Asians-Only Volleyball Brings Community Together : Code Switch This Labor Day weekend, more than 1,000 athletes have gathered in Washington, D.C., to play a street version of volleyball known as "9-man." The game became popular generations ago in Chinatowns across the U.S. and Canada. Only players of Asian descent are allowed to compete in the national tournament.
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Asians-Only Volleyball Brings Community Together

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Asians-Only Volleyball Brings Community Together

Asians-Only Volleyball Brings Community Together

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This weekend, they're stopping traffic on one of Washington, D.C.'s landmark streets, Pennsylvania Avenue. That's where more than 1,000 volleyball players from across the U.S. and Canada have gathered to bump, set and spike in an annual tournament with unusual rules. Instead of six players, each team must have nine. And as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, the competition is for Asians only.

JUSTIN YUEN: Sky ball. Sky ball. Right here. Right here.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The ball darts over the net after a swift pass and dump by 17-year-old Justin Yuen and his teammates. This practice volleyball rally in an empty Maryland parking lot isn't exactly like the men's competition you've seen at the Olympics.

YUEN: It's a bigger court. The net's a little bit lower. Also, you're allowed to get one more touch off the net.


YUEN: Most of my Asian friends are from here. I don't really have that many Asian friends at school.

WANG: Justin is captain of the Youngbloods, a group of teens and 20-somethings who practice on weekends in shorts and shades. They play a street version of volleyball known as nine-man. It became popular generations ago in Chinatowns around the country. All of Justin's teammates are of Asian descent. Well, almost all. Wait, what's your name?

TEDDY KWENDE: Teddy. Teddy Lee. That's my official name.

WANG: Like the Chinese Lee?

KWENDE: Yeah, the Chinese Lee. But my real name is Teddy Kwende.

WANG: Teddy, who's African-American, originally from Cameroon, goes by two names. That's because tournament rules require players to have East or Southeast Asian ancestors. The official rule book also says at least six players on the court per team must be, quote, "100 percent Chinese." So, Teddy only plays during practices. Organizers say these requirements preserve the game's cultural history. Wallace Lee, a coach and board member of the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, says questions about a player's race or ethnicity usually don't come up.

WALLACE LEE: But if it's a really good player, and they don't look Asian, then you're going to definitely, you know, get some questions. I guess that's just human nature.

JEFF YUEN: Give him the pass, OK? I have not seen one good pass yet. Let's go. The serve is not that hard. Let's go.

WANG: Nine-man volleyball runs deep in Jeff Yuen's family.

YUEN: This was our fun time. It's a Chinese version of standing in your backyard throwing a baseball with your dad.

WANG: Yuen remembers practicing nine-man as a teenager with his father and younger brothers on Saturday afternoons. Now at 53, Yuen spends his weekends helping to coach his teenaged nephews. He says they're growing up in a Chinese community that's no longer concentrated in Chinatown tenements. Instead, it's spread out across suburbs.

YUEN: The tournament is a way of trying to get the community to just come back together. They say, hey, how you been doing? How's your kids?

WANG: The sounds of a community reconnecting and...


WANG: ...playing ball. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

GOODWYN: Hansi covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team. This is NPR News.

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