My name is Wally Green and Ping Pong saved my life! As a kid growing up in the dangerous and violent Marlboro housing projects in Brooklyn, I became part of a gang at the age of 13 and owned 6 guns. I also grew up seeing the extreme domestic violence that my stepfather inflicted on my mother and, at times, on me. If you know the story of Ike and Tina Turner then you know what I’m talking about. Life just sucked and I was headed down a deep and dark road which I like to call “The End”. “The End” refers to the end of my life or my freedom, because I was either going to wind in jail or dead.
I was always a great athlete and played pretty much every sport I could. I gave me a reason to stay away from home and not deal with my stepfather. From basketball to football to volleyball to tennis and even wrestling, I did it all! MVP MVP MVP! That was me!
I came across ping pong at a pool hall. I saw some Asian kids playing and thought, “What a stupid sport!” I had always thought it was stupid. They actually had it in my high school and I used to laugh at the kids playing it. But I asked these kids if I could try, since I had nothing else to do. They agreed, and on the first hit, I smashed the ball right past them. It was 100% pure luck.
The kids were surprised when I told them it was my first time. They told me about a competitive ping pong club in midtown Manhattan. It’s there where I met the person who would save my life by paying for me to go to Germany to learn Ping Pong.
Since then I have represented the U.S. in over 35 international Pro Tour competitions, a black, hip-hop guy with bleached out hair and designs all over his head, traveling to all over the world. I never thought in a million years that Ping Pong would be the way I would get to see the world, going to even the darkest of corners. Ping Pong took me to several amazing countries, and it took me to a place that only around 10% of the world has ever visited. It took me to North Korea.
One day I was checking the website of the International Table Tennis Federation when I saw North Korea listed. I couldn’t believe there was an actual international tournament being held there. I mean, would anyone actually be crazy enough to enter this tournament? It’s North Korea! Well, call me crazy, aka the “bad boy” Dennis Rodman of Ping Pong!
EVERYONE told me that I shouldn’t even think about going there, it was way too dangerous they feared. One even said, “Listen, Wally, they will kill you!”
Even though everyone and their mother was against this, one of my biggest motivations in making this happen was: If Dennis Rodman could go to North Korea, something he did back in 2013, I could, too! Not to mention, I also believe that it’s possible for one person to change the thoughts and ideas of many, and I was going to do just that through sport. I would recreate the historical moment of 1971, when the U.S. Ping Pong team was invited to China to establish relations through friendly matches. It became known as Ping Pong Diplomacy.
I wanted to make a difference and show the North Koreans that, Yes, your government hates mine and vice versa, but we are here for sport, not politics! We will fight hard but we will also show love and respect, because we are not government officials, we are athletes! And you’re gonna like me because I’m one cool guy!
I decided to make this journey alone. I was not going to let anyone or anything deter me from this once-in-a-lifetime chance of trying to make a difference in a closed-off-to-the-world country like North Korea. This was my very own historical moment in the making. My own Ping Pong Diplomacy 47 years later.
The U.S. team manager reluctantly entered me into the competition, and a few days later, I was contacted by the North Korean Table Tennis Association. They informed me that I would have to go to Beijing to get my visa. Armed with only a contact number for when I arrived, I took a flight to Beijing a week later. Two days after my arrival, I called the number I was given. The person who answered immediately knew who I was and asked if I could come down to the North Korean Embassy. The next day, I rode my electric wheel down to the embassy.
Upon reaching the embassy, I noticed there wasn’t a normal entrance like most embassies have, with big glass doors that are so welcoming. So I rode my wheel all around the embassy searching for a normal entrance. There was none, well know real entrance, at least. The only entrance I found was one that looked like it belonged to the back alley of some bar. I called my contact and told him that I had arrived but could not find the entrance. He told me not to worry and that he was coming out to “receive” me.
The contact came out, introduced himself to me, and said he will be preparing my visa. He asked me for my passport. I thought, WTF? I have never met this guy in my life and he actually wants me to give him my passport just like that? I wasn’t really comfortable handing over my passport to a total stranger, but he assured me that everything would be fine and my visa would be ready in an hour. I secretly snapped a photo of him before handing over my passport. I was really taking a huge risk giving my passport to a total stranger, but it certainly added to the experience.
As promised, the man called me in an hour to let me know the visa was ready. Here I am giving him cash and he’s handing me an American passport. A black guy and a North Korean, doing business across the street from the North Korean embassy in China. If you didn’t know any better you would definitely think something sketchy was going on. I woke up early the next morning to head to the airport as the tournament was in two days. I had decided earlier on that to get the complete experience of this trip, I would fly Air Koryo — the one star North Korean airline. Could a one star really be that bad? Well, I just had to find out for myself!
When I arrived at the airport, it was pretty difficult to find the airline ticketing window. You are probably saying, “Why didn’t this idiot purchase a ticket ahead of time?” Well, there is no means to purchase a ticket to North Korea. It is not like you can go on Priceline or Expedia. When I finally found the ticketing window and went to purchase the $700-plus ticket with my credit card, they informed me that they only accepted cash. Do you know what it’s like to take out $700 in Chinese currency from an ATM? So I went back out, past security, got a wad of cash from the ATM, passed back through security, paid for my ticket, and headed to the gate.
As I was boarding the plane, I was greeted by a very beautiful flight attendant and I thought, “Man, one star? There was definitely about 10 stars there!” The interior of the plane had these very interesting red leather seats that were actually pretty comfortable. It definitely felt more like being in a movie theater than on a airplane.
After getting comfortable, I noticed that pretty much everyone around me had these buttons on their shirts or jackets. It was a picture of Kim Jong-un, the current “Supreme Leader”, as his people refer to him. I also noticed two other versions of this pin — one had the photo of both the current leader and his late father, Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”, and and the other one had the two photos in addition to a photo of Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il. Later on in the trip, I found out that those pins are a serious matter and must always be worn by North Koreans. Only North Korean citizens can get them and they actually have to apply for it. I just had to have one of those pins. I politely asked the beautiful flight attendant, using all my charm, if I could possibly have one pin while pointing to the one she was wearing. She politely and charmingly ignored me. O.K., ONE STAR!!
As soon as I arrived in North Korea, I was greeted by another beautiful lady. She said “Mr Green? I will be your guide during your stay in DPRK,” which is how North Koreans like to refer to their country. It stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And the reason for this is that they strongly believe there is only one Korea, not a North and South Korea as we’re accustomed.
The guide was responsible for me, and everywhere I went. In other words, she served as a babysitter, making sure I was not doing anything I wasn’t supposed to be doing. At immigration they took my laptop and phone for inspection and checked all my documents to make sure they were in order. Then we headed out to the hotel. Driving through the monotonous looking DPRK felt pretty surreal, and even at this point, I couldn’t really believe I was actually there. The hotel was very spacious with high ceilings, and was sparkling clean.
After I was checked in, the hotel staff informed me that they would have to hold my passport until I checked out. WTF AGAIN! I was very uncomfortable with that, especially because there was no Wifi or cell phone service. I was completely cut off from the outside world. This was truly the full North Korean experience I had been looking for. My guide walked me to my room, and the first thing I thought was, “Is this also part of the North Korean experience!?” She told me she would pick me up in the morning for breakfast at about 9 a.m., and then we would head to the practice hall and then the tournament hall. Although I was paying nearly $200 a night, my room looked like a room in a youth hostel. The room was small and the bed looked like half a bunk bed, low to the ground. And the bathroom was tiny plus it was more of a feeling as wellIn any case, I was fine with it.
It was all about that North Korean experience.
My guide came to escort me the next morning at around nine the next morning. I hadn’t gotten much sleep because I was so anxious about being in a place that was basically cut off from the rest of the world. In fact, I spent the whole night searching for hidden cameras. I couldn’t find any, but is it possible that they were just that well hidden? My guide took me down to the breakfast area. It was a medium-sized dining room, with all the participating countries’ names written on a small stand on each table. I saw China, Vietnam, Syria and just a few others, but there was no Western country except for the USA.
Was I the only Westerner participating in this pro tournament? Of course I was! This was North Korea. Why would I think any different? The other delegations arrived and sat at their respective tables. I noticed that my breakfast closely resembled a Western breakfast, while delegates from countries like Vietnam and China had Asian breakfasts. I thought that was very thoughtful, even though I would rather have had the Asian style breakfast. The food wasn’t bad. I ate, and in exactly an hour, my guide returned. We left the dining room and went downstairs where a car was waiting with a driver. That’s right, yup, I had a driver! Not bad, right?
As we drove to the practice hall, I noticed there was a building for every sport. Normally one building is sufficient for many sports, but not in North Korea. The buildings were huge and each building had the logo of the sport it held. I saw a swimming building, a tennis building, a wrestling building, a volleyball building, and finally, we arrived at the Ping Pong building. My guide and I walked in and I saw all the athletes from the other countries were training, including the North Korean team. I didn’t have a partner to train with since no one else from the U.S. decided to go, so I asked my guide if she could find me a partner. She said she would get someone from the North Korean team. This was going to be my first real contact with a North Korean! I was very excited. What better way to start the competition than by practicing with a North Korean team member.
My guide soon returned with one of the North Korean players. We both stared at each other for about 3 seconds, and to break the silence, I said, “Hey, man, what’s up?” I don’t think he knew whether to laugh, smile, or run. He definitely seemed nervous. I mean, I have never met a North Korean and I’m more than sure he had never met an American either, especially one that looked like me. I was pretty sure he had never met someone like me before, although he may have had the chance to see Dennis Rodman on television. I shook his hand and said, “Practice, practice, thank you!” while making gestures with my hands and racket so that he could understand because he spoke zero English.
We started warming up. First forehands, then backhands, cross court, and down the line. Afterward, I began to drive the ball cross court consistently, with very powerful strokes to his backhand, while he blocked the ball, bringing it back every time and vice versa. I could tell he was definitely surprised and shocked about how well I could play. I get it… black guys with bleached out hair with designs all over their heads don’t play Ping Pong! After about an hour of practice, we decided to stop. I shook his hand and said, “Kamsamnida!” which means thank you in Korean. We took a picture together, then I headed back to my hotel for lunch.
When I arrived for lunch, I noticed there were two guys sitting at my table and they were definitely not Americans. I had never seen these two before. I went over and introduced myself and asked where they were from. They both said, Syria and my exact response to this was, “Oh s–t! Really?” They just laughed at my reaction. For lunch we had rice with some really strange looking meat. What kind of meat? I didn’t want to know, and imagined the worst. But whatever it was, it was pretty damn tasty.
The two Syrians kept talking about the U.S. and asked how I could possibly get them in. They told me how dangerous Syria had become, and that they just wanted to get out and come live in America. For some reason, every person I have ever met from another country and who desperately wants to come to the U.S. thinks that I have the golden key to make it happen just because I’m American. So, while the two Syrians kept asking me about how they could get to the States, the thoughts circulating about my mind were, “Let me remind you, I’m here representing my country in pro competition. I’m not the President of the United States nor do I work for immigration. Even if I did have the golden key, I just met you 5 minutes ago, so I don’t even know you!”
The next morning I went down for breakfast while keeping an eye out for my guide. She arrived right after I took my last gulp of tangerine juice. Were they really watching me? She would always come the second I had finished. We first headed off to the tournament hall.
As we pulled up to the tournament hall, I saw a huge sign which read: “Welcome to the Pyongyang Open”. A film crew started filming as I got out of the car and entered the venue. I walked into the building, and immediately, all eyes were on me. With my bleached out hair and all the crazy designs, perhaps they thought I was a relative of Dennis Rodman. Or possibly that all Americans look like us!
My guide ushered me to the check-in desk, with the film crew still following us. As I walked up to the desk, the three ladies who were in charge of the schedule and the check-in process greeted me with a broad smile, welcoming me to North Korea. Could they have been genuinely that happy to see me? An American? A Westerner? Don’t you guys hate Westerners with Americans at the top of the list? I thought. However, they actually seemed genuinely happy. They even thanked me for coming to their “beautiful” country and told me how excited they were to have me there.
My guide and I walked into the competition hall where the women’s matches had already started. There were 5 matches going on at the same time, and about 5,000 North Korean fans in attendance. To them, I was definitely like an alien from outer space, but I knew what I had signed up for, so I was pretty comfortable with it. While watching some of the interesting matches, I went through my schedule. I was in a qualification group with China and North Korea. The country with the best record would advance to the next round. With no Western countries participating, this made it the most difficult Pro Tour ever.
I would assume you already know how amazing China is at table tennis. North Korea is just as good, and I had to play against both. I woke up the next morning with a nagging pain in my hip. I have had this problem for years, but nothing two tablets of Advil or Motrin couldn’t take care of. I wanted to eat first then take the Motrin, but in all my anxiousness and excitement, I’d forgotten to take the Motrin, leaving it in the hotel didn’t help either.
My guide picked me up in the morning, and we headed off to the practice hall, so I could warm up before the match. During the warmup, I was in a lot of pain. My guide offered me something for the pain, but if it’s not something I can actually read… nope don’t want it. Next thing you know I may wake up in a room with a kidney missing! I warmed up for about 20 minutes, then headed to the competition hall for my first match against China. When I arrived I handed my racket over to racket control, which would be brought out by the umpires for the match.
I know you’re probably thinking, “What the hell is racket control?” Well, all rackets in Pro Tour have to be tested to make sure they are legal to play with. The match started as scheduled. Now, to help you understand how amazing China is at Ping Pong, let me put it like this… China is 10 times better at Ping Pong than America is at basketball. So I definitely had my hands full, and not to mention that nagging hip pain. I still fought hard and played well. Although I did not win, I held my own and did not get embarrassed.
After the match, I just wanted to head back to the hotel, take some Motrin, and get some much needed rest for my match against North Korea. The next day I woke up feeling much better. The pain had subsided and I was very excited. I mean this was one of the main reasons I had taken a chance to come to North Korea. Getting to be in a group with a North Korean is not by any means guaranteed. It’s the luck of the draw, as they say. Being in North Korea and actually getting to compete against a North Korean would definitely make this one-man Ping Pong diplomacy official!
I ate breakfast, and as usual, my guide came to get me immediately after. I went for a 20-minute warm up, then headed off to the competition hall for my final match against North Korea. On the way to the hall, I was feeling really good and quite confident. I would be going up against not just one North Korean but the whole country, and at the same time, trying to make a difference.
I had no plan as to how I was going to make this happen. I had just finished setting up my iPhone to record the match. I had pretty much been using it to record everything that was going on since Day 1. “Wally, are you ready?” My guide asked. “Let’s do this!” I replied.
She led me to where the two umpires were waiting to escort my opponent and me to table No. 1. All matches played on table No. 1 were broadcast on TV, so this was a big deal. It was game time! The two umpires led the way, and we both followed. The crowd made a strange, very low ohhhhhhhh sound as we were coming out, which was followed by cheers.
The ohhhhhhhh was definitely for me, I thought, since I was walking in front of my opponent. I wondered what these people could have possibly been thinking while making that sound. Ohhhhhhhh, what is that? Ohhhhhhhh, who is that? Ohhhhhhh, was he born with those designs on his head? Ohhhhhhh, is that an alien. Ohhhhhhh, is that that Dennis Rodman guy we saw on TV with the Great Leader? The possibilities seemed endless.
When we reached the table, both umpires took their places on opposite sides. My opponent and I shook hands with both umpires, then with each other. It was more like a tap-touch hand shake from my North Korean opponent. I don’t think he was really trying to be friendly with me, or even wanted to get too close, for that matter. All his life he was taught that Westerners, especially foreigners, were bad and evil people, and now he had to play against one.
I won the coin toss, so I decided to serve first. I quickly took a lead by winning 5 points in a row! With each point I made, ohhhhhhhhh reverberated about the arena again and again. At 5–0, my North Korean opponent finally won his first point, and the crowd went insanely crazy cheering for their countryman. He won another point and the fans got louder, and with every point he won, louder and louder they became. The sound in the hall felt like I was at a Michael Jackson concert and I, no, my opponent was MJ!
The cheering got so loud I couldn’t concentrate. I was supposed to be the underdog, I thought, as he was a better player. I had never been in this predicament and didn’t know what to do. I really just wanted to tell the crowd to shut the f–k up already! Then, I thought here is the opportunity I had been waiting for.
I would no longer try to win this match. I would use this as an opportunity to engage these North Korean spectators. As soon as my opponent made the next point, the crowd went crazy. This was my chance. I looked up at them with the biggest smile ever, put my arms up in the air with open palms, and gestured “really?” while subtly shaking my head. When the crowd saw my reaction and realized I was not angry but actually enjoying the situation, they too laughed. ALL of them!
I had the whole competition hall filled with joy and laughter. Every time I looked up at the crowd and smiled, they all did the same. Doing the wave at the soccer World Cup final doesn’t even come close to this. This was the most amazing heartfelt chain reaction I had ever witnessed or been a part of. This was exactly what I’d wanted! I was making a real connection with real North Koreans, not just the guides and everyone else I’d come in contact with, the North Korea elite, trained vigorously by the government to deal with Westerners visiting their country.
This was the real deal! Their fans’ reactions were unrehearsed, and there was a real connection. This was the reason I had made this trip. This was how I was going to make a difference in the eyes of people who truly believed that Westerners, especially Americans, were evil, all Americans. I could have easily gotten pissed off and yelled out, “Yo, shut the f–k up already!” Doing so would have justified those beliefs And I was there to make a difference, break barriers, not cause any drama.
I used this strategy throughout the match. With my opponent ahead of me, all of a sudden when I made a point, the crowd started to somewhat cheer for me as well! It definitely was nowhere near the same kind of cheering my opponent was getting, a cheer is a cheer.
People were changing.
Hopefully in their minds they were thinking that this American guy is not so bad after all. And with that thought alone, I was one step closer to getting them to see me for who I really was.
My opponent finally ended the match with an amazing shot down the line, and the crowd cheered wildly. We both shook hands with the two umpires, then I started to walk toward him to shake his hand for a match well played.
He was very hesitant in the hand shaking department, although it’s a rule that after the match, everyone has to shake hands. As we started to walk toward each other, he wore this really strange and uncomfortable look on his face. He was about to shake hands again with an alien, an enemy in every sense of the word, a crazy American who is at the top of the list of most hated by his government.
The look on his face was priceless as we got closer to each other. I reached out my hand first and he hesitantly reached out his. Then, in an instant, instead of his hand, I grabbed his arm and pulled him toward me! I gave him a huge bear-like hug and patted him on the back. “It was really great playing with you!” I said.
The crowd went insanely crazy! The cheers poured out not just for him this time but for us, and the smile on his face was priceless! With that hug I had done what I went there to do: I had made a difference and hopefully changed the minds of at least those North Korean people towards Westerners. Ping Pong diplomacy reborn, just as i’d imagined!
My North Korean opponent and the 5000-plus North Korean spectators will never forget the day a crazy black guy, with bleached-out hair with designs all over it, stepped foot in their country, competed hard, showed respect, brought laughter, happiness.
And, most of all, love.