Table tennis as an instrument to exchange cultural understanding in public space

table tennis in a park in Amsterdam

A brief history of table tennis

Table tennis or Ping Pong (Ping Pong is a register trademark name in the US) may be commonly thought of as some sort of goofy game that was played in fake wood paneled basement rec. rooms of our youth, but in fact is a game with the history of being the sport of kings. The early beginnings of the sport were thought to have derived from a game called “inside tennis” that was played by British royalty.

The sport became popular with upper class Brits and also in the British army. Early equipment of the sport was said to be rounded wine corks and cigar box lids, which gives some insight into the early tone of the game. But a serious element of table tennis’ history is its location as a sport embedded into the culture of British military colonialism, which literally allowed the sport to go around the world and was exposed to many cultures.

I was surprised that the origins of the table tennis was British, given the strong impression of the sport’s Asian dominance in my mind. Even the name Ping Pong seems an Asian term. I am thinking of a book that I read with my kids call “The Story of Ping” about a duck lost on the Yangtze River in China. Anyways it could some sort of racist assumption on my part.

Ping Pong Diplomacy

Another memory of table tennis was from that historic visit of President Nixon to China in the early 1970’s. The visit was the start of normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries and was even tagged with the term “ping pong diplomacy” as part of the meeting were games of table tennis between the two nations players.
Wikipedia on ping pong diplomacy

I remember as child watching TV in the morning before school and our cartoons being pre-empted by a broadcast of the Nixon’s trip and being upset about it, but at the same time being fascinated by the images.

Last memory of table tennis: When I was growing up we would go to a “rec. centre” called the Dalewood pool – just saying the name makes me smell the chlorine. We would pay a dime to swim in the pool and then play a weird game of ping pong round table where we circled the table waiting for a turn at the paddle and who ever lost the point had to get back in the circle around the table. It was fun and afterwards we would get springrolls from the only Chinese restaurant in our ‘hood and walk home. Good memories.

The point

Vancouver has embarked on a brave experiment as City. We are becoming one of the most diverse cities in Canada where in parts English is not the majority language. This is a state to be celebrated and understood. One of the city’s big challenges is how do have more intercultural understanding? One could think of the conceptualize of intercultural understanding as a question that one asks themselves: “How do I understand myself and my position in my culture in relation to other people’s culture?” and the expression of the questioning of one’s own position in their culture is how we are creating together a new cultural together.

To be successful in the experiment or this cultural mission we need to have a place where we can meet in public to exchange ideas. I think that our parks and communities centres are the places where in Vancouver we are currently doing this. But we need to start doing it with some “intentionality”. This to say with the goal of promoting and facilitating intercultural understanding, which is also saying we need to talk with fellow residents.
I know it’s a “guy thing” as a way of getting know other people by “doing stuff together” other than just sitting and talking and communicating, but there is a beauty in the unscripted moments in public space where we talk with our neighbours.

There are places where moments of informal communications happen, when you are supervising your kids on play equipment and one has the opportunity to talk with other parents and caregivers. Dog parks, community gardens and park benches could be thought of as devices to facilitate and promote culture.

Ok what about table tennis? This is the big idea for Vancouver. What if table tennis were in parks and this became a central metaphor of our city (forget about hockey, that’s not to say that I am not a “huge fan” of hockey)? Table tennis is the second largest sport in the world after football. The very structure of the game is about exchange, the back and forth of the ball is the very image of communication, promotion of equality and social justice. Think of the beauty of a game that was the product of the British colonialism project adopted by Asian culture and people and then migrates back to Vancouver where it becomes a device for intercultural understanding and exchange.

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