Ask the cosmopolitan crowd to list the most culturally diverse places in the United States, and this sleepy town in the Susquehana River Valley is not likely to be on the tip of anyone's tongue.

Yet for the 12- and 13-year-old boys lucky enough to be here now, the Little League World Series is opening their eyes to a tapestry of foreign customs and their ears to a cacophany of languages that no trip to the U.N. could rival.

Nearly 200 players from nine countries on four continents are living together in a melting pot called The Grove, a cluster of residential suites that all come with a window into foreign ways of life.

Members of the New England champion Fairfield American Legion team have been attentive students in a global-cultures course where ping pong, not baseball, has emerged as the universal language.

One of their African teachers has been Ronald Otaa, an infielder for the Uganda team and the star of the table tennis table.

According to Fairfield American catcher Biagio Paoletta, Otaa had never played ping pong before coming to Williamsport. Yet in full games, he's beaten all comers from all nations.

"He'll play lefty sometimes," Fairfield outfielder Matty Clarkin marveled on Friday. "And he still beats everybody."

In The Grove, the 11 Fairfield kids have hosted the Panama team in their suites and swapped commemorative team pins; they've learned to greet Asian players in a new tongue. They shared a practice field with their new friends from Uganda, who -- as is their custom at home -- don't wear shoes to practice.

The Fairfield kids also have taken a serious pause to realize they take many of life's most basic needs for granted -- clean water chief among them.

For a group of athletes, it makes sense that the table tennis table would be a social magnet, one where the competition is friendly.

It has attracted coaches, as well, who watch the joyful interaction in amazement.

"My best memory is going to be watching or playing Ping-Pong against kids from Uganda," said T.J. Paoletta, the catcher's dad and a coach. "I hope they all appreciate what it means. These are things that I've never done before in my life."

Vancouver, Canada, pitcher Cortez D'Alessandro said he's enjoying the melting-pot experience with kids from many cultures.

"Just meeting them and talking with them -- some don't speak English -- but it's just really fun to socialize with them," he said.

Fairfield's players have said the language barrier is not as big a problem as many would expect.

"Most teams have a couple of kids that speak English," Clarkin said. "Some of the Japanese kids taught us a word in Japanese."

What was the word?

"Konichiwa," Clarkin said. "It means hello or how are you."

When Fairfield received a call from Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine on Friday, the players tested their new word out on the Stamford-native, who managed in Japan for seven years.

"We said `konichiwa' to him," Clarkin said. "And he answered in Japanese."

Learning that bit of Japanese allows the Fairfield players to acknowledge greetings in another tongue.

"The Japanese kids will walk by and they say `hello' in English, and our kids answer `konichiwa,'" T.J. Paoletta said. "It's amazing."

There have been more serious lessons, too.

"[Uganda] was just happy they weren't drinking brown water," Clarkin said. "They were so happy because the water here out of the faucet is always clear and clean."

Getting to know foreign players and watching their children interact with them has enlightened some coaches, too.

"Meeting these kids from these other countries and having our kids exposed to that has been just awesome," T.J. Paoletta said. "It's really been a wonderful experience. It's my first experience in Williamsport, and my one regret is I haven't been here sooner."

The best part about the new friendships, he said, is that the Fairfield kids will leave Williamsport with more than just memories and cell-phone pictures.

"They've gotten phone numbers and email addresses from kids from all around the world," he said.

After the World Series, however, some players will cross the sea and return to homes where there are no cell phones, no computers, not even clean water.

For them, the simplest things will be the most cherished.

Asked what his greatest experience at the World Series has been, Ugandan infielder Daniel Alio didn't hesitate.

"Making friends," he said.;