Boom Lah!

Guest Article by Anna Santoleri
Harvard University

The Kota Belud futsol team

On December 21st, 2014, I decided that I could no longer call myself a soccer player. Yes, soccer had been one of the most defining parts of my identity since I was 7. It was how I spent my summers, my weekends, and my time after school; it was one of the main reasons I was no longer a shy, spacey kid who would stare, wide-eyed and nervous, when people talked at me; and it was one of the few things that my angsty pre-teen self took pride in.

Even though I decided not to play in college because of heart issues, I had a hard time admitting that I was not a soccer player anymore. But since I was only sporadically playing pick-up games, my legitimacy in claiming that soccer defined me was pretty minimal, and I was far too young to be nostalgically trying to relive “the glory days.” Besides, so many people had played soccer in high school—I couldn’t fool myself in thinking that being a high school soccer player differentiated me. On college graduation day in 2014, I decided that I was long overdue in changing that “am” to “used to be”.

However, fumbling for what to say to the crowd of Ministry of Education officials, mentors, and ETAs at Sabah orientation, I found myself blurting out, “I love to play soccer!” This did not seem totally true. I did love to play soccer; but between winter and graduate school, I had not touched a soccer ball for at least five months. Not to mention, I had not played consistently with a team for five years. If I truly loved to play, wouldn’t I have made time for it?

Anna and Catherine at the court

Therefore, I was surprised and nervous to hear my District English Language Officer (DELO), Catherine, come to the stage, introduce herself, and state that she wanted me to play for her futsol team. Oh god. I had definitely falsely advertised myself. She would realize that I was a wannabe when I got onto the futsol court and revealed that I was extremely out of practice. Although trying to minimize expectations by explaining that I had not played in a while, I agreed to meet her on Sunday evening before I started school.  

Having now been with my team for almost two months, playing has been like riding a bike. After a few wobbles at the beginning, it has felt so natural to be passing, dribbling, and reading the field, without needing to think through every move that I make. I realize how much I appreciate, and how much I’ve missed, the game.

But the experience has been far more than simply reclaiming a part of my identity that I had previously decided to bury—instead, it has led me to question other elements of my identity, especially those which make me stand out on the KB futsol court: being a white English speaker. Among most females in the United States, particularly white ladies, my 5’5” height is about average. Here, for the first time in my life, I am one of the tallest of the players on any of the KB women’s teams. I am also more aggressive than many of the other KB players because, having played against boys and larger girls for most of my life, that’s how I learned to play.  At home, as long as you go for the ball and not the player, then aggressive is fine, if not encouraged. Here, every time someone comes into contact with you, they say, “Sorry!” In fact, at the end of each game, instead of saying “good game,” everyone apologizes to one another while shaking hands. Even though being first to the ball and being able to use my body to take the ball from others allows us to be a better team, I’ve considered not playing as aggressively: backing off when people have the ball and not going for the ball when another player is also going for the ball. I know what it feels like to play against someone who just seems unfairly tall, and I know what it feels like to wonder why I didn’t get the big girl genes. Its easy to see the colonialism metaphor when I step onto the court—the tall white girl comes barreling onto a court that is not hers, and plays rough and tough because, being individualistic, she doesn’t care what they think; she just wants to win. My goal is not to win, it is to play well. But perhaps the definitions of “playing well” are different across cultures—perhaps the definition of it in Malaysia is more considerate.  But is it also condescending to think that I need to change the way I play to be “softer”? And am I letting my team down if I don’t play to my full potential?

Besides being white, I am also an outsider in that I am only barely conversational in Malay. There is a spoken dialect that goes with playing any sport; I am learning the Malay futsol dialect in bits and pieces. Catherine has taught me some soccer-related Malay; my favorite: instead of encouraging another player to “shoot the ball!”, you say, “Boom, lah!”—“boom” meaning “shoot” and “lah” being the Malaysian way of providing emphasis to a word or phrase. However, Catherine has implied that she wants me to speak English with the other players as much as possible; she sees the experience as a way for them to become comfortable with me and not afraid of practicing English. But simultaneously, not learning Malay means that I would not understand what the other players say to one another. On the futsol court, I miss out on the interactions between the other players—both friendly and aggressive—and between my teammates, because I cannot speak in Malay. And honestly, the only people who speak English to me are the boys who catcall on the sidelines. If I do not want to be an outsider on the futsol court, then learning Malay is the first step.

At the same time, this experience has made me realize how playing a sport can be akin to a speaking a language. Although I know very few details about my teammates’ personal lives, I now know how they play: where they’re going to kick, if they’re going to chase the ball, how they’re going to defend, etc. The experience has made me realize that getting to know someone does not necessarily require an in-depth heart-to-heart—it can also be through sharing common experiences that do not rely on continued conversation, such as, and most especially, playing a sport.

Anna with some members of her community, post-futsol

Who knew that coming to the other side of the world would not only mean returning to something so familiar, but also lead to expanding my thinking on topics—race and language—that I have never thought about in the context of sports.

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