Living as an expat in China can be a balancing act, with many walking a daily tightrope between antipathy and assimilation. Some refuse to leave the expat bubble at all, experiencing only the narrowest slivers of “real China”, whereas others are embedded so deeply into local life they rarely emerge. Whatever level of assimilation you’re hoping to achieve, the first step is making Chinese friends. In order to do this, many expats in China study Mandarin, some do calligraphy, others practice Tai-Chi. However, the most consistently successful way to make Chinese friends I’ve ever seen is through organised sport.
Source: Sven Mandel
Through the medium of sport, you’ll have a ready-made group of people at your disposal. The competitive element allows team mates to bond more closely than other social relationships, while the rules of sport are essentially a universal language that all but does away with worries about communication. But not all sports are made equal when it comes to making local friends in China. Here I bring you five of the best for this specific purpose.
If you play basketball, you’re sorted in China. In Leslie Chang’s book Factory Girls, she details how many job descriptions in China specifically call for basketball players (“School guard, 1.7 metres or over, those playing basketball strongly favoured”), as so many workplaces in China have their own amateur teams. If a local team gets the offer of a giant laowai to play for them, you can bet you’ll be greeted with the most hearty of welcomes.
Not a basketball player myself, I could only watch with an mix of envy and confusion as a new foreign teacher swept into my school one day, joined the staff basketball team and had twice as many Chinese friends by the end of the week as I had accumulated in a whole year. The Chinese teammates taught the new teacher Mandarin, took him to the best local restaurants, tried to set him up with all their female friends and paid for an unfairly large proportion of his drinks. Honestly, basketball is the secret to making local friends in China. Most schools have teams, there are courts all over the country where you can just rock up and play. Failing that, your local sports centre will most certainly have a team. If you’ve got the skills, the height, or both, don’t waste them!
Football, soccer, a kick-about, or whatever you want to call it, provides another great opportunity for expats to make Chinese friends. And what’s more, soccer is more of an omni-gender sport than basketball in China. Basketball is, of course, not “just for boys”, but as it is incredibly male-dominated in China, many female players may be reluctant to put themselves out there in the ways described above. There will, however, be a whole lot fewer eyebrows raised at a foreign girl joining a football team, especially if you have a particular talent, such as speed, accuracy, goalkeeping or impenetrable defending skills.
Many teachers play football with their schools or privately-organised teams, and there are plenty of inter and intra-city leagues that you can get in on. One of the best approaches is to just turn up where you know games are taking place, ask to just have an informal kick around and then stun them with your top-left corner strike. Once the introductions to a team have been made, the set-up will be exactly like in basketball; ready-made friends, regular fixtures, good exercise and, most likely, the added bonus of additional social events.
Although pushing the definition of sport a little and certainly being less prominent in China’s lower-tiered cities, bowling is serious gold for expats looking to make local friends in China with minimal physical exertion. Bowling is still quite a niche sport in China, so if you’ve been to a couple of kids’ birthday parties in your youth, you’ll already be halfway decent.
The best people to play are the regulars at the alley, so go hang out, sink some beers and challenge the friendly-seeming folk to a game every once in a while. Games are cheap and the atmosphere is much more relaxed than at a football pitch or basketball court. Bowling is the perfect sport for less-competitive foreigners. At the very least, you’re likely to find some drinking buddies.
I include badminton purely because it’s not ping-pong. If you can play ping-pong 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 mere mortals, badminton is best option for racket sports in China.
Badminton is the go-to street sport for Chinese people, whether it’s old couples playing in the park or security guards having a bat-around on their break. Although not a team sport, if you have a couple of rackets and a Chinese acquaintance you’d like to know better, a quick game in the park might be all you need to cement the friendship. Racquets are cheap, the rules are simple and all you really need is an open space in which to play.
This is for those who really want to experience grassroots China. Snooker is huge here, far bigger than it ever was in the UK where it began. The rules are a little complex, but expats with a decent working knowledge of pool will easily graduate upwards with a little study. There are snooker tables everywhere in China, including in special halls (usually as part of KTV clubs) and parks with roped off covered areas. If you have the gumption to go up and challenge someone to a game, you’ll get instant respect, especially if you win. Handily, snooker is also a smoker’s and a drinker’s game, so making friends is extra easy if you also partake in one, the other or both.
What other sports provide great opportunities for expats to make local friends in China? Tell us about your experiences in the comments box below.
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Keywords: Making local friends in China
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cannot agree with the snooker one, claiming it is "bigger than it ever has been in the UK". In the 1980s it was a televised sport that was absolutely huge and many players from that era became household names that are still famous or well known names to this day. Add to the fact that one of the UK's highest ever terrestrial TV broadcasts was a game of snooker (on a Sunday night) pours cold water on this claim as well.
May 28, 2021 11:31 Report Abuse