Friday, February 24, 2017

Star and Torch Competition

A couple of weeks ago, I got to fulfill a lifelong dream I didn't know I had. I got to be Simon Cowell in a televised Chinese talent competition. Well, I was probably more like Randy since I'm nicer than Simon, but whatever.

After several months of visa nightmares causing us to not have work, everything finally got worked out making it legal for us to work. However, by that time it was so close to the end of the school semester, we couldn't go back into the schools. So, our employer found ways to keep us busy. They signed me up to be a judge at an English language competition. All the information I had was "Pack a bag. You'll be there for a few days."

I have a Master's in Teaching English to non-native speakers, so it made sense that they would ask me to do this. I pictured a spelling bee-type atmosphere where kids would be quizzed on proper grammar, syntax and pronunciation. I could not have been more wrong.

First, I was picked up by a bus that had about 50 people on it already. OKAY? That threw my expectations off a bit. We then drove around Beijing picking up a few more people. Once we got on the road, it took about four hours to arrive at our destination.

Citic Guoan Grand Epoch City - Chaoyangmen Hotel
Alright! My idea of what this was took a few more hits. This doesn't look like the type of place where a common spelling bee would occur.

As soon as we got off the bus, teams of people from the hotel swarmed out and started identifying who the bus passengers were. A young Chinese man walked up to me and asked if I was Brett Minor. When I nodded my head, he immediately grabbed all my bags while a girl asked for my passport. In broken English, he asked me to follow him as the girl disappeared into the crowd.

He led me into the hotel and we walked through seemingly endless corridors until we came to my room. The door was already open and the girl who had taken my passport was standing inside. She explained that she had used my passport to check me into my room and promptly returned it along with my room key. As she left, she told me to report to the ballroom in one hour.

The hotel room was bigger than my entire apartment and I was really beginning to wonder what I had signed on for, but I was quickly learning that I would be well taken care of for the next several days.

After unpacking and relaxing for bit, I headed to the ballroom and was pleased to find other English-speaking judges were part of this also. They had judges from America, Canada, England, Ukraine, Albania, Samoa and Israel in addition to all the Chinese judges. This was no small competition.

We were all ushered into a meeting room where their expectations were explained to us. Over the course of the next few days, over 4,000 youth from all over China would be coming to compete. This event consisted of two parts. The primary purpose was to showcase their English speaking and comprehension. The second was to display a talent they had prepared. Our job was to judge them on their English ability as well as their talent.

Each judging panel consisted of seven judges.
  • Three English teachers from China
  • Two Chinese artists (actors, musicians, etc)
  • Two native English-speaking ESL teachers
 Because of the huge numbers of contestants entered in this event, it would be showcased in five different areas simultaneously. At this rate, it would still take four days to complete.

The following day, I was taken to my room to begin judging.

WOW! This place is huge!
This is not a small competition.
 Starting at 8 a.m., the contestants started showing us what they could do. We saw kids ranging from 5 to 16 years old and witnessed a variety of different kinds of acts. Some came out in groups and did short plays. Some recited poetry. I watched two eight year old kids do a scene from Hamlet. Many of them danced, but the majority of them sang. And since they knew this was an English competition, they often chose American songs.


This girl nailed the talent portion, but (as hard as it may be to believe) she could barely speak English. During the Q&A section, she had difficulty understanding the questions being asked.

As great as that performance was, for every spot like that one, there were dozens like this.


As cute as a lot of these kids were, it soon became apparent that they had limited knowledge of American songs. I heard the following songs several times:
  • Do Re Me (38 times) 
  • Justin Beiber songs (17 times)
  • Taylor Swift (13 times)
  • Lemon Tree (32 times)
  • You Raise Me Up (33 times)
  • Try Everything (27 times)
When it came to plays and dramas:
  • 23 different versions of Red Riding Hood
  • 26 versions of Three Little Pigs
  • 14 versions of Billy Goats Gruff
 Immediately after they showed us their talent, they would be given a screen to view whose contents were determined by their age.

Older kids got something like this.

Younger kids were given pictures.
And, yes, that's a kid holding dead dog.
The contestant would then have to say a few sentences or tell a short story using what was on the screen. This would showcase their ability to improvise independent speech rather than show us that they were good at memorizing words. They would then have to answer a couple of spoken questions asked by one of the judges. I was amazed at how many times a kid could get up and recite beautiful poetry with perfect pronunciation, but could then not actually be able to speak English. They were just memorized sounds.

Occasionally, a kid would just freeze or even start crying when we reached this portion of the competition. A child who was so confident a minute earlier doing their practiced routine didn't know what to do when faced with words he did not recognize. It was sometimes heartbreaking to watch.

 However, my favorite part was meeting all the kids and their parents. They were brought to us in waves. About 15 competitors at a time would enter the room and I would leave my chair to meet them all and try to calm their nerves before performing and I always jumped up as soon as a wave was finished to go congratulate them all. They had worked hard and been very brave to stand up in front of all of us.



Plus, with the TV cameras everywhere and the popularity of this competition, they saw us as celebrities. Even though I'm actually no one of importance, that was not how I was looked at by these kids. Taking the time to talk to them was very exciting. It was strange signing autographs for not only them, but their parents as well.

After hours, if any of us judges were spotted in a hallway, scores of people would surround us to get a little bit of our time. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us and get our WeChat (China's equivalent to Facebook) contact info. Late one evening, several of us were sitting around singing songs when a group of families walked through the room. Our private party was no longer private.


It was a fantastic experience. I made many new friends. Made a lot of great business contacts and was asked to come back and be a part of it next year. I can't wait.


Here is a collection of some of the other videos I took if you want to look at them.

6 comments:

  1. So... Can I get an autograph? You're clearly famous now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wonder if I could make money signing autographs.

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  2. That is so awesome! You really look like you were enjoying yourself :)

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    Replies
    1. I really did. I have already signed up fr next year. I'm looking forward to it.

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  3. Oh my gosh! This would have been a fabulous experience. I am always amazed when they can sing every word of an American song but not speak any English. My husband and I had this experience in Venezuela with a tour guide. Not one word of English!

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    Replies
    1. I encounter this a lot. If you ask a child "How are you?" Their response is ALWAYS "I'm fine. Thank you. And you?"

      EVERY TIME!

      It's what they have been taught to say, but don't really grasp the meaning behind the words. It is not a dialogue, but just a regurgitation of the sounds that have been ingrained to say as a response.

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