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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Vasectomy Diaries by Rodney LaCroix

A couple of weeks ago I received an advance copy of Rodney LaCroix's new book The Vasectomy Diaries.  I was over-the-top excited to receive this book before it was actually released because I have what my friends call "an over-inflated ego who loves to brag about his successes and connections." Personally, I just think they're all jealous for not being as awesome as me and I was thrilled to be able to mention that I know a published author well enough that he would send me an advance copy of his book all the way to China where he had to pay all that extra shipping to get it to me by email.

Despite my obvious success at being cool, I really was looking forward to reading this book. Not only have I experienced the particular procedure described in this book, but I've been a fan of Rodney's blog for years and have read every one of his books immediately upon release. Plus, this book is an expansion on a very funny chapter from his first book Things Go Wrong For Me.

I typically read after I crawl into bed at night and as soon as I started reading my wife asked what I was chuckling about. There were so many passages that made me laugh I ended up reading the entire book to her over the next few nights. Plus, she enjoyed watching my testicles try to crawl up into my body when I got to some of the more graphic and painful parts.

Rodney kept a diary throughout the entire procedure starting on the day he decided to have it done and was shamelessly honest about how little he knew about his own anatomy despite all the time he has spent playing with it. He also explores the psychological damage incurred by trusting one of your most precious body parts to strangers with cutlery.

Rodney covers everything in this book and quite a bit more:
  • Why children are horrible
  • Human reproductive knowledge he should have acquired in high school 
  • Embarrassing himself in front of attractive nurses
  • Shaving your bumpy nether regions
  • The joys of painkillers
  • Discovering that Advent calendars don't really apply to this situation
  • Why bags of frozen peas are better than ice
  • Scarlett Johansson is incredibly hot
  • Learning how much personal info to share with coworkers
  • Still knowing that children are horrible 
  • The benefits (and dangers) of man-scaping
Excerpt from the Man-scaping chapter

You will learn so many things that you never really wanted to know, but he does squeeze in a little bit of practical knowledge as well. I had this procedure done about five years ago and enjoyed reading Rodney's take on some of this bizarre process. Like Rodney, so much of it was lost on me at the time because my mind was too busy just trying to maintain the courage to keep moving forward. Anyone who's has this done will greatly appreciate the telling of his story. Any man who is considering having this done should read it to get a more light-hearted look at what is a scary procedure to even think about. I would also recommend this book to any person (man or woman) who enjoys a good laugh. Except for my neighbor Kirk. I hate him.


If you are interested in purchasing this book for Kindle, click this link: http://amzn.to/2k9szw6
 
For paperback, click here: http://amzn.to/2kx9S6V
 
Click here for Rodney's website: http://RodneyLacroix.com

And because Rodney is an egomaniac (like me), he begged me to include his Facebook and Twitter links as well.


 If you're one of those cheap people who will never spend money on things, I recommend following Rodney's Twitter page. You will get his jokes in your feed everyday for FREE. But don't tell my neighbor Kirk. I really hate him.