There are a lot of oddball things that I’ve been asked to do during my time as a foreign teacher in China. From being asked to help train hotel employees (how am I even remotely qualified?) to editing a travel book about the city of Huzhou (when I had just arrived and knew nothing about Huzhou yet) to sitting in on a series of job interviews for a silk exporting company–I’m never sure what kind crazy side job I’ll be taking on next. It’s always interesting, to be sure, but I never really enjoy the feeling of being a monkey who is simply there to smile and perform and make people laugh. Most of the time, I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing when I arrive at these little side-jobs, and there is no way to really prepare in advance. But the companies who request my presence never seem concerned with my lack of expertise–I’m really just there to be their impressive guest foreigner. It’s almost as ridiculous as getting celebrities to pose for milk advertisements:
Judging the English speech competition today was no exception. I was grateful that it was at least within the realm of language arts—my area of expertise. The speech competition was scheduled to last the entire day, but fortunately, they allowed me to judge during the morning session and Justin to judge during the afternoon session, which splits up the work a little bit.
I was supposed to arrive at the auditorium about ten minutes before eight, because the speech competition was set to start at eight sharp. However, true to Chinese form, the details were changed at the last minute. While I was getting dressed and ready this morning, I checked the time on my phone and saw that I had received a text message after I went to bed last night. Apparently they needed me to be at the auditorium twenty minutes earlier than I had planned, so I only had eight minutes left to finish getting ready before I needed to leave my apartment. Great! I scrambled around the house, shoving my breakfast muffins in my purse in the hopes that I would have time to eat them later (I didn’t) and ran across campus to the auditorium.
I arrived sweating and panting (I sure know how to make a good impression), and apologized for my (inevitable) tardiness. Laura, one of the other (Chinese) teachers at our school was going to judge with me, along with another woman who I had never met before. We were seated at a long table at the front of the room, about ten feet from the stage. I was a little bit alarmed when Laura had me sit in the chair directly in front of the judges’ microphone, but I didn’t say anything. I also noticed that according to the backdrop on the stage and the giant video camera behind the judges’ table, the entire speech competition was going to be broadcast on CCTV Channel 10. So that’s why they invited the monkey me today!
There were three envelopes, one for each of the judges, full of scoring sheets, information, and questions for the contestants, most of which was in Chinese. Laura tried to summarize it for me, but I still felt a little lost. She explained, “There will be three groups of students and two rounds this morning. We will see college, senior high, and junior high. We will need to choose the best in each group and also assign each student a score. You will be in charge of asking the contestants questions.” Hmm…where to begin. “So, how are we doing the scoring?” I asked. “Like I said, you will ask them questions,” Laura replied, looking at me like I was a little slow. “Right…but are we scoring them on a scale of one to ten?” I asked. “One through ten, of course,” Laura responded, rolling her eyes in sheer amazement of my stupidity. I quickly realized that I would have to figure it out as I went along.
At eight o’clock on the dot, the lights went up on the stage and the camera started rolling. Two college students dressed in formal wear approached the podium and began making some sort of introduction to the show in Chinese. At one point in the midst of all of the Chinese words I was surprised to hear them say, “Rachel.” Then the announcers paused and looked at me pointedly. I glanced at Laura for direction, but she was messing with her cell phone under the table. There was a long silent pause with every eye in the room on me. The judge to my left finally whispered, “You’re supposed to stand up.” I quickly clambered out of my seat, but not before the announcers, realizing my ignorance, continued listing the other judges’ names so that they could stand as well. That was awkward. And then round one began.
They brought in the contestants five at a time. The college students were first, and the first contestant walked to the lone microphone stand on the stage and made a one-minute introduction of herself and her interests. For all I knew, that was her entire speech, and I was just sitting there making notes about her on my notepad when Laura elbowed me. I quickly realized that the room had become awkwardly silent again. “You’re supposed to ask her some questions,” Laura whispered. “From this sheet?” I whispered back, holding up a paper from my folder. She nodded, and I started with the first question on the list. “Ahem…Which mode of transportation do you think is the softest? Oh, excuse me…the safest.” Argh! Why did they have to put a typo on my question sheet? As if I haven’t made myself look ridiculous enough already! She answered the question, and I asked her the next one on the sheet. “What do you like to do in your spare time?” However, before she could even get a word out in response, an official in charge of keeping time announced that her time was up, and she was directed to sit down. I felt bad that I didn’t give her enough time to answer two questions, so I tried to go soft on her score.
The remainder of the contestants came up to answer their questions without any more distracting blunders from my end (aside from the fact that my breakfast-less stomach kept growling into the microphone and echoing out of the loudspeakers around the auditorium). Also, some of the contestants had to ask me to repeat my questions because they had difficulty understanding my thick American accent, causing me to wonder, Why am I here again? To confuse the nervous speech contestants? Oh, wait…to be the monkey (on live television!)…I forgot.
When the five contestants had finished their turns, each of the judges was given a small scoring sheet to record their scores. For the girl who seemed very charismatic and had a good vocabulary and pronunciation, I gave a nine. Laura glanced over my shoulder and commented on my scores. “A nine? Isn’t that a little high?” She asked. “I gave her a nine because she really stood out from the other contestants and did a great job,” I explained. Laura also felt compelled to comment on one of my low scores. “A six? Oh….that seems very low,” she said. “That contestant had no idea what she was even trying to say, and she was stuttering so bad that I could barely understand her,” I explained again, feeling a little annoyed with Laura at this point. “Well, this is usually how we score things in China,” Laura explained, letting me look over her score sheet:
How am I supposed to come up with such specific scores? I wondered. “You can keep them that way if you want. It’s up to you,” Laura said, in a voice that clearly implied the opposite of what she just said. Just then, a very important looking lady in a pant suit approached our table with a stern look on her face. She spoke to the judges in Chinese, and walked away briskly. Laura translated for me, “She says that we need to hurry with our scores. We have no time to sit and chat.” So I kept my scores exactly the same. 🙂
After we turned in our scores, five more contestants were brought to the stage. It went on like that for the next few hours. My favorite group turned out to be the middle school students, who really tried hard to be creative with their introductions. Several of them sang lines from famous American pop songs to begin their speeches. One girl sang the chorus from Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and then went on to explain why she would be the champion of the speech contest. Another girl played a short song on her erhu (a uniquely Chinese stringed instrument) and then described what she loves most about music. There was a boy who performed a rap song that he’d written about himself (complete with beat-box sounds and everything). There was a girl who, rather than simply walking up to the microphone, danced onto the stage dressed in traditional Chinese clothes and waving around a Chinese fan. One of my favorites was a quirky girl wearing red glasses and suspenders who brought a giant, life-sized poster of herself up onto the stage. The poster version of herself was wearing an identical glasses-and-suspenders outfit, which I thought was a nice touch. She started by saying, “Let me introduce you to the girl in this picture,” and every time she made an important point, she stuck thought bubbles and word bubbles saying different things onto the poster. Sadly, she ran out of time before her introduction was finished, and she didn’t respond very well to the questions that I asked her. I suppose gimmicks can only get you so far.
Speaking of questions, they had me ask some really strange ones. I found myself asking contestants things like, “What do you eat for breakfast in the morning?” and “Do you think time is valuable? Why?” Some of the questions were worded so awkwardly and incorrectly that I had to re-word them to make them a little clearer. I changed, “How do you go to school?” into “How do you travel to school each day?” However, it backfired on me. Some of the students didn’t understand what I was asking, and many of them would zero in on the word “travel” and respond with things like, “Travel? Oh, I like to travel. My family and I will travel to Beijing this summer…” Eventually, I had to go back to the original wording. I was surprised when many twelve and thirteen-year-old students responded to that question with, “I do not travel to school. You see, I live at school in a dormitory. So I can just walk to class.” The thought of children living in a boarding school makes me sad, but I guess I can’t really judge since I never tried it. Just because I was attached to my mom by the hip when I was little doesn’t mean that they necessarily feel the same way…maybe they like living at school.
Overall, even though I felt like I was more of a hindrance than a help, I enjoyed judging the speech contest. I was also glad that I got to eat lunch with Justin and prepare him for what he could expect during his afternoon session. As I type, Justin is judging the elementary students, first grade through sixth grade. I can’t help but wonder how a first grader is supposed to make a formal speech, let alone a speech in a foreign language! I’ll be interested to hear how it went when he gets back home.