For­eign­ers Got Tal­ent?

NewsChina - - ESSAY - By Njål Homeyer

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

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