Foreigners Got Talent?
Every summer in China, Chinese Bridge, one of the biggest Chinese language competitions in the Middle Kingdom, is held in the southern city of Changsha, capital of Hunan Province. It is a massive event with an audience of 300 million Chinese people, and with participants from more than 100 different countries, all vying to become a China expert. It puts your linguistic and cultural skills to the utmost test – or at least that is what me and the 151 other contestants thought before we packed our suitcases to participate in this year's competition.
For some, it had been two hours, for others more than 30 hours on a plane. During the first day, we came floating into Beijing Capital International Airport like lost driftwood, getting picked up and eventually washed ashore in small groups at the bottom of the stairs of the hotel we were going to stay in. Jet-lagged and disoriented, we managed to stumble our way through the doors of the hotel. “English name? Chinese name? Nationality?” the volunteers barked at us as we arrived. We went from one station to another: registering, getting interviewed, getting our measurements taken, another interview, a medical examination and getting thousands of pictures taken.
After a few intense hours of bureaucracy, we finally got to rest – for about three minutes. Then we received the order: “Everyone put on your folk costumes and get ready for the camera.” Moments later, the hallways had turned into a zoo, teeming with costumes, skirts and hats of all different shapes, sizes and colors. I could not help but be a bit jealous of Fiji's contestant, who danced around in his light straw skirt in the boiling hot Beijing summer of 37 Celsius, while I had to stomp around in my heavy Norwegian national costume of four thick layers of wool. I was melting faster than an abandoned ice cream on a scorching summer day.
After a few days of sightseeing in Beijing, we finally got to Changsha. The days here proved to be long and gruelling, getting up at 6am and finishing late at night. The first part of the competition was a written exam, a speech, answering random questions posed by the judges and an artistic performance. It took three full days for everyone to finish. By the time we collapsed in our hotel beds on the third evening, we were more like zombies than happy contestants enjoying a multinational cultural event.
The final part of the first qualification round was a quiz with multiple choice questions about Chinese culture and history. Luckily, we had been given all the questions and correct answers the day before, so it was more of a memory test.
One by one the seats for the ones who had made it through the first round were filled. The rest of us who had been disqualified were asked to leave the stage. A roaring explosion of cheers shook the building – not from those who had won, but from the disqualified contestants. We were finally free from two weeks of toil and trouble, sleep-deprivation, Westernized Chinese hotel food and strict curfews. Many people had even changed their plane tickets to go home sooner, even before they knew the outcome of this first round.
The hotel rooms were emptied one by one. The brief sense of community we'd had, newly made friendships, dreamlike romances, unforgettable experiences, all quickly slipped into the past with tearful goodbyes and promises to keep in touch.
I stayed behind a bit longer to enjoy Changsha. During one of these days I bumped into one of the winners of the first qualification round, a French friend of mine. He recounted how Chinese Bridge had unveiled its true self:
“Turns out it's a TV show, not a competition.” The challenge now was to see if you could endure until the next qualification round. Like monkeys, they were made to do ‘tricks' to please the viewers. My friend was urged to come up with flirtatious phrases in every interview, reinforcing the romantic French stereotype. The girls got miniskirts they had to wear as they jumped on trampolines, and all the contestants would sit for countless hours doing take after take of what on TV looks like a live show. Several contestants, like my friend, were just looking forward to the next multiple choice quiz, where they finally could seize the opportunity to deliberately answer incorrectly so they could go home. My friend couldn't wait for that. I wished him good luck with not getting the answers right, before we said our farewells.
A few weeks later, I watched as the champion of Chinese Bridge 2018 emerged on stage on the TV show. This guy evidently spoke very fluent Chinese, but I knew now that more importantly, this was the most resilient young man in the world; the one who kept his curfews, could handle the bounciness of any trampoline, and who never melted in the sun. He truly was a champion.
BY THE TIME WE COLLAPSED IN OUR hotel beds on the third evening, we were more like zombies than HAPPY CONTESTANTS ENJOYING A MULTINATIONAL CULTURAL EVENT