Oak Park Community Center transforms into international gathering spot over table tennis

The rectangular recreation room at the Oak Park Community Center doesn’t give visitors many clues they’re in Sacramento. Five skylights and a few windows shaded in beige provide no view of the outside world.

If you have no outside context, it could be mistaken for a spot in Asia.

On a recent weekday, two players rallied with each other for seven minutes at each of the five tables while up to 30 other players waited their turn in blue plastic chairs on the room’s outside border. It is jovially loud; Cantonese, Mandarin, and other regional dialects like Shanghainese share the acoustics with English and even Japanese.

The Oak Park Community Center’s adult table tennis program is an international bubble. The free sessions draw a crowd to the center off 8th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. It’s always been a hit said Kevin Calhoun, the community center’s program director.

“It was pretty good right off the bat. There were about 25 at the first session,” Calhoun said. “The program started about 2 1/2years ago. We were trying to get more seniors into the center and more ethnic groups.”

The demographic for the weekday rallies makes sense. According to the most recent International Table Tennis Federation rankings, the top five female players in the world, and four of the top five men, are Chinese. At No. 33, Kanak Jha is the highest-ranked American.

Most of the regulars in the Oak Park group are originally from mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, though others hail from Vietnam, Korea, Guyana, Aruba, and yes, the United States.

At noon on a recent Monday, those in the group average 65 years of age. The upper limit is 90, and a few relative youngsters in their 40s contribute to the overall energy. There are five married couples in attendance, including a man the group lovingly calls A.B.C., which stands for American Born Chinese, given his birthplace. He alternates between Cantonese and English with his Chinese wife and the rest of the crew.

So why do these folks come to the community center? Taking a jab at her husband, Wendy Wong said, “I follow the old man!” Nearby, Pui Yip yelled, “Fun!” while her visiting son, Bryan Yip, compared her to a large child.

It is a good-natured way to spend retirement, as well. No games are scored over the course of four hours: there are only seven-minute rallies. When the timer’s alarm sounds, those at the tables head to the blue chairs to rest, while 10 new players get their chance to smash, receive and pepper the ping pong ball.

Skill levels vary, from beginners who are still learning to hold the paddle, up to some of the best seniors in the city; they hit balls at sharp angles with simultaneous top and side spin. For these players, an approaching ball just a few inches off the table is an easy spike. Opponents must read the spin on their serves to return the ball in play.

Players alternate between shakehand and penhold grips. A shakehand player palms the handle with four fingers while the index finger rests on the paddle’s rubber hitting surface. The penholder puts the paddle in her hand by holding the handle no different than a ballpoint pen.

Some of the high-level seniors play with their off hand, or with a grip they do not usually use, in order to level the playing field when matched with a partner with less skill.

And sometimes things get really interesting. There is the American gentleman who wraps 10 layers of multi-colored latex balloons around his paddle for a different feel than a paddle’s standard red-and-black rubber pads. Some other players have followed suit. It is an indicator of the kind of fun these folks are having.

Laughter is ubiquitous; a ball accidentally hit too high gets stuck in one of the fluorescent lighting boxes. A smash slaps into a receiver’s shirt. A player looks like he is doing a traditional dance while he plays. A woman retrieving an errant ball on the floor under another pair’s table interrupts their rally with a solid forehand of her own. The observers cheer from the sidelines, “Lihai!” in Mandarin, which translates to, “Awesome!”

“There’s great harmony,” Gene Wong said. “The group’s motto is ‘Good health. Good friends. Good food.’”