A ping-pong prodigy 12 time zones and more than 6,000 miles away from his native country is in search of a new home in Pleasantville.
Fifteen-year-old Kai Zhang arrived from China to the United States last September in search of not only top-notch table tennis training, but also a taste of a life that most American teenagers take for granted. Now, about sixth months later, Zhang is looking to stay not just in the United States, but in the Village of Pleasantville.
Zhang, who trains daily at the Westchester Table Tennis Center on Tompkins Avenue, is set to start school in the Pleasantville School District in a couple weeks and is on his way to obtaining a green card. As Zhang continues to assimilate to the new culture, he and the center’s co-owner, Will Shortz, both hope to find a Pleasantville family that’s willing to take him into their home.
Shortz said that if Zhang was American, he’d be the top player for his age group and one of the top players in the nation.
“I like America,” said Zhang, who has only been speaking English for a couple of months. “I like American people, American (culture).”
Zhang lived with an uncle in New Jersey until January, then relocated to Westchester to start training at the table tennis center almost every day.
Zhang and Shortz have a history that goes back further than January. Zhang competed in a tournament at the center when it first opened in October 2011 and Shortz, along with co-owner and coach Robert Roberts, traveled to China last year, where Zhang and his father introduced them to Beijing’s table tennis scene.
Zhang’s father has an old friend who lives in Pleasantville, one of the reasons he’s in the village, along with the fact that Shortz’s table tennis center is among the best in the country. Zhang also likes Roberts’ style and what he instills in young players.
While he was drawn to Pleasantville, Zhang said he left the familiarity of family and friends for greater opportunity.
Shortz said while competitions in America determine the best players, “politics” runs rampant in China. The connections a player has could mean more than performance.
Zhang also wants a life outside of just table tennis, which in China is a daily grind. He started playing the sport when he was just six years old. It quickly became the entire focus of his life.
“A lot of time you play table tennis,” Zhang said. “Little time you go to school.”
By 10 years old, Zhang stopped going to school altogether, his sole mission in life hitting the little white ball.
A typical day would be to rise at 8:30 a.m., play table tennis for three hours before a lunch and a nap. After he woke up, he’d play again from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. before eating dinner. After dinner, he’d once again play table tennis before calling it a night—no textbooks, pencils or paper involved.
“Here, (they’re) more interested in a well-rounded person,” Shortz said of America. “And honestly, no matter how good you are, you can’t play top-level table tennis forever.”
Shortz has been trying to get the word out regarding Zhang’s quest to live in Pleasantville. He contacted the Pleasantville Fund for Learning and also the Pleasantville International Association, which arranges student exchanges. School board member Larry Boes also mentioned Zhang’s search for a family during a recent board meeting.
So far, Zhang still doesn’t have a host family. For the time being, he’s living in Elmsford with Roberts and soon will be moving in with Shortz in Pleasantville.
“I live by myself so I’m not the perfect host for Kai. He should be in a family environment,” Shortz said. “So we’re looking for a place for Kai. A supportive family.”
When Zhang starts classes in a couple weeks, it remains unclear what grade he’ll be enrolled in.
Zhang still talks with his parents in China every day through Skype and converses with friends back home—all table tennis players—through Facebook. No matter how homesick he might get or how long it might take to find a family, he knows America is the place he wants to be. It’s a dream that Shortz said is one Zhang and his parents both share. Zhang also dreams to compete for the United States in the Olympics, though the earliest one he could eligible for is in 2020.
For now, Shortz’s fingers remain crossed that a Pleasantville family will welcome Zhang into their home for at least a few months.
“Kai would be a tremendous asset to Pleasantville,” Shortz said. “And to the United States.”
Pleasantville families interested in meeting Kai can contact Will Shortz at email@example.com.