By Zachary Crain
Tucked in a corner at the bottom of the Student Union, down a few sets of stairs or a 2 o’clock turn just past Wendy’s, sit four tables.
Usually, students are able to rent a table and play ping pong here. But today, eight students brought their own paddles.
A few more sit in scattered chairs, part-watching while half-attempting to study with the backdrop of an entrancing show. Two more students 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.
Despite being at a predominately white institution, all but four of the 33 members of UNC’s club table tennis team are either Asian American or Asian, and seven are Chinese international students.
One of the players, sophomore Warren Winfield, leaned against a pool table and spooned away at a Frosty while explaining the rules of the game. In tournaments, they play games to 11 — the best three-games-of-five wins the match. But now, everything rests on a single game.
When a game begins, slow bends on the serve and return quickly evolve into rapid-fire instinctual reaction. Players pinch their paddles in a penhold, 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 games include laughter.
“It’s definitely a unique culture, and it’s really hard to describe,” junior Jasper Ou, the 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.”
After Ou chomps down on a Wendy’s chicken sandwich and disappears for a moment, a few players come over and make sure it’s known:
“He is the best player we have.”
From playing abroad to UNC
Ou’s journey with the sport started on a day he was too young to remember in 2006, on a trip to visit his grandparents in China.
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. But compared to now, Ou’s approach to table tennis was much more relaxed growing up.
“I didn’t ever practice a lot, it was mainly just my dad and my brother,” Ou said. “The passion came during COVID. We just couldn’t really do anything outside, so we just unpacked the table in the garage and played with each other.”
Yi Pan discovered the sport as a primary school student in China. When she arrived in Chapel Hill as a sophomore more than 7,000 miles away from home in Shanghai she just wanted to find someone to play with.
Pan joined the club team and found more than just 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 together.”
On the nearest table, Daniel Xie is engaged in a battle with his friend and roommate, Daniel Wei. Xie didn’t practice much growing up, except for an occasional game with his dad and sister. But in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, high-pressure games at a community table and on the club team sparked his obsession.
“That competitive environment just got me into ping pong,” Xie said. “I would play three hours a day — not even exaggerating. I’d be in the ping pong 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, he’s drawn to the sport by trick shots, which are “crazy-ass” moves in the middle of the point. Xie said it’s an adrenaline rush seeing his work pay off and inching him closer to being the best.
You can see it now as Xie plays against Wei.
One shot lands and Wei falls down on the ground. Another one lands and Wei tells him just how lucky he is. A few more, and Xie wins the match.
Ou transferred to UNC after his freshman year, and it wasn’t immediately clear if he’d 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.”
The team’s special bond
The closeness of the club’s members is immediately obvious when watching them play together. In every strike, friendly taunt, point, given pointer, giggle and Wendy’s product eaten — you can see the closeness is there.
One of the special shared memories the players have is their journey to Charlotte, North Carolina for the sectional tournament. The drive consisted of two hours driving down, three different cars, and many hours of table tennis. One hour was spent stopping nearby for pizza and another driving past Chapel Hill and down to Cary, North Carolina because Ou wanted to eat at a restaurant called Noodle Boulevard. In some cars people were singing karaoke, others were playing road games and others were sleeping.
Winfield said this tournament road trip brought the players closer together.
“Got to meet a lot of new people and bond with the people,” Winfield said.
All the players say this road trip is their best memory with the team.
During the trip, Ou won the individual title at the tournament and led UNC to its first National Collegiate Table Tennis Association Carolina Division team championship in club history.
At the end of February, there’s another road trip to look forward to — this time to the regional tournament in Atlanta, Georgia.
Sometimes, the players reveal their closeness by talking in the club’s GroupMe chat. Other times it’s found in the friendly banter and boasts after winning points. Sometimes, they show it just by hanging out, playing music, studying, and talking in their locker in the Student Union.
But always, that closeness is there.
For Ou, it isn’t clear exactly where it comes from. It could come from the group’s shared heritage, or maybe their laid-back approach. To Ou, some impossible-to-put-your-finger-on aspect of the club is that it feels special, just unique.
“You’ll usually find me here all the time,” Ou said. “You’ll find them all just hanging around here. I think it’s really nice, actually, that we can all just have a place that we can all just collectively hang out in. I don’t know. I think it’s just really nice.”
Edited by Sabrina Ortiz and Julia Rafferty