After the eventful and exciting semi-finals in London in March this year, I got the chance to take part in the finals of the 13th Chinese Bridge Proficiency Competition in China this July.
First of all, when I made my way to Beijing beginning of July I thought I will just have a great time, make lots of friends, and at the same time do some research for my masters dissertation. It turned out to be so much more…
China is well-known for its bureaucracy, love of forms and regulations… why should a competition designed to entertain the Chinese folk and show the foreigners the greatness of China be any different? Well, it wasn’t…
My whole experience started with hundreds of emails going back and forth between me and the organizing committee of the competition. It was incredibly hard to comprehend for them that I was already in China. Hell, that I was actually living in China and did not plan to leave the country after the competition. I had to fill in hundreds of forms, sign agreements to comply to rules and regulations and explain why I came “earlier” to China and why I wanted to stay “longer. To top everything off, they refused to get me an inland train ticket. A simple train ticket from where I live to Beijing… because you know, the regulations say, they just compensate international flight tickets. So, if I wanted to I could go back to London, and then again take an international flight from there to Beijing. They would pay.
I decided to by the train ticket myself.
When I arrived in the hotel in Beijing, it was already bussing with people busy running around and trying to get the chaos in order. I have to admit, it must have been a mammoth task to get over 100 contestants from all around the world to China, and not mix up their names or times of arrival. So, I have to give them credit for that.
All contestants spent two days in Beijing. It was supposed to be a way to welcome us and let us immerse in China’s thousands of years of old culture. Visits to the Tiananmen Square, the forbidden temple, the summer palace and of course the Great Wall were planned. But it turned out to be a filming marathon. All dressed in disgustingly thick red shirts, we were like a herd of sheep paraded through the most important tourist attractions. Every five meters the film crew stopped us to pose for the cameras, shoot some little videos, and make us hysterically scream into the cameras 中国我来了 (China I am coming!). I am sure many people have enjoyed the experience, but for my part, it was torture, especially with the heat and the humidity.
The same circus continued for the rest of the show. I am calling it a show, because it has nothing to do with a competition in my opinion. The Chinese people call this type of “competition” 商业比赛, a “business competition”. It’s not about who is best according to the competition rules, but who is the most entertaining, looks the weirdest, or simply is perfect for Chinese TV.
After Beijing we were brought to Changsha, a quite nice city in Hunan province. Unfortunately, it was even hotter in Changsha. And throughout the show the stuff and our teachers desperately tried to convince us that “it is such a great opportunity to experience Changsha’s hot summer, we should be honored”… yeah, of course.
Our first day in Changsha, we spent in a classroom being taught what a Chinese character is. We were shipped off straight from the airport to that classroom, without break or a lunch for that matter. But remember “we should be honored”. I am not sure who designed that program for that day, but they must have been drinking a big amount of baijiu. Imagine this: A classroom full of students from all around the world, who have been the best in their home countries’ Chinese Bridge Proficiency Competition, who most likely have top grades in their Chinese language courses, who speak standard Chinese sometimes better than the Chinese themselves (me excluded!), and who most likely also have a fare good idea of how to write a Chinese character… I mean, after all, that’s what they teach you at school in your first Chinese class, right? So, why, please tell me, why, would you put those people into a class room, talk to them in kindergarten Chinese as if they are some imbeciles, and tell them the stroke order of a Chinese character? I would have loved this class, like five years ago. I would love to show you their 写字操“Writing characters gymnastics”, but I couldn’t find a video. I think the basic idea is not bad. You combine movements with knowledge of how Chinese characters are constructed. A great thing… for a first class.
After this “Calligraphy ordeal” we spent the next three days at the studio. This part was actually quite fun, except the freezing air conditioning which cooled the studio down to arctic temperatures. For the show they separated us into five groups, 亚洲 Asia, 美洲 America, 欧洲 Europe, 大洋洲 Oceania and 非洲 Africa. Interestingly, the Chinese think Russia belongs to Europe. Anyhow, because of the separation it was more difficult to actually mingle. There was always a little competition feeling between the five groups, and I suppose if the people didn’t have had the chance to explore Changsha’s nightlife together, the whole “making friends with different countries” would have been so much more harder.
I enjoyed the time in the studio and watching the 复赛 semi-finals. They were cut into three episodes, filmed on three consecutive days. On the first day we all got to play audience for the Asia 亚洲组and, I forgot, I think it was America 美洲组 or Oceania 大洋洲组. That first day my brain froze because of the aircon. However, every episode has a great little opening show in the beginning. I loved all three, but of course our Europe 欧洲组 was the best. Also the contestants were grouped in a group of seven to eight people and before every group they had a little video clip introducing the contestants (or just showing them screaming 中国我来了).
These three days everyone was extremely nervous and stressed. I don’t really understand why, because most of the contestants were ridiculously well prepared and their Chinese was extremely good. Unfortunately, in the end not all of the very good Chinese speakers went into the next round. Out of over a hundred contestants they chose 30 for the next rounds 决赛. And out of those 30 they chose 15, and then 10 and then 5 and in the end one. The competition is still going on, so I am not sure who will win.
For me the whole show was more like Foreigner’s got Talent, or maybe a much better fit would be Voice of China for Foreigners. It seemed, if you cannot sing like Whitney Houston or Elton John you won’t make it to the next stage.
Also, a quite weird thing was that out of three judges, two were foreigners. I am not very fond of foreigners judging other foreigners Chinese level. It just seems wrong, no matter how great that Julian’s guy standard Chinese is.
After the semi-finals, the contestants who would not get to the next stage were promised some two days of sightseeing. I was really looking forward to it, but it ended to be one more of these filming and shooting days, and even more screaming of 中国我来了. It was hard to hide my disappointment.
All in all during these two weeks we were bombarded with China’s propaganda. I am not complaining or blaming them. After all, it’s their major right to do so, and they must have spent a sick big sum on achieving that goal, so I hope it worked.
Personally, I have met some great people and actually managed to make some friends. I took away a bunch of nice little gifts, memories and a big fat ass cold.
I am sure though, for many people it was the time of their life, especially for those who came to China for the first time. I am just wondering, what kind of impression China must have made to them? Such kind of propaganda driven, and business oriented show must leave a very unique impression on someone who had never been to China before. I wish I could have made a real case study and do some survey before-and-after questionnaire…
The whole show will air on Chinese TV on 22. July at 4pm on Hunan Weishi 湖南卫视 and Hunan Education Channel 湖南教育台. We don’t have Hunan TV in Anhui, so I will have to wait until someone posts it one youtube or youku to watch my epic failure on stage (yes, after all the practice I still speak a Chinese dialect… how dare I on a competition promoting standard Chinese… bad me bad me).
Did you ever take part in one of those Chinese TV shows? The Chinese LOVE competitions, and it seems every second show on TV here is titled something 比赛 (competition).
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