China is one of the fastest growing economies on the world and proving itself to be a big competitor on the world stage. However, while it seeks to modernise and accommodate to Western norms, the government seems to still oppose any notion of Westernisation ‘poisoning’ its traditional identity. For my thesis, Ultimate served as my case study for this paradox. It was the perfect platform to watch the evolution of an American ‘product’ in a Chinese environment and observe the local and foreigner interaction that eventuated. Language barriers, cultural differences and contrasting sports upbringings were all brought together under this universal language of sport and Ultimate Frisbee.
During my time in China, it was very apparent that the style of play here was vastly different to what I had been used to playing in Australia and watching games from America – my thesis research was no different. The physiological differences between the locals and foreigners was exceedingly obvious when it came to making big athletic plays. Successful local teams have been the ones who have managed to play to their own strengths utilising a much shorter game with lots of smaller cuts and handler movement. My thesis looked at those teams who managed to successfully adapt the game rather than attempt to mimic the game of the Americans who had taught them – rather than having one culture dominate over another – compromising between the two styles seemed to work best.
Not only were there physiological differences but psychological differences as well. All my interviewees observed that much of the local Chinese population lacked an upbringing in team sports which left them at a disadvantage when it came to field awareness, team spirit and also a sense of elite competition. Sports such as Badminton and Table Tennis have a heavy focus on the individual and working on a particular skill – many newer players could be taught to throw but they wouldn’t know how to time a cut or find the open space because most of the sports they have grown up with don’t require these sorts of skills. During my research, those successful local players were the ones who players who had played many team sports such as basketball and soccer or attended a sports university. Furthering this – the even more successful teams were the ones who were able to communicate well with each other. Language was important but understanding cultural norms and compromising on both sides was key. A lot of local teams would allow many of the foreigners to completely take over but this did not always translate well to successful teams – it was those teams who could work together, communicate well and compromise on both sides who had more longevity and success as a team.
One of the most interesting observations made was the evolution of Spirit of the Game. Ultimate has been taught to the locals by the expatriates so it follows on that SotG has also been taught by these same expatriates. There are many players who believe that SotG in China is extremely poor – but is this then the fault of those who taught them or the fault of the locals who do not know the rules well enough to execute them. It should be noted that there are NO Chinese versions of the USAU or WFDF rules so if it is indeed true that SotG is poor, whose fault is it – and more importantly – how to we rectify this? In the same line of thought, is the Western culture prevalent in China the result of them accepting the contrasting culture or the result of Western culture forcing itself into China and – according to the government – obliterating traditional Chinese culture.
Ultimate Frisbee’s unique element of self-refereeing allowed for observations of interactions between highly dissimilar cultures essential to my thesis topic. Western culture especially, has bled into the fabric of local Chinese culture and it has been both embraced and dismissed by different groups of the population. My thesis observed the way an American ‘product’ was brought into China and the way is has been both successfully, and perhaps not so successfully been embraced by the locals and how this has been done. You can read my full thesis here.
Feature photo by X-Com Sports