From stacks of bread and butter to squirrels jumping out of trees, the friendship between Shen Danru and Na Yang has covered thousands of miles.
Shen and Na are talented teammates and outside hitters on the Missouri volleyball team, and both are from China. Shen, an All-Big 12 Conference player last year, had 4.3 kills per game this year, and Na, a freshman, has 3.1 kills per game as of last week’s Tiger Invitational.
The statistics, however, don’t begin to tell the story of two players whose friendship has grown despite the difference in their ages and being 7,000 miles from home.
When they met six years ago on the Chinese junior national team, it was food that made them fast friends.
“We had a team buffet, and for the breakfast, well, it’s kind of a funny story,” Shen said. “I like to eat a lot, so I had like 10 pieces of bread, and 10 butters and some ham. So Yang Na saw me, and she said, ‘Shen, oh my gosh, can you eat this much?’ So I said, ‘Yes’ and she goes, ‘OK, I am going to try this much, too.’ And so she ate that much.”
Na, getting more excited as Shen talks, continues the story without missing a beat.
“I wondered, ‘Why does Shen like butter so much?’” Na said. “And then (I tried it) and, oh, it’s really good.
“You know, I just followed her, and so I gained almost 10 pounds in two months. When I got back to my (high school) team, my coach said, ‘Oh Na, what have you done?’”
Three years later, in 2001, Shen got an opportunity to play at Missouri because MU’s assistant coaches, Deng Yang and Chen Feng, are friends with her former coach at Shanghai Sports High School. The Tigers made an offer and Shen accepted.
MU coach Susan Kreklow said finding recruits from overseas has been a focus for Missouri since she took over the program in 2000.
“We’ve been able to have our first international recruits, Shen from China and Juliana Godoi from Brazil, last year, and then Yang Na this year from China,” Kreklow said.
Shen’s decision to come to the United States was based on several factors.
“The first thing was, I could speak English,” Shen said. “And the second thing, I could get a better education here. It was a big decision in my life.”
At first, Na wasn’t prepared to follow her friend into the new life.
But two years later and after a successful freshman year, Shen called Na and told her about Missouri.
“I told her that school was really tough, first of all, and that the volleyball was really tough, too, because we play in the Big 12 Conference,” Shen said. “And she goes, ‘Oh really?’ and I go, ‘Can you handle it?’ and she said yes.”
And so Na came to the United States a year and a half ago.
It was not easy. Both Shen and Na have had to adjust to a different culture and people, with a new language and way of life.
“There’s nothing I don’t like here, but I have a hard time,” Na said. “It’s very different, and I had to adjust.”
Na said that sometimes things get so rough that she calls home to talk to her parents.
Shen, who has been in America for more than three years, said she is more acclimated.
“I feel very comfortable here,” Shen said. “I feel like I’m half-American already.”
Shen said she still struggles with the language.
“I still feel like my English is not good enough,” she said. “One single English word has different meanings in Chinese, so it’s hard to choose the right word.”
Shen has learned to appreciate country music since moving to the United States. She said it is easier to pick up English words in country than in other types of music.
“It’s easier for me to remember the music; it’s hard for me to catch the words,” Shen said. “Country music is closer to Chinese style.”
Na said it is also difficult to get used to practicing volleyball and studying every day. In China, players only studied three days a week.
The two players have been able to make their adjustment with a sense of humor. They laugh as Shen recalls one of her first fears as a student at MU.
“The animals that go between trees, the squirrels, I was afraid of that,” Shen said. “I’ve never seen those in China. I saw them and I said, ‘What is that? Oh my God, please don’t jump on my head!’”
On the court, it’s opposing players who have to worry about Shen and Na spiking on their heads.
Kreklow said observers should not group Shen and Na together simply because they are both Chinese.
“(There are) tremendous differences in their game,” Kreklow said. “Their styles are very different. Their size is very different. Shen is a very quick, explosive player. Na Yang is 6-foot-3 and hits a very heavy ball on the outside.”
Shen started playing volleyball in second grade. When her talent was noticed, she was put into a training program in junior high.
“They have you study and practice together,” Shen said. “Morning and afternoon study, and then we have evening practice. It’s basically really close to (what it’s like) here.”
Na didn’t start playing volleyball until high school. Her father enrolled her in a basketball camp for a year, but Na didn’t fit in and soon tried volleyball.
Shen and Na said there are big differences in the volleyball played in the two countries.
“In China, we don’t have cheerleaders and a band,” Shen said. “We have volleyball fans who just cheer for the team. But here we have team activities like signing posters for the fans. I like this better.”
For Na, the major change on the court was the size of the players. She said American players are bigger and stronger than those from China, which makes it harder to dig and block.
For all the adjustments Shen and Na have had to make to play volleyball here, their attitude toward the game has remained constant.
“They are just very competitive,” teammate Jessica Vander Kooi said. “They have been playing the game for a long time, so they know the game inside and out.”