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Assimilate! Assimilate!

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At present I’m currently struggling with what appears to my eyes anyway and increasing cultural barrier between my need to more deeply integrate into the local Badminton culture and the need to keep my own identity.

The readings this week took in Geertz and Margret Mead, and it brought up for me interesting facets of the badminton community and how I fit into that social structure as an outsider.

One of the things that keeps popping up, is the pervasive attitudes towards organised competition. In the British tradition, there are strong paradigms and unwritten rules, designed so that not only can there be a continuum of what externally could be construed as ‘unnecessary politeness’, but also to facilitate ‘positive participation’ for everyone playing – not just the victors.

Whilst obvious more complex than my clumsy commentary, Asian attitudes towards the concepts of ‘sportsmanship’ appear to the Anglo-Saxon sportsperson rather brutal and self serving.  Amongst these accepted norms of behaviour is the concept of ‘sandbagging’ or ‘trophy-hunting’ – where competitors exploit the amateur nature of open and graded competitions to deliberately enter into lower graded competitions solely one presumes to win trophies.

To the British tradition of chin-up sportsmanship – and I suspect to many of the silent masses – this is abhorrent and anti-social behaviour, but it remains rampant.  As you can imagine, it also prevents newcomers from entering into the scene, as typically players for example play in a B-Grade competition on a club level, enter an open and graded competition, and find they’re up against A-Grade players.  Or worse.  It’s one of those aspects to the games that is somewhat accepted and explained away by the proponents just simply because “it’s not breaking any rules”.  However, it is breaking the rules by “bringing the sport into disrepute”, (clearly an alien concept lost-in-translation) and not only a raft of social rules such as concepts good sportsmanship, acceptable behaviour, and so-forth, but also larger problems such as the impact it has on encouraging new players to enter competitions.  It acts to exclude, to alienate, and undermine the good intentions of those amateur club officials who in their spare time organise these competitions in good faith.

These behaviours are completely alien to the English sporting tradition.

The ‘rot starts from the top’, however.  During the past 20 years there has been many unwritten codes of conduct that have slowly been eroded.  For example, traditionally if you win a point by hitting someone with the shuttle, you apologise for it, usually by raising your racket and nodding to acknowledge your assumably bad behavior.  However, this is becoming increasingly uncommon within the pro ranks, and that behaviour is being emulated by amateurs.  Another common type of behaviour is the return of the shuttle to the other side of the net.  If you lose a point and the shuttle is on your side of the net, the accepted behaviour was to scoop the shuttle up and hit it back to your opponent.  In the modern experience however, the pros began adopting a psychological tactic in which you just flick the shuttle under the net, into the vague vicinity of the centre of the court.  The degree to which it lands within this vague vicinity somewhat reflects your contempt for your opponent or the manner in which that point was won.  This is also being emulated by amateurs now.

Other behaviour which you could write a paper on alone, is the attitudes of some players and national teams to only view the rules as a pesky framework which must be subverted and undermined at all costs.  The prime example of this was the ousting of the Chinese and Korean womens’ doubles teams from the Olympics laste year. Because because of the draw, tactically neither wanted to win, so they both ‘tanked’ the game.  There is also the well known but seemingly quietly accepted behaviour of the Chinese, where in the majority of times during competition, if two Chinese players are drawn against eachother, one mysteriously grants the other a walkover, gets a mysterious illness, or pulls out due to injury.

In combination with these ‘new rules of acceptable behaviour’, on a grassroots level there is a raft of culturally exclusive behaviours that are subtly and perhaps subconsciously in my experience tend to exclude Westerners and alienate newcomers.  One of the factors that I have a hard time getting a handle on, is the lack of any sort of rapport or intimacy between players, and the way they seem to express themselves predominantly through their online ‘virtual’ persona.  For example, on a few occasions I’ve discovered on Facebook that two players I’ve been seeing at various social ‘hits’ are actually a couple, and I had no inclination they were anything more than vaguely friends.  I’ve seen photos of people dining together who I can’t even really recall seeing speak to each other at these social hits. Completely alien hierarchical behaviour, where two players who don’t know each other play against each other, assuming a ‘master-servant’ relationship on court depending on who appears to be the stronger player prior to playing.

Many evenings of so-called social play, between matches I’ve found myself sitting in the middle of a group of mute people all checking their facebook or speaking in their native tongues – or worse – being involved in a conversation in English before it somehow changes to the language of the dominant group.  Since I started playing, I have initiated 99% of all conversation, and if I don’t initiate conversation, during the long waits between games (often up to 30 minutes) I will be sitting there in silence.

From the outsiders point-of-view – and especially those well versed in the British sporting traditions – much of this behaviour is very alien, and I’m still writing about these things despite this July marking my 5th year of playing badminton an a bi-weekly basis.  Whilst I can hardly count myself as an immersive anthropologist – and I apologise to those true ground-breakers in even suggesting the smallest parallel – I do feel that I do get the tiniest insight into what challenges many exploratory anthropologist investigating other cultures must feel.  On many levels, I have little explanation for the behaviours and actions I’m witnessing.

So all of this begs the question – Do I just accept all of this as the dominant cultural behaviour, or do I impose myself and disrupt the status-quo?

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