Approximately 50 Chinese-Americans recently gathered at the Central Valley Elementary School gymnasium. While it was normal for the school to be filled with Chinese-studying students and volunteering parents every Saturday, these attendants had a different, special purpose: to test their mettle, and their paddles, to the chorale of bouncing ping-pong ball.
The Orange County Chinese Association (OCCA) 2019 Zhiyu Cup, sponsored by attorney Zhiyu Hu, saw players from Orange, Rockland, and Bergen counties team up and battle for the championship. Thanks to organizer and OCCA President Kangjian Wu, it was the second ping-pong tournament ever to happen at Central Valley Elementary. The game was one of many events this year to be hosted by the OCCA, whose mission is to promote Chinese culture and heritage in Orange County through educational, social and other local programs.
There was an easy camaraderie am teammates and opponents as they watched their peers play or waited for their next matchup. Applause followed every clean shot and score, and players were never without a smile; the morale and sense of sportsmanship was high.
The first pair of energetic and much-cheered players were none other than attorney Hu himself and state Sen. James Skoufis, a Monroe-Woodbury alumnus who made a valiant effort but was bested by Hu.
An attendant of OCCA Lunar Year celebrations since 2014, Skoufis also helped to save Chinese School for the OCCA community in 2016 and secured a vital grant for OCCA’s mission to promote Chinese culture in 2018.
But what does ping-pong mean to Skoufis?
“Companionship,” the senator answered almost immediately. “After a tough game, you bond.”
He also mentioned that he was a very competitive person, so the games — especially close ones — were a lot of fun. Skoufis also admitted that he was very “rusty” in the beginning of his match with Hu. But with his poised stance and graceful reactions, one might have pinned Skoufis as an old professional at table tennis.
Skoufis started playing table tennis in late middle school or early high school. At a local tournament, he happened to meet his future coach, U.S. Olympian Lily Yip. From there, he kept on training and joining table tennis clubs in both New Jersey and his graduate school, Columbia University. (And you can bet he spent plenty of time playing ping-pong during his five-week stay in China.)
Skoufis’ story mirrored that of many other players’ at the OCCA tournament. Hu had grown up playing ping-pong, even if it took breaking rules to play. As a middle school student in China, the only time he could play ping-pong was at noon, Hu explained.
Being discovered and punished — which meant standing under the Chinese sun for an hour straight — never stopped Hu from continuing to play. By the time he graduated university in Germany, Hu had matched with professional ping-pongers.
Now, Hu sponsors events like the OCCA Ping-Pong Tournament worldwide. In China, schools, scholarships and streets are named after him, and he has even had his face on a postage stamp.
“Make people happy,” Hu said. “If I am successful, I want to give back to society.”
Several players cited that ping-pong was not only a great way for them to exercise, but a fantastic way for them to keep in touch with friends and meet new ones. Local player Fang Cao shared: “I may not remember everyone I meet, but I build up friendships with other community members.”
His friends, Dr. Shuangping Wang and Andy Chen, echoed the sentiment. “It’s partaking in Chinese culture,” Wang added.
At the end of the day, Team C of Bergen County won first place, with Team B of Orange County and Team E of Bergen County taking second and third respectively. Team C, consisting of players Stephen Shen, Kegong Zhang, Kevin Deng and Harry Gao, claimed their championship with joy and grace. Winning player Stephen Shen — who also grew up playing ping-pong and now plays with his children — offered advice for both ping-pong and life: “Don’t lose until the last point!”
In other words: never give up. And don’t forget you’re not alone, either.
“They’re your friends,” Shen spoke about his fellow players. “Have fun and help each other.”