Living abroad in any different culture is a balancing act, China being no exception. Expats living in the People’s Republic face a daily tightrope-walk between antipathy and assimilation: some people refuse to leave the expat bubble at all, frequenting only the narrowest slivers of China that seem most like home, whereas others are engulfed so completely they never emerge. Most strike a balance, but it takes effort. Everybody needs an 'in,’ or a backdoor into Chinese culture. Many start studying Mandarin, some do calligraphy, others start practicing Tai-Chi; everyone has something. However, the most consistently successful ‘in’ I have ever seen in China is having Chinese friends; and the best way I have ever seen people making Chinese friends is organised sport.
Think about it. You have a ready made team of friends, the competitive element allows you to bond more closely than other social relationships, the rules of the sport are essentially a universal language that does away with the need for you to even speak the language and it gets you out of the house. Handy. Here are the best:
If you play basketball in China, you are made. In Leslie Chang’s book Factory Girls, she details how many job descriptions in China for young males specifically ask for basketball players (“School guard, 1.7 metres or over, those playing basketball strongly favoured”), and if all of a sudden the local team gets a giant laowai to play for them, you will be greeted with the most hearty of welcomes.
A non-basketballer myself, I could only watch with an unsettling mix of envy and bemusement as a new foreign teacher swept into my school day 1, joined the team by day 2 and by week’s end had twice as many Chinese friends as I had accumulated in a whole year. They all hung out together, taught my friend Chinese, took him to the best restaurants, tried to set him up with an alarming amount of their female friends and paid for an unfairly large portion of his drinks. Honestly, basketball is the secret key to “learning” China. Most schools have teams, there are courts all over the country where you can just rock up and play, and failing that, your local sports centre or park will most certainly have a team. Go ask.
Soccer, kick-about, whatever. This is a more omni-gender sport than basketball (not that basketball is Just For Boys, but there will be less eyebrows raised at a foreign girl joining a football rather than a basketball team), and so long as you have a particular talent – speed, accuracy, goalkeeping, impenetrable defending – you will find yourself included. Many school teachers play football, and there are plenty of inter and intra-city leagues that you can get in on. The best way I have seen is to just turn up, ask to just have an informal kick around and then stun them with your top-left corner strike. Or just seem keen; they will ask you to play. Once this has happened the set-up will be exactly like a basketball team; ready-made friends, regular fixtures, good exercise. The works.
This technically might not be a sport and in the lower-tiered Chinese cities you might struggle to find bowling alleys, but once you do you have hit serious gold. It is quite a niche sport in China, so having played a couple of times in your youth will put you at a decent footing. The best people to play are the regulars at the alley. Games are cheap (around 15 – 20RMB per person) and if you go frequently, sharing the odd beer and challenging the regulars to a game now and again, you can make really good friends. It is much less strenuous than basketball or football, and in a much more relaxed atmosphere, which is perfect for people who perhaps aren’t particularly competitive. At the very least, it’s a good night out.
I include badminton because it is a non ping-pong racquet game. If you can play ping-pong, and play it to the level that you don’t get ritually thrashed by every Chinese person you’ve ever challenged, then well done. You truly are special. For the rest of us, badminton is the only option. It is also the go-to street sport for Chinese people. At first I thought it was strange seeing people play in the middle of a fairly bustling sidewalk, but then I saw two off duty bank clerks whacking a shuttlecock back and forth between a row of ATM machines. Apparently, it’s the done thing. This is less of a team sport, but if you have a couple of rackets and an acquaintance you’d like to know better, perhaps a quick knock-around in the park is all you need to cement the friendship. Racquets are cheap, and even if you can’t book a court, all you really need is an open space.
This is for those who really want to experience China. Snooker is huge here, far bigger than it ever was in the UK where it began. Unfortunately, the rules are a little tricky, but many expats have a decent working knowledge of pool, and graduating upwards needs but a little study. There are snooker halls everywhere in China. There are special buildings (usually with built-in KTV clubs), parks have roped off areas dedicated solely to snooker tables and occasionally you will just see tables down the side of random buildings. If you have the gumption to go up and challenge someone to a game (especially if you win), then you will get instant respect. Handily, snooker is also a smoker’s and a drinker’s game, so the social side of things can be helped along nicely.
In each of the sports/games mentioned above, your level of talent will obviously vary. Being spectacularly gifted with help get you into any team, but if you are useless that can sometimes be equally beneficial. As long as you go in with an open mind, you needn’t be good to make some real friends.
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