Learning to enjoy the sport of table tennis after ‘Asian-style parenting’

Like he would a ping pong ball, Peter Yau didn’t hesitate to smash home the point: he didn’t always enjoy playing table tennis. 

Settled on the cushioned bench of a restaurant just steps away from the one he co-owns, Bovine Rice Bowls, the 35-year-old Vancouver, B.C. native spoke openly about his back-and-forth relationship with the sport — and, more importantly, the effects of being pushed too hard by Asian parents.

And there begins a tale familiar to many North American Asians.

With more than 25 years of competitive ping pong under his belt, the former top-five ranked provincial table tennis player has no shortage of great memories from the sport. But he has also seen how over-pushing has taken its toll — with himself, with fellow competitors, and now with up-and-coming players. 

“The sad thing is that from my generation, I’m one of only a few players still playing,” Yau said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of young people get pushed too hard to the point where you stop enjoying it, myself included. Most young people, when they get a chance to not play, they’ll stop. But I resented hard enough for my dad to back off, and that was when I started enjoying it even more.” 

an action shot of Peter Yau returning a ping pong ball across the table
Photo Credit: Submitted by Peter Yau

Yau recalls a time in his teens when his dad refused to let him join his friends at an arcade amusement centre on a Friday night because he had to practise. That memory, and the anger from it, remains fresh. And while those experiences may add up and lead to resentment and renunciation — be it sports, academics, music, or other extracurricular activities — this was not the case for Yau.

Crediting his wisdom with age and his faith, it took years for him to finally make peace with his parents’ approach and to appreciate the time he now has to play table tennis — by competing weekly in a local league.

“Their pushing is their way of showing they care,” he said. “There were a lot of things I wasn’t happy with how my dad handled when we grew up, and ping pong was a big part of it. Later when I became a Christian, I learned to forgive him because I recognized his intentions were good. It’s part of that Asian parenting that wants to get their kids to be the best they can.”

After moving to Canada from Hong Kong at nine years old, Yau’s parents wanted him to pick a sport to play, and “table tennis made sense because (we as Asians) are not the biggest of guys and the sport is agility and technique-based.”

He would then practise 15 hours each week, and in the summer during high school, his parents would bring him to China to train. 

Peter Yau smiles at the camera while holding up a cheque and standing in front of a sign that reads, "2013 Pan-Asia Pacific Open Table Tennis Tournament Cash Awards Sponsored By: Mr. King Lam of Geteam Investment Ltd."
Photo Credit: Submitted by Peter Yau

At age 13, he realized that table tennis wasn’t just fun, but he could compete at a higher level. Entered as a lower-ranked competitor, he surprised the field at the Canada Winter Games, finishing fourth. The next year, he finished in the top spots again. Part of that success at a young age, he recognized, comes from not yet fully feeling the mental pressure of competition.

“This is the same progression I see in kids now,” he said. “When you’re just starting out, there’s no psychological pressure. When you get into some sort of ranking, the pressure comes in and you start to play worse. That’s what happened to me, so I started to scale back.”

At about 17 years old, Yau was one of the top players in the province and won the B.C. Men’s Open, calling it the best accomplishment in his table tennis career. Then, with the influx of Chinese players and coaches immigrating to Canada, it became harder to “compete with those guys, because they play for a living.” 

Yau acknowledges that table tennis participation has grown. But to make playing it a career is a whole different issue, as high-level players have to compete in professional leagues in Europe or Asia. 

“You’re always limited geographically and how much demand there is for a sport like that,” he said. “In North America, there just isn’t enough. To make it to the next level to financially make money from it, it’s too hard.”  

Peter Yau leans over next to a ping pong table, holding a tennis ball in his left hand and a paddle in his right hand
Photo Credit: Submitted by Peter Yau

As for table tennis’ stereotype of being an Asian-dominated sport, that may be changing as well.

“In North America, mainstream sports are very dominant in terms of being on T.V.,” he said. “Outside of tennis, not a lot of racquet sports get attention. What I’ve seen worldwide, there’s more non-Asian players coming onto the scene.”

Yau hopes to see more kids take up table tennis — with a focus on the enjoyment of the sport.

“Even when I talk to parents now, I pose this question to them: ‘Do you want your kids to have a life-long hobby or do you want them to win a few trophies, use it for their university application, and then never play it again?’” he said. “That’s a decision the parents have to make. That’s the Asian-style parenting.”

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