Three years in the United States now, Airi Miyabe at first can’t name her favorite American food because she isn’t quite sure exactly what qualifies.
“Fast food is American,” said the junior transfer on the Gophers volleyball team. So, too, in their own way are Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisines.
Then her face brightens and she smiles.
“I like Thanksgiving food,” she said.
After home matches this weekend against fifth-ranked Nebraska and Iowa — the Gophers’ final two of the regular season — Miyabe and two pals will celebrate together by cooking their own “Friendsgiving” meal, presumably turkey with the trimmings.
Miyabe left her parents and younger sister at home in Osaka, Japan, in 2017 to play two seasons at an Idaho junior college before she arrived in Minnesota this fall. She left as well to learn a new language, experience another culture and traditions, and to develop her skills with the Gophers while playing a better brand of volleyball.
“It was time to go somewhere else,” Miyabe said.
So she sent video footage to a few American universities, including Minnesota. Gophers coaches receive five to 10 such submissions a day, as many as 50 a week, and maybe one a month is the real deal.
“Sometimes you see just one jump and hit,” said Laura Kasey, the Gophers associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, “and you know.”
And so it was with Miyabe’s footage. Gophers staff visited her in Japan, where head coach Hugh McCutcheon once played and has visited maybe 40 times.
She became McCutcheon’s first junior college transfer at Minnesota after two seasons at the College of Southern Idaho. Those two years in Twin Falls allowed her time to academically qualify and time for a teenager whose English vocabulary consisted only of “yes” and “no” to learn the language.
“I was that bad and super shy,” said Miyabe, now fairly fluent. “I’m glad I went through junior college. I improved my English skill a lot. Even now, I still feel nervous speaking it. It’s so hard to communicate in a language that is not your first language.”
Her play on the court needed no translation. She led Southern Idaho to two NJCAA title games. The Golden Eagles won the first one, in 2018, when Miyabe was named national junior college Player of the Year.
She has moved on to Minnesota, where she didn’t play early this season after McCutcheon converted the 6-footer to a right-side hitter. But she now has found a role. She had 12 kills in an energetic performance during last week’s four-set loss to Wisconsin.
“It takes time to get up to speed for life in the Big Ten,” McCutcheon said. “There are enough good athletes, you can get them for four years and teach ’em and train ’em. It’s pretty rare for Japanese players to want to leave Japan, but she was good.”
McCutcheon speaks just enough Japanese to “surprise” her.
“His Japanese is good,” Miyabe said. “He’ll say, ‘No. 8, good job,’ but in Japanese. It’s weird. It’s funny.”
Miyabe, 21, has adapted quickly to Big Ten volleyball, a bigger city and campus, and an oncoming Minnesota winter.
“You could say she has, remarkably well,” McCutcheon said. “She’s a really great fit as a teammate. Academically, she’s doing fine. She’s still got some work, but as a right side she has been able to contribute in very significant ways.”
She has discovered the delight of Sunday brunch and urban beauty walking across the Washington Avenue and Stone Arch bridges. She is majoring in Asian language literature, a decision she calls “learning my own history from another peoples’ perspective.”
Miyabe also will team with former Gopher Paulina Swider and teammate Bayley McMenimen for turkey dinner next week. One chef is from Japan, another from Poland and a third from a place called Niceville (it’s in Florida).
“If we don’t know how to make something, we’ll Google it,” she said.