- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

For Chinese soccer star Sun Wen, nothing was more baffling, more exhilarating, more palm-sweatingly nerve-wracking than her first time.
Ordering pizza, that is.
"It was a big decision for me to do that," said Sun, a forward for the Atlanta Beat. "Before I ordered, I was so nervous. I worried about their English, because they speak so quick, so fast, that I wouldn't be able to understand."
Never one to duck a challenge, the FIFA co-player of the century came prepared: First, Sun quizzed a Chinese friend on the appropriate telephone etiquette; next, she wrote down her toppings ahead of time, the better to avoid a pepperoni and pineapple-laden catastrophe.
"Finally, I picked up the phone," Sun added with a laugh. "And it worked."
Such is life for the nine Chinese players in the Women's United Soccer Association, a group that includes Washington Freedom midfielders Bai Jie and Pu Wei. Beyond fitting in on the field, the league's Chinese contingent faces the daunting task of adjusting to life in the United States a land of curious customs and bizarre behaviors.
Like, for instance, a national aversion to driving 55.
"The [highway] speed is so much faster here, like 70 miles per hour," said Sun, who recently earned a Georgia driver's license. "When I was first trying to change lanes, I was sweating. But now I'm OK."
Traffic aside, Sun and company's roads to the WUSA were anything but speedy. Or smooth.
State-sponsored Chinese athletes seldom are permitted to play abroad, and when Chinese officials allowed Sun and four of her national squad teammates to enter the league's global draft in December of 2000, it came after 10 months of negotiations plus tens of thousands of dollars in transfer fees.
The NBA has run into a similar great wall of red tape during its recent courtship of 7-foot-5 Shanghai Sharks center Yao Ming. The Chinese government reportedly will keep 50 percent of Yao's professional earnings, with the Sharks pocketing a portion of the remainder.
"If I'm just going in there and saying, 'I want your player' well, what's in it for them?" said WUSA vice president of player personnel Lauren Gregg, who played a major role in bringing the Chinese to the league. "You have to realize that [the Chinese] want ownership and partnership in what's happening."
Bai, who played for the Guangzhou Army team, had a particularly tough go of it. Following the collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane in April of 2001, her visa was held up for nearly a month.
By the time she finally arrived in Washington, the Freedom were two games into their inaugural season.
"Bai got here like on a Monday, and traveled to San Diego with the team on a Friday," said Freedom general manager Katy Button. "She was just thrown into it. She was a little loopy on that trip."
Loopy isn't the word for the culture shock that followed. Fluent in Mardarin Chinese, Bai was paired with a translator who spoke Cantonese even though the two dialects are about as similar as Spanish and Portuguese. And though Bai took an intensive course in English, her primary exposure to the language came through sharing an Arlington apartment with American teammates Dawn Greathouse and Carrie Moore.
Not surprisingly, results were mixed.
"There was a lot of charades, and most of the time we'd get by by pointing at stuff," said Greathouse, a Freedom goalkeeper. "She brought her laptop in, and she'd ask us how to help with the e-mail. But the whole screen was in Chinese characters. The first month was total comedy."
In Atlanta, Sun's teammates were more than willing to help with her English. Albeit to humorous effect.
"We had to ask the team to stop teaching Sunny every slang word that silly American kids throw around," said Atlanta coach Tom Stone. "They love getting her to say things like, 'What's up, dog?'"
Then there's the matter of free time or, more specifically, the novelty thereof. In the state-sponsored Chinese sports system, an athlete's daily schedule is managed down to the minute, with a strict focus on training and competition.
To wit: During the year leading up to the 1999 Women's World Cup, the Chinese national team enjoyed exactly five days off. Total.
By contrast, their American rivals sometimes received five off days in a row.
"In the United States, everything is on your own," Pu said through a translator. "It's different from being in China. There, the team arranges everything. Here, you have to depend on yourself. There's more free time here. You're free to do a lot more."
For Bai, that means learning to drive by motoring around the RFK stadium parking lot. For Sun, that meant cooking for the first time ever at age 28.
While living with Gregg in Charlottesville before the start of last season, Sun ate at restaurants for an entire week. Literally fed up, she then had Gregg take her to a grocery store, where she picked up the ingredients for noodle soup.
"We got some stuff, and she was just laughing because she really had no idea how to cook," Gregg said. "Every meal had been cooked for her before, because she was in a sports school.
"[Chinese players] are so regimented, so professional from an early age that when they come here, it's like they're experiencing everything for the first time. They have the freedom to play, to explore."
Not to mention party. To ease Sun's transition to life in Atlanta, team officials surrounded her with members of the city's Chinese community, the better to help her with basic tasks like finding an apartment.
The team also threw Sun a 29th birthday party featuring 40 of Atlanta's top Chinese business leaders. Shortly thereafter, Stone noticed that his foreign star seemed perpetually exhausted.
"I asked her what was going on, if she was having trouble sleeping," Stone said. "She said no she was at a different party every night. For the [Chinese community], it was like having Michael Jordan in town. They couldn't believe their fortune."
Even on the field, cultural differences are readily apparent. Accustomed to the quiet manner of the Chinese national side, Sun was stunned upon hearing half a dozen of her Atlanta teammates call for the ball simultaneously.
"She told me that in China, if the players are screaming for the ball, you have to give it to them because it's rude not to," Stone said. "But every time she got the ball on our team, five or six players were screaming for it. She didn't know what to do."
Likewise, Bai was more than a little perplexed last week after the Freedom held her out of practice in order to rest a strained knee ligament. Sporting a rather large frown, she spent almost an hour jogging back and forth along the RFK sideline.
Afterward, Bai declined the opportunity to sit down during an after-practice interview. Instead, she stood in place, ice packs strapped to both knees.
"They literally had to pull her off the field," Greathouse said. "Bai is an animal. If she's injured, she won't tell you. She's used to training two or three times a day, always going 100 miles per hour. I think it's odd for her to only practice once."
Bai also didn't know what to make of the celebratory scene at a Freedom post-game dinner last season.
"Athletes here like to go out and have a good time, celebrate after a win," Greathouse said. "Bai Jie was looking at someone having a beer with dinner, and was like 'We don't drink.' Not that she was totally shocked, but it's just something they don't do in China."
Despite the frequent cultural disconnects, all six of the WUSA's original Chinese players have returned for a second season in the league. Perhaps more importantly, Chinese soccer officials were pleased enough with the first year that they allowed three more players to make the leap this year.
"Last season was a test," Gregg said. "If the Chinese had not felt their players were improving here, they would not have been allowed to come back."
Foremost among the new arrivals is Washington's Pu, a dynamic, 21-year-old midfielder. Recently named captain of the Chinese national team, Pu also played for Sun's former team, Shanghai FC.
Asked if she had any advice for her former teammate, Sun laughed.
"Make yourself stronger," she said. "Enjoy the soccer. First thing, study English. If you can't speak English, it's very hard."
Especially if you're trying to order pizza.


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