Do you want to compete in a Chinese Speaking Competition?
A month or so ago, one of our teachers asked me this: “Do you want to compete in a Chinese Speaking Competition?” Since I had decided when I first came to China to do pretty much everything that was offered, I quickly replied with an enthusiastic, “What? Oh, sure!” (Okay, these weren’t my exact words because of the whole no-speaking-English pledge thing, but this was the gist).
I knew the chance was slim to none that I’d win. I hadn’t been asked to compete because my Chinese was significantly better than anyone else’s, but because no one else had signed up yet. But our “graduation” from the program was fast approaching, and I thought this event constituted one of those “everything” things I should say “dui” to. So I did.
And then nothing happened. I completely forgot about the competition. The weeks passed. We had tests. We went on group trips. We just hung out. I hadn’t been planning on preparing for the competition anyway. My Chinese is what it is, and as for the “talent” segment of the competition, how hard could it be? While I’ve been abroad, I’ve been learning to play the erhu (a kind of Chinese banjo), and I figured I could just play an impressive (and by that I mean passable) version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Since I was only entering the competition for the experience, I was certain I could just wing it.
About four days before the competition, the school (Zhejiang University, not CET) assigned us teachers to help us prepare. My teacher told me, in the nicest way possible, that I sucked at playing the erhu. “You’ll be judged against kids who have been studying the instrument for years,” she said. “Do you have any other skills?”
I suggested telling a story. I thought I could say something, I guess, about my skills, and/or about how much I’ve learned since being here in China.
“Is your story moving? You can only tell a story if it deeply moves people. If your story doesn’t cause the audience either to bawl their eyes out or laugh hysterically, your story is not good.”
… I decided against telling a story. My teacher ultimately gave me two choices: I could recite a poem, or I could perform a monologue from a film. As a film major, I decided to go with the monologue.
The first that came to mind was Cheng Dieyi’s emotional monologue at the end of Bawangbieji (Farewell My Concubine). I don’t want to ruin the movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet. But just so you know—the scene involves dressing in traditional Beijing Opera getup and yelling dramatically at everyone around you. What’s not to love? It’s a deeply moving scene, but one that rides the thin line between overdramatic and funny. I just thought—how ridiculous and awesome would it be to perform that?
So I did. I got white face makeup and everything. My teacher told me that wearing a costume would make the judges like me more. In Chinese competitions and performances, judges often very much care about how you comport yourself and how you look. That’s not without 道理 (truth). What you wear does affect how other people see you, and can make your performance seem more real. Plus, as I found out, this competition would be televised, so the more professional looking, the better.
And guess what? In the end, I won!!
Just kidding—I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even come close. I was up against a guitar-playing Scottish kid, a rapper from Slovakia, and a sword-wielding gongfu master. I didn’t stand a chance.
The upside is I think the judges may have actually liked my performance. I just totally bombed the question and answer session, so there was no way to keep going in the competition. I don’t know. All I know is that I had a great time. I surprised myself at how much I got into my performance. Initially, I had chosen the monologue from “Farewell my Concubine” as a joke. I thought it would be funny to play off of the overdramatic aspects of the film. But as I was actually performing, I found myself getting very intense and serious. I started to channel Cheng Dieyi’s total frustration and anger and hopelessness. I was no Leslie Cheung (the actor who played Cheng Dieyi, and who was phenomenal in the role). But I wanted to do him justice—you know, as only a middle-class American girl with broken Chinese can do.
So, in the end, it didn’t matter that I didn’t win, or even get close. The whole process was a great experience—and that was the point, right? The experience. I’ve really enjoyed my experience abroad, and I’m sure that you will too, whenever you get here.