most important aspect. Team work is essential. Having shared a collective experience with my group, I’ve learned this the sweaty way.
Check out our interview with some of our fellow Beijing dragon boat racers.