"You must be Daniel," a young voice squeaked from behind me. I replied in the affirmative as I turned to face a dark skinned pixie-esque child and answered a few more questions. "I was born in Tennessee," she said out of the blue.
"Really? When did you come to China?" I enquired with a solitary raised eyebrow.
"When I was four."
"You've had an interesting life. Good luck for today."
She thanked me and perhaps even at her young age knew it was the time to take her leave and leave me to my solitude at the judges desk.
It was the Guangdong University and High School English Speaking contest semi-final and I was one of the five judges. The other four judges eventually arrived confirming what I'd already worked out from the name plaques: I was the only native speaking judge. I got on quite well with the judge next me an editor at Guangdong TV. Reading the instructions and materials I realised why I may have been a choice for this role. Most of the materials, names, event choreography were all in Chinese. And the instructions themselves already gave me a fair indication of the kind of speech competition it was. To get through to the grand-final a contestant might only need to speak at total of 1 minutes and 5 seconds of English spread over 3 "events". But I won't get ahead of myself! Let's listen to the contestants.
The first round, self-introduction, was about to begin at break-neck speed. After the cheerleader dancers had dispersed the contestants marched on stage to express themselves in 20 seconds and be scored out of 20 marks (judges can't score beneath 80% so the bottom score was 16). With barely seconds between each introduction judging was intense. "Performances" were a mixture of an American style "Oh my god, let's get this party started, I'm gonna, like, blow you away with my talent. See y'all soon!" to more strait-laced restrained self-introductions. Naturally being the creme-de-la-creme of the English speakers in schools and unis, there were some extraordinary kids with extraordinary backgrounds that can come through the contest criteria. Young Tennessee, for example. Other kids claimed in their multilingualism with pride: "I'm Jason and I can speak four languages: Chinese, Russian, Spanish and English. I'm a master of tongue twisters. Listen to this: Binbinblamblambinblambalmbirnbin. Yeah!"
Then we tumbled into the talent contest section where candidates could sing a song, dance, dub a movie or do a fashion show. This was allocated 30 marks of the 100 total score. While some contestants did use English in their performance (there was an outstanding male performance of Rolling in the Deep, and even Shakespearean sonnets read), most were not. You might wonder why they have a talent section in a speech contest, but it's for TV and most of the viewers wouldn't understand the speaking side if it were just English, right? We had a human beatbox, magic, latin dance, tradition Uighur and Thai dance (from non-ethnic Chinese competitors), even a rendition of that famous 70s band A-bee-bee-A and a 12 year old belted out .
Then we went onto the next course, the meat of the competition, the 50 point Travelling in English section. In this 45 second performance, participants would look at a screen to be shown a place name and picture from which they need to start a story for fifteen second, before another image comes up on the screen of an everyday object which they have to merge seamlessly into the story for another 15 seconds of speaking, before another image comes up, that of a movie star who also needs to be part of this continuously created improvised story which then should end on the 45th second. Don't try this at home. Most in the contest struggled, whether it is just a ridiculously difficult challenge or they didn't really understand what was being asked of them. Most performances were descriptions: "This is Great Barrier reef in Austria. It's a famous place. I like it and I want to g- Oh, and this is a time bomb. This is very dangerous and I hope there isn't a time bomb here toda- And Jackie Chan is a great man from our China..." "Time up!"
And then the smoke cleared briefly. Of the 20 students in each of the two sections, 6 students were advanced to the final (on a later date) and another 6 were knocked out of the competition based on their scores from the whirlwind first three rounds. The final 8 had to PK down to four contestants to advance. How do they do that? Well, the higher scoring of the eight can select an opponent from the rest and then act as the Affirmative side of a debate topic that would come up on the screen. They'd have 30 seconds to state their case; the other would have the same to match their argument; then their would be an unmoderated "free debate" section, in which one person could dominate if they liked. After that further 1 minute of spontaneous language generation, each judge would need to raise "Win!" signs to signal that they believe the affirmative side was stronger; no sign raised would signal that the negative side was stronger. If three or more judges support one side, they progress and the other person is knocked out. Simple enough?
Topics were often out of the worlds of the High School students. "Golden Weeks be cancelled" (Golden Weeks are the government defined periods of time that almost everyone has off work; it includes compelling companies to move the office weekends to form long holidays for the workers. It causes travel chaos and for that reasons people think that it should be abolished; but many people, with some basis reject it because without the government making it uniform, evil companies will exploit the lack of simplicity to deny their workers of holidays. It's an interesting topic.) The students talked about playing basketball and study. And of course they have barely seconds to think and then elaborate. The classic one was for the university students was: "We shouldn't keep our national identity in the age of globalisation." Try elaborating your thoughts on that in 30 seconds.
And then it was all over. Girls in air hostess uniforms with really short dresses marched on stage to give the certificates and two boxes of crackers to all participants, and then oversized flight tickets were given to those going to the final. They don't need to fly though: the final is in Guangzhou as well. I got given a whole gift set of crackers to take home. The advantage of being so mean with time was that 40 students in total competed in four hours. I was exhausted afterwards. I may be up for the final, but as an English teacher, god, I hope finally actually get to speak.