Yu Xue Feng had the microphone aboard the Georgia Tech team bus, and he had a message for its passengers.
“The head coach is very tired,” said Yu, the Yellow Jackets’ tour guide during its stay this week in Shanghai.
Coach Josh Pastner had reason to be fatigued – jet lag, the stress of having three of his players questioned by Chinese police (before being cleared) and the preparation for the season opener against powerhouse UCLA on Saturday.
And with that recognition of Pastner’s physical state, Yu began to sing a medley, including Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” her 2007 smash hit.
Aboard the Tech bus, cheers broke out. Multiple members of the Tech traveling party trained their smartphones on the ponytailed Yu. The bus rolled on, transporting a team that, most improbably, has gotten an energy lift during a challenging week from its 33-year-old tour guide.
“Hopefully, we’ll move forward and hopefully we’ll win, and he’ll be just as big a part of our celebration as we will,” strength-and-conditioning coach Dan Taylor said.
With the Tech traveling party, Yu goes by “Snow,” a literal translation of his given name, which means “snow peak.” It was bestowed upon him by an uncle who wanted his nephew to “reach the top of my life,” said Yu, whose name is pronounced Oo Sheweh Fung.
However he considers his efforts this week as part of that climb, Yu has helped create for the Jackets a week they won’t soon forget.
“Snow, he’s a funny guy,” guard Justin Moore said. “He’s doing his job of keeping us entertained on the bus rides, but he’s a cool guy. Yeah, a cool guy.”
Yu can tell you that the Shanghai Tower is 632 meters high, about the city’s transformation from fishing village to the nation’s financial capital, that basketball great and Shanghai native Yao Ming weighed 11 pounds at birth and that his friends who live on the outer edges of the city rent a three-bedroom apartment for 4,000 Chinese yuan (about $600).
It would stand to reason. Yu trained three months to earn his tour-guide certification. He has been a tour guide for six years, taking the job to give himself a challenge and improve his English.
“I want to practice,” he said. “Practice makes perfect.”
But that isn’t why the Jackets staff chuckles about Yu over meals or tells Pastner that he should be the emcee at a team banquet. It’s more the way he has turned the bus into his personal karaoke studio.
Said Yu, whose English is not fluent but is capable, “I’m not a shy boy.”
As the Jackets have bused from hotel to practice, to tourist destinations and back to the hotel, Yu has livened the rides by belting out the likes of Rihanna, Akon and Eminem. He plays the songs on his phone and then holds up the mic to the audio while he sings along, following the lyrics scrolling on the screen.
Yu joined the team Tuesday, meeting the Jackets in Shanghai after their train ride from Hangzhou, and rode together from the train station to the team hotel.
Players and coaches were strained after three players, guards Jose Alvarado, Jon Brown and Justin Moore, had been detained by police in connection with the shoplifting incident that led to the arrest of three UCLA players. After arriving late Saturday night, bodies were still adjusting to the 13-hour time difference.
Yu injected himself into that weariness, volunteering a song and firing off “Umbrella.” It wasn’t only that the Chinese tour guide was singing an American hip-hop song in imperfect English. It was that he was fully investing himself, losing himself in the echoey hook – “ella, ella/eh, eh, eh.” And also that he opened up his umbrella and, holding it over his head, paraded down the aisle and back. (The hook, incidentally, was written by Atlantan Terius “The-Dream” Nash.)
The sheer improbability of the scene won the bus and helped return to the team some of the life that had ebbed after that morning’s affairs.
“We were tired,” Taylor said. “I think we all needed it and hopefully it’ll kind of move forward as we move along.”
In little time, certain members of the traveling party have become quite intrigued by Yu and his quirks, such as his laughing at his own jokes and his repetition of words and phrases.
Tech’s two tour guides while in China – in Hangzhou, it was a man who went by Tony and delivered groan-worthy jokes and a stream-of-conscious monologue – have apparently outdone UCLA’s. The Bruins’ first tour guide in Shanghai was so quiet that he had to be swapped out.
“We love Snow and Tony,” Pastner said.
For players, coaches and staff, nearly all of whom have never been to China, Yu has come to represent the experience as much as any of the expeditions. On the bus ride to practice Thursday morning, Yu was conspicuously quiet, spending the trip to Baoshan Arena looking at his phone. Upon arrival, assistant coach Eric Reveno suggested a “Free Snow” chant.
After the team boarded after the workout, Pastner, who sits right next to Yu’s spot at the front of the bus, told him, “You can go back on the mic now, Snow.”
After sharing a history of Yao (who was leading a clinic that some Jackets players were attending), he tried out a soulful rendition of the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More,” but players tuned out every sha-la-la-la and every wo-o wo-o of the 1973 ballad. He returned to more current hits, including, once again, Umbrella.
When the Jackets took a nighttime cruise on the Huangpu River, Pastner and Yu shared a private conversation, the reigning ACC coach of the year and a man who continued his study of English after 15 years of school by watching the sitcom “Friends,” dictionary on hand.
“He’s sort of a taste of Shanghai for us,” Taylor said. “He’s sort of like our Shanghai, so I think that’s been a nice thing.”