By Zachary Crain
Tucked in a corner at the bottom of the Student Union at UNC-Chapel Hill are four tables.
Usually, students play pingpong here, if they’d like to rent a game. But now, a group of students play eight-play table tennis here, and they bring their own paddles.
A few more members sit in scattered chairs, partly watching while attempting to study with the backdrop of an entrancing show. Two more rest a few feet away from the courts, leaning against pool tables covered by well-worn green billiard cloth.
This fluorescently lit corner is home to a team culture and community that differentiates itself from other club sports at UNC-Chapel Hill.
At a predominately white institution, all but four of the 33 members of UNC-CH’s club table tennis team are Asian or Asian-American, with seven of them being Chinese international students.
One of the players, sophomore Warren Winfield, leans against a pool table and explains the rules of the game while he spoons away at a Frosty. In tournaments, they play games to 11 points — the best of five wins the match. But now, everything rests on a single game.
When a game commences, slow contortions on the serve and return quickly evolve into rapid-fire instinctual reactions. Players pinch their paddles in a penhold grip – an Asian-style grip in which the player holds the racket with its head turned down – then back away from the table and spin the ball out of sight and onto their opponent’s side.
The atmosphere is simultaneously relaxed and competitive. Some games are filled with compliments and conversations, others with trash talk and animated reactions. All include laughter.
“It’s definitely a unique culture, and it’s really hard to describe,” Jasper Ou, junior president of the club, said. “It’s just a nice way to de-stress. I know that some sports clubs are super intense about it, and I don’t think that was ever our goal.”
Ou leans against a pool table and watches. When he disappears for a moment, a few players come over and make sure it’s known:
“He’s the best player we have.”
Meet the players
Ou’s journey with the sport started during a 2006 visit to his grandparents in China on a day he was too young to remember.
His parents took his older brother, Jonathan, to a table tennis community center and he immediately fell in love with the sport. A few years later, Jonathan was competing in the Junior Olympics. However, Jasper’s approach to table tennis was more relaxed growing up, and it still is to this day.
“I didn’t ever practice a lot; it was mainly just my dad and my brother,” Ou said. “The passion came during COVID.”
Ou said that since there wasn’t much else to do during the pandemic, they would unpack the table in the garage and play against each other.
Before he came to be president of the table tennis club, Ou transferred to UNC-CH after his freshman year. It wasn’t immediately clear that he would find an Asian-American community in Chapel Hill.
“It’s definitely unique in that aspect; I think it’s really helpful,” Ou said. “I can’t speak on behalf of other Asian people, but I haven’t really found that large of an Asian-American community, so this is nice, honestly. That’s the best way I can put it.”
Team member Yi Pan discovered the sport as a primary school student in China. When she arrived in Chapel Hill as a sophomore, some 7,000 miles away from her home in Shanghai, she wanted to find someone to play with.
Pan joined the club team and found more than a few partners.
“It’s cool, I didn’t expect to make American friends when I first came to UNC,” Pan said. “I thought that was very tough. We didn’t have much to talk about. But table tennis kind of united us.”
At the nearest table, Daniel Xie is engaged in a battle with his friend and roommate, Daniel Wei. Xie didn’t practice much growing up, save for the odd game with his dad and sister, but in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, high-pressure games at community tables and on the club team created his obsession.
“That competitive environment just got me into pingpong,” Xie said. “I would play three hours a day, not even exaggerating. I’d be in the pingpong room all the time trying to play, trying to get better. It was really fun for me. I liked to see that kind of improvement.”
Today, Xie is drawn to the sport by trick shots. For him, it’s an adrenaline rush seeing his work pay off.
He shows his improvement now while playing against Wei.
One shot lands and Wei falls down to the ground. Another one lands and Wei tells him just how lucky he is. A few more and Xie wins the match.
The club’s dynamic
One of the group’s shared memories includes the two-hour drive to Charlotte for the sectional tournament, some hours of table tennis and then taking three different cars back to campus. One of the groups stopped nearby for pizza while another drove to Cary so they could eat at a restaurant called Noodle Boulevard.
On the way back, one group sang karaoke, another played road games and another slept. Each of them had woken up early, after all. Either way, the team said this is their favorite memory together.
It was during this same trip that Ou won the individual title and led UNC-CH to its first National Collegiate Table Tennis Association team championship in club history.
At the end of February, there’s another road trip to look forward to: the regional tournament in Atlanta.
The most immediate realization upon journeying down to watch the club is the camaraderie and closeness between its members. In every strike and friendly taunt, point, given pointer and giggle, it’s there.
Sometimes, they show their closeness by talking in the club’s GroupMe chat. Sometimes, in friendly banter and boasts after winning points. Sometimes, they show it just by hanging out, playing music, studying and talking in their locker room at the Student Union.
“You’ll usually find me here all the time,” Ou said. “You’ll find them all just hanging around here.”
For Ou, it isn’t clear exactly where it comes from. It could be from the group’s shared heritage or from the laid-back approach of the club. To him, some inexpressible aspect of the club is unique.
Edited by Casey Griffith and Nick Battaglia