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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Home Free : After a Very Difficult Transition From China to New York, Han Finally Feels Accepted Despite Elimination in Badminton

July 25, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Kevin Han remembers when he felt alone in America.

Day followed day as he sat in an apartment in Brooklyn with his pregnant stepmother and a father he had not seen in nine years. The television blared, but he couldn't understand the words. Outside, the streets and the signs confused him.

"My dad had quit his job and was trying to find work," said Han, who was a promising badminton player on China's junior national team when, at 17, he left his native Shanghai for New York in 1989.

"It was difficult. Unemployment was so high, and my stepmother was expecting a baby. I stayed in the apartment for 26 days. I didn't go out at all, not to the city. I didn't know my way around and I couldn't speak English. I was afraid, scared."

The faces that looked so strange to him then were on Han's side Wednesday, cheering him on as the only man to qualify for the U.S. badminton team. Rangy and athletic at 6 feet 2, Han covers the tiny court easily and has a powerful smash to go with lightning quick reflexes.

Ranked 65th in the world, he won the first game of his best-of-three-match against No. 26 Peter Knowles of Great Britain easily, 15-2, but fell behind in the second and third. The comebacks he mounted left him short, and he was eliminated, 2-15, 15-10, 15-7.

"I love the crowd. They were behind me all the time," Han said afterward. "I feel very bad for them because I let them down."

About 3,000 fans were in the stands at Georgia State University Sports Center, almost all of them pulling for Han.

"You never see anything like this in U.S. badminton history," said Han, 23. "I played in the nationals here the last three years and there would be 100, 200 people at the finals. I think the crowd is disappointed I lost in the first round. They want to see the U.S. in the next round. That's why they're here, to cheer us on."

In China, where badminton trails mainly soccer and table tennis in popularity, Han had been in the national team's training program. He lived in dormitories from the time he was 13 until he left for the U.S., after his estranged father offered to help him get a green card and a chance at a better life. But those first months in New York, Han said, were miserable.

"After a month, my dad talked to me about the U.S., and I said what I'd like to do is continue my education and play badminton. He said financially I couldn't do that. He said if it's possible, I needed to find a job and support myself.

"I said, 'What? Find a job? I never worked a day in my life. I'm an athlete.' Everywhere I went in China, I got respect as an athlete."

The first job Han found was 45 minutes away, in a New Jersey Chinese restaurant.

"After three days I got fired because I didn't know what to do," he said. "I was the person who was supposed to get the order and pass the food over to the front. The order came in Chinese, but I looked at all the food and I didn't know, what was this, what was that. I was kind of happy when they actually fired me. I was thinking, 'I can't handle this job. Thanks so much.' I got a ride back to New York City and took the train back to Brooklyn.

"After a month, I got another job, an easier job in downtown Manhattan, 44th or 45th Street and Third Avenue. It was close to Chemical Bank and Citibank. The people there would work late in the evening and I'd walk around and deliver Chinese food."

Later, he worked as a bicycle delivery boy in lower Manhattan, taking orders to unfamiliar addresses on dark streets after his English classes with other immigrants.

Han's life was improving, but for a year and a half, badminton was not part of it. Whenever he asked where he could go to play, people looked at him strangely or laughed. Badminton?

"Finally, a friend took me to a place in Queens, and I would play recreational badminton once a week, every Tuesday, to fool around," he said. "Then I found a place at Columbia University every Friday night. But I was the best there. No competition."

For a time, Han wondered if he had made a terrible mistake.

"I felt if I didn't leave China, I would be on the national team, traveling around the world, playing in tournaments and not worrying about anything," he said.

"Now, in the Olympic village I help my old friends to go everywhere, to the cafeteria, wherever they need to go. They say, 'It's so great, you're American now, you can talk to anybody.'

"I wonder sometimes, but I don't want to look back. I made my decision and this is my chance to have a better life. In badminton, I don't know, maybe if I stayed in China I would be a medal contender and win a medal in the Olympics. But I would not trade my American life for a medal."

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