Living in a town of 8000 people was…calm. Old ladies sat on benches in front of their homes, spitting shamelessly on the grass, gossiping, and waiting for our respectful head nods as we passed. They would also look out for kids that had lice and report directly to the child’s parents. Old videos that Grandma sent over in January remind me of the bad hairstyles and the maroon-colored clothes that for some reason almost everybody wore, fashion leftovers from the Tito regime. It also reminded me of how loud, hyper, and round I was then. “Brana, stop it, you were elegantly filled,” says Mama. She really did think that. During a mandatory physical checkup in fourth grade, the stocky nurse disagreed.
Udji unutra, debeljuco. Or, in English: “Come on in, you little fat girl.” She yelled out my weight in front of all my classmates.
They wanted to put me on a diet, but no, no, no, Mama Vlasic didn’t agree. She steamed off to the doctor’s office and gave her a lesson. The truth is that in Serbia, especially in our town, if you don’t fit weight and other such requirements, your name remains on the gossiping agenda. Our village was a bit blunt. That’s the case with most small towns. Mama claims that I stopped hunching over six years ago, the moment we stepped off the airplane at Lindbergh Field.
Stellan came to San Diego in 2007. I never knew what he looked like. His name sounds tall and haughty, but he isn’t. Short build, hair slicked back, and O-shaped legs. Still, he looks cool. But his Swedish background also gave him a potatolike nose. Right away, he started training me and the other San Diego juniors. Before, we were practicing mostly on our own.
The first day he told us: “There is always more time than you think. Come back to center and watch the ball.” My arms became stonelike, and I kept looking at him. Soon that changed, but the amount of respect I have for him is reasonably massive.
I wasn’t even born when he became the world champion in 1971. The video of his match in Nagoya, Japan, is on YouTube. When I watch, I notice Stellan’s famous backhand serve, which I also use in my game. His focus breaks through all the tension. After he wins the last point, he shakes hands with his opponent, runs over to his coach, and then remembers to shake hands with all the referees. The people in his corner raise his arms in the air. He walks to the podium with his head humbly lowered. This moment changed his life, and as he says, “My hobby becomes my profession.”
As long as I had table tennis and many friends around me, it was all good back in Serbia. I didn’t mind where we lived. My sister imagined what it would be like living in California. Mama knew that education is the only way to success, but not in Serbia. She finished law school, and as a judge her paycheck was only worth $2 per week, thanks to the hyperinflation of the early ’90s. That would be enough to buy ten eggs. The following week it would pay for only two eggs. Later, she became a lawyer in private practice. We weren’t exactly rich, but with all those diplomas, life had to be better somewhere else.
By 1999, NATO was bombing Serbia, thanks to our “hero” Milosevic. He claimed that he invaded Kosovo because it is srce Srbije, or the heart of Serbia. Milosevic was also ordering another round of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. and its allies tried to make him stop, but we were the ones suffering. This period I remember vividly. The only object worth bombing in our village was a yellow, rusty bridge. So, we weren’t in much danger. But the air-raid sirens were brutal. They would announce the curfew around 8:00 p.m., at deafening volumes. Protests were occurring in Serbia’s streets, but I missed most of them because of practice. Coach Preda wasn’t very enthusiastic about protesting against Milosevic, for whatever reason. My family was safer than people in the capital of Belgrade, and other cities, so cousins would come and stay at our house. During this period my sister and I decided to “protect” Grandma and often stayed with her. There were many soldiers walking around our town. Mina told me they were good-looking. I was confused about why they were sleeping in our school gyms. Milosevic was overthrown in 2000 and sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands. Sadly, he died of natural causes during the trial.
Serbia hasn’t recovered from these low blows. My country is still not a part of the European Union. But we are proud of Nikola Tesla, the brilliant scientist whom Thomas Edison ripped off; barbecues with pljeskavica, our version of the hamburger; and our actors, such as Rade Serbedzija.
We arrived in San Diego in 2004, fresh and confused. I said goodbye to my second love (after table tennis), a boy named Rasha. Oh, it was emotional. Later I discovered it probably wasn’t love since it happened again a couple of times after him.
My American cousins took me to the Balboa Park Activity Center. More than 20 ping-pong tables! Heaven. It was just odd that they were filled with mostly older Asian men. My sister quit playing. I continued practicing with Dad, until Bengtsson came to San Diego.
“Watch the ball and play point by point,” Stellan says.
Tournaments are much different here than in Serbia, since I compete mostly against males. The first rounds are mentally tough, especially when playing against grandpas with strange paddles, whom I have to beat. Taking every match seriously is important. Some of the male opponents say, “It’s not fair that you are wearing a skirt.” Their jokes used to make me feel uncomfortable. But if I’m limited to mostly playing men, at least I can look like a girl. I also benefit from this, because competing against men, who are my level or higher, improves my strength. Girls usually play more tactically. Now, I don’t even notice who is on the other side of the table.