Justin Bieber

Dec 17, 2012

The Singles Day English speaking competition

In which true love is found, a love for language

Our talented English-speaking friends
Alex and Justin, left, preparing to go onstage to perform their play. With them is fellow student Crela Chan, the play’s author.

That speech competition that Alex had invited us to was on 11/11 — which was until recently Corduroy Appreciation Day, but is still in China known as Singles Day. It’s a sort of contrapositive of Valentine’s Day, and there are lots of sales. Of course.

But thirteen dedicated students, from four local high schools, gave up the chance to find a good deal, to spend the morning speaking English. We were there to support Alex — as well as four students from our own school whom we had spent the previous week coaching. Our teachers were surprised to see us there, because they hadn’t actually invited us, figuring it was too early for us.

But the shock wore off, and we took our seats next to a few of Alex’s friends, but also near to our kids. For part one, each contestant gave a five-minute personal statement on the topic of “The Youth in China.” Speeches like this are often very formulaic — “Now I will tell you my five reasons for …”, “Now that I have said that, I ask you to confirm my original statement …”, “People may say this, but they are wrong, and here’s why …” — and there were plenty of platitudes and list making. But some of the kids (Alex! Alex!) made some pretty heartfelt personal reflections. Also, one of the girls made a reference to the show “Two Broke Girls” as a good example of youthful self-reliance.

Part two consisted of questions from the judges that each speaker had to answer on the spot. This is where things got tricky. While the kids’ English was uniformly excellent, the judges were not fantastic speakers. (We confirmed this after the competition to many upset students and teachers.) Listening to them, I was itching to jump in and read the questions myself. And, eventually, they asked me too. So, this round threw the contestants a little off their game, to say the least.

But things picked up again in part three: the performance round. Each of the four high schools presented a short scene. First up, “Little Red Riding Hood” starring the hammiest wolf ever. In the end, he’s gunned down by a hunter with an assault rifle. These guys were really great and really funny.

Next, was an original piece titled, “I Have a Dream” featuring a Chinese family with an over-scheduled 9-year-old daughter. The titular dream? No homework. Again, hilarious.

Our school was next, with an overdub of a scene from “Kung Fu Panda.” From working with them all week, we had already seen this done five or six times, but it went over well with the crowd.

Lastly was Alex and his partner, who took Justin as her English name because she loves Justin Bieber. They returned to the ground covered by “Little Red,” setting up a meeting between Grandmother and the son of the wolf she murdered. Neither has fared well. Grandmother is despondent because her youthful dreams of becoming a poet had been crushed. And the loss of his father ruined the wolf’s life, and now he’s a washed-up alcoholic who can’t feed his own family. “It’s the bureaucratic system that’s to blame,” Grandmother tries to argue. But the wolf doesn’t buy it. In a drunken fit of rage, he pushes Grandmother down the stairs. It was a laugh riot!

The competition was really early
Some friends-of-contestants were a little tired.

With the performances finished, it was time to total the scores. Students from the college hosting the competition were on hand to process that paperwork — dressed in track jackets and looking like official Olympic time keepers. The mathematics went on for a little too long, and the competitors started to get restless. “We’re bored!” they yelled — now that the pressure was off, everyone was in a more convivial mood. So Alex and one of the competition hostesses got up to sing a song for everyone. “The scores aren’t very important,” one of Alex’s teachers confided in us.

To wrap things up, the school groups gathered on the stage to take photos. We stood for photos with Alex and Justin, and then with our school. This led to photos with other kids who we didn’t know. And then photos with the hostesses and, I think, the sound man. It gets truly surreal sometimes.

The flashes eventually calmed down, and we said our good-byes. Happy Singles Day!

After the show

Oct 9, 2011

Back to work

The National Day Holiday is over, and we’ve gone back to work, teaching make-up classes for Saturday and Sunday. Both Peter and I are feeling more comfortable in the classroom. It’s easier to plan our lessons, now that we know what the kids are and aren’t capable of.

I’m finding the way I can be most helpful is with pronunciation - so I spend a lot of time just making noises, both with the seniors and juniors. This week, I’m showing the seniors “th” vs. “s.” I’m pretty sure that all of them can hear the difference, though some have a really hard time doing the “th” themselves. It’s really cool, though, when a kid gets it. The whole class applauds — they’re big on applause as positive reinforcement.

I did have a kid in one class today say that Justin Beiber has a haircut like a girl. And that wasn’t even off topic — our lesson for this week is describing people. A lot of the kids love him, but some of them like him only “just so-so.”

Sep 27, 2011

We’ve landed

First days in China

We’ve been in Luzhou for three days now, and we’re really liking the city. It’s an interesting mix of familiar and completely foreign - for instance, the people here dress about the same as they do in New York, but there’s a whole workforce whose job it is to pick up trash and carry it in rattan baskets strapped to their backs. All the things that signify “typical Chinese” in America - lion statues, pagoda-like roofs, etc. - are just a normal part of the decor here.

Everyone is really friendly and helpful here. They love Americans, so we’ve been getting first-class treatment from everyone we’ve come across even though we don’t speak any Chinese yet. (Though we’ve both learned to say “thank you,” and that’s been a big hit.) On our first day here, one of our fellow English teachers showed us around town and took us to breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was all delicious. It’s a little hard for Peter, because they don’t do vegetarian, really, but he’s gamely sucked down noodle soups with chicken broth and just scraped the meat off of some vegetable dishes. Last night, we’re so proud, we ordered lunch and dinner by ourselves! OK, so for lunch, we just pointed at a picture menu and for dinner we pointed at a translated list of foods one of our colleagues typed out for us, but it was still some fun moments of independence.

Classes are really fun. We’re teaching at a middle school, but in China that means 14-18 year-old, or junior and high school age. We’re pretty much left to our own devices in terms of planning, and the students are really eager to learn. In one of my classes yesterday, in small-group discussion, two of my girls wanted to eschew the topic to talk about Justin Bieber and Will Smith (their favorite singers). I figured they were enthusiastic about speaking English, so I just went with it. Peter and I also signed numerous autographs and turned down many requests for phone numbers. Their is a huge variability in skill amongst the kids, but they all want to learn - even the girl who told me that she is learning English for the national exam and the one who said her favorite school subject is nothing.

No pictures yet. We do have plans to get a camera, because y’all have got to see this place. One of the teachers might take us hiking on a nearby mountain next weekend, so we’re hoping by then to have some sort of picture maker.

On the blog title: “Hello Uncle Foreigner” is what little kids are yelling at us in the street. Last night, one such three-year-old joined us for dinner, and he was delighted with all the attention we paid to him. We’re seriously like rock stars over here.