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Thursday August 18th

'A unique culture': Students form bonds through UNC club table tennis team

Table tennis club President Jasper Ou returns the ball at the team's practice on Thrusday, Feb. 10, 2022.
Buy Photos Table tennis club President Jasper Ou returns the ball at the team's practice on Thrusday, Feb. 10, 2022.

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.

Students sit in scattered chairs, partially watching while also half-attempting to study, with an entrancing show going on around them.

Two players rest a few feet away from the courts, leaned against pool tables covered by green billiard cloth. One of them, sophomore Winfield Warren, spoons away at a Frosty and explains the rules of the game. During tournaments, they play games to 11 — best three games of five wins the match. But now, everything rests on a single contest.

This corner lit by fluorescence is home to a team culture and community that differentiates itself from other club sports at UNC.

Invented in England in the early 20th century, table tennis — originally called pingpong — arose in popularity in Asia as athletes from there, particularly China, dominated the sport starting in the mid-1950s. 

For years at UNC, the club table tennis team has provided a space for interested athletes to participate in the sport. All but four of the UNC club tennis team's 33 members identify as Asian or Asian American.

“It’s cool, I didn’t expect to make American friends when I first came to UNC,” Yi Pan, a sophomore international student from China, said. “I thought that was very tough, we didn’t have much to talk about. But table tennis kind of united us together.”

When a game starts, slow contortions on the serve and return will quickly evolve into rapid-fire instinctual reaction. Players pinch their paddles like a pen, 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 are filled with 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 destress. I know that some sports clubs are super intense about it, and I don’t think that was ever our goal.”

'We had a lot to talk about'

One of those leaning against the pool tables is Ou. After he 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’s the best player we have."

Ou’s journey with the sport started on a day he was too young to remember in 2006, while visiting 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 as it is now, Jasper’s approach was 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.”

Pan discovered the sport as a primary school student in China. When she arrived in Chapel Hill — more than 7,000 miles away from her home in Shanghai — she just wanted to find someone to play with.

She then joined the club team and found several new partners.

“Most people in the table tennis club are Asians, a lot of their parents are Chinese,” she said. “So we had a lot to talk about.”

On the nearest table, Daniel Xie is engaged in a battle with another team member. Xie didn’t practice much growing up, save for the 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 cultivated 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, he’s drawn to the sport by trick shots, “crazy-ass” ones in the middle of the point — it’s an adrenaline rush seeing his work pay off, inching closer to the best.

You can see it now in his play.

One such shot lands, and his opponent falls down on the ground. Another one lands, and his opponent tells him just how lucky he is. A few more, and Xie wins the match.

'A special bond'

When Ou transferred to UNC after his first year of college, he wasn’t sure that 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 most immediate realization upon journeying down to watch the club is its members’ closeness. It's there, in every strike and friendly taunt, point and given pointer, giggle and Wendy’s meal eaten. 

In January, Ou won the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association Carolina Division sectional tournament, leading UNC to its first team title in club history.

These are the shared memories: a two-hour drive to Charlotte, some hours of table tennis, three different cars driving back. One stopping nearby for pizza, one driving past Chapel Hill and down to Cary because Jasper wanted to eat at a restaurant called Noodle Boulevard. 

Some stories involved cars singing karaoke, some playing road games and others sleeping. They had woken up early, after all.

“Got to meet a lot of new people and bond with the people,” Warren said. 

At the end of February, there’s another road trip to look forward to — a regional tournament in Atlanta.

Sometimes, they bond through the club’s GroupMe chat. Other times, in friendly banter and boasts after points won. They also bond by hanging out, playing music, studying and talking, in their locker room in the Union.

But always, their special bond is there.

For Ou, it isn’t clear exactly where it comes from, possibly the majority's shared heritage, possibly the laid-back approach. Some impossible-to-put-your-finger-on aspect of the club is just special, 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.”

The UNC Club Table Tennis team practices in the bottom of the Student Union on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.


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