A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to Lanzhou to meet up with an old HBA friend, Cynthia, who is currently doing her Fulbright scholarship work on public health at the University of Lanzhou.

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HBA reunion! 

Lanzhou is pretty much smack-bang in the middle of China. I decided to take a train there, for various reasons. For starters, taking a train means I can use my phone to keep in touch with people while on the train (but only when I’m in areas with signal). It’s less noisy on a train, since there’s no constant drone of airplane engines. There’s also no height, which despite my many hours of flying, is still something that unsettles me. There’s a chance to look out of the window and see some of the sights at ground level. A lot of rural farmland, construction, and some gorgeous scenery. It’s also much less hassle to get on a train. No hours of waiting for a boarding gate to open, for starters. I took a hard sleeper for the 18-hour one way trip to and from Lanzhou, which also afforded me the opportunity to get some work done on the train, which was rather convenient, since I went to Lanzhou the weekend before my 3 essays were due. Also, food on the train is so much better, since there is a dedicated restaurant cart that serves pretty good Chinese food.

Most importantly, people just generally seem to be a lot friendlier on trains than they are on airplanes. I met a wide range of very interesting people. I met a Taiwanese guy who lived in Brisbane for many years, building his fortune by gambling in the casinos there, who is now looking to invest in virtual reality tech — we had many interesting discussions about probability, virtual reality and even some philosophy. I met a woman who works as an agent connecting companies to people looking for work (maybe that’ll come in handy real soon). On the way back, I met two guys from another part of Gansu province who worked in medical software (much like Epic in America), and were on their way to upgrade some systems in a hospital in Haidian. I spoke with many others briefly, and it was a great chance for me to engage with people who weren’t Beijingers. After all, Beijing, as big and as populated as it is, really represents only a tiny fraction of what China is all about.

Below I’ll be detailing some of the more interesting parts of my trip to the city and some of the observations I made.

Lanzhou is a very dusty city. Consequently, there are many “water-trucks” which drive around, playing Chinese opera on really low-quality loudspeakers and spraying fine mist into the air in a vain attempt to catch the dust out of the air.

The famous dish, Lanzhou beef noodles, is actually considered more of a breakfast/brunch dish in Lanzhou. All of the most notable restaurants (which pretty much only serve this dish with a couple of sides) close either at 2pm or, at latest, 2:30pm. Cynthia and I learned this the hard way when we walked for ages only to find every single restaurant we arrived at to be closed.

Luckily for us, Lanzhou has a pretty cool night market! In it, there is a huge variety of food and drink. It’s only the length of a single alleyway, which, I’m told, pales in comparison to the legendary Taiwanese night markets, but nevertheless, this was my first time at a genuine Chinese night market. I enjoyed some 醪糟 drink (essentially fermented glutinous rice mixed with milk, eggs, sugar and a couple of nuts and berries), made by a locally famous man (the line in his stall was tremendous and we waited for a solid 40 minutes before getting our drink), and I also enjoyed some delicious lamb kebabs.

Another nice delicacy in Lanzhou are the 面片, square pieces of noodles added to a salted lamb broth with some lamb, coriander and possibly some chilly sauce. It was a very tasty weekend to be sure.

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Lanzhou is apparently famous for it’s waterwheels, which were invented by a man named Duan Xu. They are pretty impressive feats of engineering to be sure, and certainly a useful thing to have for a city that lives next to the Yellow River. Speaking of the Yellow River, there is also the famous “Mother of the Yellow River” statue that we got a chance to go and see.

Cynthia showed me around her university, and it is a charming little place. I certainly enjoyed watching the 11-legged races that were being competitively run by various classes in Lanzhou’s Law School — highly entertaining. It has a rather unusual looking library and a very tranquil lake in the middle of campus too. The small size of the campus is a refreshing change from the enormity of Qinghua.

Overall it was definitely a lovely weekend. And it’s always awesome to break out of the bubble that one finds oneself in occasionally, and just go to another far away place.

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A couple of weekends ago, I managed to get hold of some tickets to go watch Beijing’s local Chinese Super League team, Guoan (technically it’s 北京国安乐视 -国安 is the main part though), battle it out against the reigning champions from Guangzhou (technically 广州恒大淘宝). It was a fantastic experience — one I’d recommend for almost anybody, regardless of how football-savvy they are (or soccer-savvy for the American readers).

To get tickets as a foreigner is surprisingly difficult. This is because the online ticketing services require a Chinese ID number, and often restrict the number of tickets that any one ID number can purchase. This means that if, as a foreigner, one wants to get tickets ahead of time, one needs to make sure that one has a good Chinese friend who’d be willing to help them out. Luckily for me, my Wushu teammate Jane was more than happy to help me out.

If you go to Guoan’s official website (which is all in Chinese by the way), you can scan a QR code into your WeChat that will add Guoan’s ticketing and news service to your WeChat subscriptions. This is useful because tickets for each game only become available for purchase around a week before the game (this time is far from exact), and tickets tend to sell out extraordinarily fast. Jane managed to find two tickets for 240rmb each, the second-cheapest tickets available (if you look up ticket prices online, 5 years ago the cheapest ticket was probably around 10-20RMB, whereas now they were 180RMB  so clearly soccer in China is becoming increasingly commercialized). There was also a negligible 9RMB delivery fee (the tickets are delivered via a courier, very similar to what I experienced when I bought tickets to see the Steve Vai in Beijing concert 3 years ago).

Tickets in hand, it was time to go to the actual game itself. I must admit, it was pleasantly refreshing to go to the Worker’s Stadium during the day. The area around the Beijing Worker’s Stadium is where most expats go for a night of drunken debauchery and revelry, so getting to see it being used in it’s intended way was certainly enjoyable. The game was a night game, kicking-off at 19:35, but I arrived exceptionally early to have brunch with a friend in a great little organic restaurant near the stadium called Tribe (I would recommend this place for anybody looking for a tasty, healthy, Western-ish style breakfast/brunch). After brunch, I walked a full circle around the block that the Worker’s Stadium occupies (it is quite a long walk), and found the atmosphere to be wonderfully carnival. There was plenty of green everywhere (green is the primary colour of the Guoan kit) with lots of vendors and fans engaging in haggling over prices of not-entirely-legitimate Guoan gear. There were jerseys, jackets, shorts, scarves, temporary tattoos, key-rings, stickers to put on one’s car, and even some noise-instruments that looked suspiciously like vuvuzelas. As an aside, I also happened across the Maan Coffee that is located on the Northern part of the stadium, and it is absolutely gigantic. It seems a superb place to sit and do some work, if for some reason one every happens to bring one’s homework with them to the Worker’s Stadium.

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The Bazaar outside the stadium

While going to watch a football match on my own would be something I would enjoy doing, I felt like this kind of experience is one that ought to be shared, and I managed to convince Jessica, a fellow Yalie, to come with me. She was pretty excited, despite not knowing a whole lot about soccer in China (truth be told, I only knew the bare minimum myself). We walked through the troves of stalls, searching for something to show our new and undying support of Guoan (said with some humour, mind you). Eventually, we found a stall that sold us some pretty comfortable jackets for 75RMB each, and temporary tattoos for our cheeks for 5RMB each. They also had a huge poster at the back which had some interesting words around the Guoan logo such as “牛逼!”, “爷们儿”, and so on. We obviously had to take a photo in front of it.

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Jessica and I standing in front of a Guoan banner. Notice how even my shoelaces are green…

The stadium itself was pretty easy to navigate. We were on the West End, on the opposite side of the main cheerleading section of the supporters. To the Northern End of the stadium were where the Chinese version of ultra fans were, a block clad in a darker green colour, with all manner of flags, who went from start to finish chanting all manner of slogans (most of them were somewhat indistinct since we were so far away from them). The majority of the stadium was a gigantic green wave, and right at the South end of the stadium, surrounded on both sides by two sections of completely empty seats (presumably for safety reasons) was the section of die-hard Guangzhou fans.

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Well before the game started, the seats were already filling up fast. In the end, over 55000 people turned up to this game. 

Each seat in the stadium and a green fold-up square with a couple of handles, and a slogan on one side that said “国安永远争第一” (Approximately it means “Guoan will always be number one”), and some instructions: at 7:30pm, 5 minutes before kickoff, we were to hold the side with no characters on it out toward the stadium. Every Guoan fan in the stadium did this, and the result was really awesome. There were two shades of green used, one for each section, and the result was that the stadium looked utterly green. In addition, since it was a night game, the glossy material of these squares reflected the light, and people were intentionally wiggling their square around to simulate camera flashes (at least, that’s what it looked like).

Then began the chanting. Not being a native Chinese speaker, and not being familiar with the chants of Guoan, I struggled to participate or even understand what was being yelled, but there was a fantastic opening to the game where the east end of the support would yell out, and the west end would reply, question-answer style. It was all superbly coordinated. And electric. Then came the chants of “国安!必胜!” (meaning Guoan must win!), which were even louder.

Many of the fans we sat near yelled furiously at the game as it unfolded before them, in typical soccer-fan fashion. It was extremely interesting and somewhat funny to see this side of the Chinese language come out in a natural way. Expletives are rarely encountered in everyday life, so to hear them in such dense volume was quite a novel experience. Especially funny was the fact that while in England and America, crowds boo, and in most of Europe, they whistle, in China, they yell a rather low-frequency “” (pronounced bi1, a vulgar term relating to female reproductive body parts). Clearly the crowd was trying to play its part in being a “twelfth player” for Guoan.

The spirit and enthusiasm persisted throughout the duration of the 90 minutes, and it was amazing to behold. The unfortunate part was that the team on the field couldn’t quite match the energy of the crowd. They fell 3-0 to the defending champions, though the game was actually a lot more well-contested than that scoreline would seem to suggest. Guoan had numerous golden chances to put the ball in the back of the net, yet somehow they instead found the crossbar or the hapless goalkeeper who certainly couldn’t have been aware of some of the saves he was making. In contrast, Guangzhou was clinical. With the four clearcut chances they had, one hit the post, and the other hit their mark.

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The rather sad final score

I must admit I was impressed with the level of play on the field. It was a far cry from the awful rubbish I subjected myself to four years ago when I turned on the telly to watch some local football, only to see some rather uncoordinated men walking around at the 70 minute mark because they lacked the fitness to last a full 90 minutes. This time around, the came was fast from start to almost-finish (I think Guoan conceded the loss around 80 minutes in and the game lost some spice as a result, though given the scoreline this was entirely understandable). Predictably, many fans left early to try beat the traffic since they already knew roughly that the result would be unfavorable, but a large number of the 55000-strong crowd remained behind to receive an acknowledgment from the players. The crowd was surprisingly supportive, offering encouraging applause for their defeated team, rather than the crescendo of ’s I was expecting to hear.

Overall, this was a fantastic experience and I definitely hope to do it again before I leave Beijing. I would certainly recommend it to anybody.

During a night out in Houhai, a couple of friends and I decided we wanted to stop by some of the curio shops that are scattered around that area. One of these cute little shops was a postcard store, where one could buy a post card and have it shipped to an address of one’s own choosing for a relatively low price. Many of the postcards showed much creativity, and were quite cool to behold.

While in the store, I overheard a man asking one of the people running the store how much it would cost to ship a specific postcard. The owner of the store informed him that it would cost 5 renminbi. The man seemed pleasantly surprising, exclaiming to his partner with a smile, “Only 5 bucks to send it to Taiwan?” upon which the rather aggressive store owner butted in with his rather heavy Beijing accent, saying “No no, international shipments cost 10 bucks!”

To his credit, the man just shut his mouth and paid the extra 5 bucks and that was the end of that. I was genuinely surprised that he didn’t challenge the store owner, since it would be interesting to see if the owner would still believe that Taiwan is “international” if he didn’t stand to win a quick buck off of the ordeal. I would certainly guess that he, like most Beijingers, would believe that Taiwan is a part of China. I could be wrong, but to be frank that isn’t likely.

I guess this is kind of symbolic of how money-making opportunities can cause people to selectively choose what they want to believe at their own convenience. There aren’t too many people who can resist the overwhelming push of the invisible hand of capitalism. Or perhaps, it merely serves to divide what people really believe in, and what they mindlessly accept.

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A shot of the performance and some of the food

One Friday night, I and a bunch of other IUPers decided to try out the North Korean restaurant located near the Agricultural Exhibition Center. The name of the restaurant was, predictably, Pyongyang restaurant. The night was rather interesting, and a reasonable insight into some limited aspects of North Korea. But only a tiny bit.

Since there was quite a large group of us (I don’t remember the exact number but I think there were over 15 of us), we were placed in a rather large room. For some mysterious reason, this meant that we were unable to enjoy the online special offered over dazhongdianping (the Chinese version of Yelp). Even our Korean-American fellow student, who was playing host for the evening, was pretty flummoxed with that development. But, determined to not let such a silly triviality spoil the evening, we proceeded to order food from the ordinary menu.

According to our Korean pseudo host, the specialty of North Korea is the cold noodle dish (冷面). So naturally, we ordered quite a bit of this. As far as the food goes, there was a striking similarity with South Korean food that anybody who lives in Wudaokou would no doubt be familiar with (surprise surprise), but there was one particular dish that stood out to me as being both unique and tasty. A type of sausage, apparently laden with the not-too-appetizing title of “blood sausage”. It comes highly recommended. One of the peculiarities of the food was that the cold noodles were served with a side of Dijon-style mustard. A dash of mustard added to the flavor in a surprisingly pleasant manner.

Once the food was served, the waitresses (they were all female North Koreans) gave us a variety of performances while we dined. It was a rather surreal experience. The first performance consisted of electric keyboards, electric drums, a bass guitar and a lead-accordion. They played a tune that seemed oddly familiar though the name escapes me. From then, the performances kept rolling — a rendition of a famous traditional Swiss song, some guzheng piece, and other songs. After some time, audience participation became a factor too, as the waitresses sang Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” accompanied by an overenthusiastic fellow IUPer’s somewhat cacophonous harmonies and over-exaggerated performances (much to the bewilderment of the waitresses), and eventually everybody somehow ended up dancing around somewhat awkwardly to Abba’s “Dancing Queen”. the overwhelming sentiment from many of the IUPers was “I am not drunk enough for this” or “It’s too early in the night for this.”

While we were allowed to photograph and record the “set performances” (including a not-so-heartwarming North Korean propaganda song about sacrificing oneself for the country), we were forbidden from filming thee unusual combinations of dancing and singing that occurred afterward. One can only presume that these kinds of behaviors are frowned upon by the management.

The speculation goes that these waitresses are daughters of the North Korean elite, seizing a chance to leave the country and see some other part of the world. Their Chinese was rather mediocre (certainly worse than a few of the IUPers), and apparently their Korean carries a strong northern accent (according to our pseudo host).

The end of the evening took a somewhat uncomfortable turn as one of our fellow American IUPers decided it was acceptable to ask the waitress for her name, and ask her whether she preferred Korea or China (and of COURSE, he referred to Korea as 韩国 instead of 朝鲜, which greatly offended the waitress). He asked her how old she was, and then asked her to guess his age. She said around 40 (almost double his actual age, clearly a jab). He then proceeded to ask who she thought was handsome, and she responded to this unwelcome question by exclaiming rather venomously “你不帅!” (You are not handsome!) Everybody except for me seemed to think it was funny. I just felt increasingly nervous, and was only too happy when we stepped outside and were able to go home.

Note to self: don’t go to North Korean restaurants with people who are prone to harass waiters and waitresses with questions.

Not that I’ll be returning to one any time soon.

In a valiant attempt to restart my blog I’ve been collecting some thoughts that’ll be published on my blog sequentially rather quickly. I thought I’d first talk about one of the most fun things I’ve gotten to do in Beijing, and that is to train in wushu with an actual coach.

The beginning of this story is rather unusual, and the sequence of events that led to me having a chance to practice wushu in Beijing is rather odd, but sometimes life is strange.

It all started during the Summer, when IUP’s Summer term was coming to a close. My friends and I had heard that Modernista, a bar in the 宝钞胡同 (boachao hutong) was hosting an event called “Drink and Draw.” Now, in this event, a model poses for 5 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes and then 20 minutes, and each time we are supposed to draw the pose. At the end of all the drawing, the model would then examine the drawings and pick out their favorite one, and whoever drew those pictures would win a free artisanal drink.

On this particular evening our model was a black man with a superb smile wearing some exceptionally colorful clothing and a rather flashy fedora. A fellow Yalie and friend, Will Ge, actually won on this particular evening. Since I wasn’t leaving but everybody else was, I decided I would get a round of drinks for the four of us (at this point, you’re probably thinking `what does buying drinks at a bar have to do with wushu?’ I’m getting there, don’t worry!)

While at the bar, a woman who was sitting there began talking to me. Her name was Fengdan, and she was a native Beijinger and aspiring illustrator, who was at Modernista primarily to visit her foreign friends who worked behind the bar. Funnily enough, she wasn’t there to participate in the Drink and Draw event, telling me “I spend all day drawing, I come here to take a break from drawing.” We exchanged contact details and I went back to enjoy the rest of my evening with my friends.

A couple of days later we met up for lunch and had some pleasant conversation, and then I left for Sichuan (this is a topic for another time). While in Sichuan, she messaged me asking if I wanted to join her for a group picnic. I was skeptical, since I wouldn’t know anybody else there, but she assured me that she only knew one other person at the picnic. So I agreed to go.

The picnic was at the Temple of Earth Park. It’s quite a beautiful park actually, and it was a very pleasant day. There were about 20 people in all who managed to make it to the picnic. There was a mix of Chinese people and of foreigners, some German, some French, even one other South African, which was nice!

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Temple of Earth Park

But probably the best and most important person I met there was Jane, a Chinese woman from Anhui province who’d been working in Beijing for the last 5 years. While introducing ourselves, the topic of wushu came up and she told me that she’d been practicing Bagua (what Airbending from Avatar is based off of) in Chaoyang, and that I should come along one of these days. In the meantime, she and another woman, Nancy, were kind enough to teach me Chinese chess!

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Jane (right) and Nancy (left) battling it out in Chinese Chess

A couple of weeks later, we met up in Wudaokou to talk about various things, including the wushu, and a few weeks after that I decided to make the hour-long subway trip to Jintai Road (金台路) to try out my first practice. It was great!

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Jumping Inside kick attempt during my first practice

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Yan Lu trying in vain to get me to do my drop stance correctly

My Coach is a woman by the name of Yan Lu (吕燕), and she used to be a part of the Beijing wushu team along with Jet Li! She’s absolutely amazing, and exceptionally patient and precise. She’s very observant and understands how to improve movements just from looking at them once. There was a brief documentary done on her recently here: https://vimeo.com/groups/china/videos/153175489 certainly worth the watch.

I train with two others: Jane, and an American of Malaysian descent, Nick Marro, who works in Beijing. Through these two I’ve managed to find friends on the other side of the city (which in Beijing, is a big deal since the city is so massive), and this group of friends is also pretty diverse. At the end of the calendar year, the four of us got together for a bit of a fancy dinner in a restaurant, where we treated Yan Lu to dinner as a sign of gratitude.

Moving on to some of the things that I’ve learned from Wushu that I didn’t know while practicing at Yale (or perhaps I knew, but didn’t get quite right or just didn’t appreciate the importance of):

(1) Breath.

Yan Lu has impressed to me the importance of breath. Bear with me for a bit of a long-winded metaphor. Suppose we imagine a structure made of many parts. The goal of the structure is to hold itself up (as well as any load placed on top of it) against gravity. Any parts of the structure that do not work toward holding the structure and the load up simply weigh the structure down. The human body is a structure, albeit a dynamic one, one that can rearrange its own components into various aesthetically pleasing forms that don’t necessarily function all that well in terms of holding the body up (hence why balancing upside down on your single finger is almost an impossibility). In general though, we can consciously engage various parts of our bodies to ensure that they are working toward keeping us held up. For example, when we try to do a pushup, we should take care to engage the core muscles, lest they weigh us down so much that our poor arms have to take up the entire load.

The same is true of the breath, surprisingly, albeit in a slightly different way. Breath that is out of sync with the movements becomes an obstacle — it makes all of the movements burn up way more energy that they should. Trying to do a quarter of any form at the correct speed with incorrect breathing will make one feel like one has just run a marathon (and there’s still three quarters of the form to go!). For example, when doing a jump front kick, on the initial jump up, a sharp intake of breath serves as a sort of buoyancy during the rising of the body. Once at the apex of the jump, a sharp puff out of breath serves to help contract the relevant muscles that allow the fast kick of the right leg to strike the outstretched palm. Not getting this breathing correct causes the jump to be lower, the kick to be slower, and the whole movement to feel like it takes more effort than it should.

(2) Static stretching

While reading about stretching, I discovered that static stretching before activity was, in general, not helpful for sports. This is true when the sport in question is one like soccer, where one needs strength and not flexibility. Statically stretching one’s joints before a soccer game simply weakens one’s muscles, leaving one more vulnerable to injury.

But, in Wushu, it’s actually rather different. A big aspect of “strength” in Wushu is flexibility. Not just the flexibility in the hamstrings to do the front splits, but the strength in the hamstrings to pop up from front splits onto one’s feet without using the hands. The only way to train this is to stretch. A lot. And so that’s what we do. Every Wushu practice starts with a warm up, followed by a jog, followed by dynamic movements, followed by intense static stretching. The intense static stretching is focused mainly on the legs, but involves some upper body stretching too. I distinctly remember during my first practice being extremely apprehensive about this for two reasons — (1) I remember reading that static stretching before exercise is bad and (2) the sheer pain I was feeling in my legs was burning so badly that even if my hamstrings didn’t snap, I didn’t see how I could ever lift my leg again afterward. Yet somehow, after the stretching was done, and I shook my legs a little bit, I found that I was able to go through the rest of practice, not only unimpeded, but actually a lot looser and with more fluidity to my motions. I also found it MUCH easier to stretch before we started the intense Wushu movements than afterward. At Yale we stretched after practicing, and at that point, my hips and always tensed and locked up, making stretching properly an impossible and unpleasant experience.

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Slowly but surely getting ever-so-slightly more flexible

I should mention that it’s not *just* static stretching. Rather, it’s more like a combination of dynamic and static stretching. First, we bounce up and down on the stretch, stretching and relaxing in rhythm, and then we proceed with the static stretching. This refutes another thing that I learned in soccer: that bouncing on stretches is bad. It *could be bad, particularly if one bounces like crazy, but in general, for anything requiring “flexible strength”, it’s actually good.

The claim that static stretching is bad still remains true (I think) for impact sports, like soccer, where one is expecting to be hit by other bodies in unpredictable ways while trying to remain balanced. But in Wushu, where one is in total control of the movements, static stretching first is actually helpful.

(3) Rooted stances

This is something that I knew was important, but somehow I just never got it correct. Being acutely aware of the weight distribution between the two legs is something I never really thought properly about. With the exception of cat/empty stance (where the weight is clearly on one leg), I never really gave much thought to what a stable, rooted stance meant. Apparently, it means really pushing one’s feet down into the ground with some effort, not just neutrally posing in a semi-correct pose. Feeling my groin muscles and hips engage in the bow stance was not something I was used to, but certainly made the stance a lot firmer and made me feel more secure and powerful in the stance. Feeling most of my weight on one leg transfer forcefully to the other in the transition from horse stance to bow stance allowed the movement to snap quicker and remain secure, and allowed extra speed through the punches. All these extremely subtle changes in the body (in fact, most of them are more changes in awareness that just guide the manipulations of the body) has made my movements much more forceful without expending any extra energy. Indeed, the movements require less effort in order to execute properly.

I am exceptionally lucky to have had such a strange set of events lead up to me having this Wushu training, and it’s definitely one of those super-cool-adventure-type experiences that one is looking for when one visits another country.

Speech competition: noun. A fiasco.

I recently took part in the inter program speech competition which was held at the Beijing Language and Culture University, a place I am very familiar with; after all, I did HBA twice. Having participated in one iteration of this competition and spectated another, I kind of knew that I was in for something disappointing. Indeed the only reason I agreed to do this competition in the first place was because the competition took place two days after I had to do a speech for IUP, so this gave me an excuse to write my speech in advance. And on this front, I got exactly what I want out of it. But I must admit, that it was certainly not at all worth it.

There were many problems with the speech competition, which I will enumerate here. Since this is a blog post, I will only half-heartedly attempt to mince words. I am quite upset as I write this post.

First, let me list the problems I have with the speeches before explaining them. Consider this a tl;dr version of the post.

(1) Nobody listens to speeches in competitive speech competitions.

(2) The topics we were given were vague and boring.

(3) Many prize-winning speeches were off-topic.

(4) No judging standards exist in the competition.

(5) Many award-winning speeches were riddled with pronunciation and grammatical errors.

(6) A prepared speech competition is not a forum on which one’s actual speaking abilities can be tested.

(7) The celebrity status that surrounds Professor Zhou is weird and makes me feel uncomfortable.

(8) Even the director of the Columbia language program publicly exclaimed that something is awry.

(9) I walked away from the competition feeling like I had gained nothing good from the experience.

At the end of the article, I also suggest a few ideas to improve the competition:

(1) Create judging standards and increase transparency of grading of speeches.

(2) Introduce a lunch break in which teachers can discuss the grading of speeches.

(3) Return the competition to an unprepared format, either as simple speeches or, idealistically speaking, as debate matches.

Alright let’s begin with my explanations now.

(1) Nobody listens to competitive speeches. I have nothing against giving a speech, nor do I have anything against listening to one or more speeches. Indeed, I relish the chance to have an uninterrupted span of time where I can express a concept that I (hopefully) care about. As a speaker, I enjoy the challenge of trying to engage the audience. I enjoy looking people in the eye as I try to get them to see the world briefly through my eyes. And as a listener, I enjoy being able to gain an insight into the way a speaker thinks as they enjoy the floor. All of this is completely mired by the notion of competitiveness. Speakers who had yet to come up to do their speech sat with intensely concentrated expressions, focusing exclusively on last minute preparations for their own speeches, while the words of the current speaker gently floated in through one ear and out through the other. Those that had completed their speeches considered their duty fulfilled, and often either left the room, or sat staring at their cellphones as their attention was drawn elsewhere. Many of my fellow speakers were unable to recall the details (or in some cases, general topic) of the other speeches. Crowds floated in and out of rooms, only to listen to the speeches of their friends, before leaving in a hurried bustle.

Of course, this is unfortunately the nature of competition. I’m sure there are good intentions behind the speech competition: it is probably the only inter-program activity that exists, and it is supposed to help students develop their speaking abilities (it fails to do this miserably so — more on this later), but ultimately I feel like the competitive nature of the event just sucks the goodness out of the activity of giving out and listening to speeches.

(2) The topics we were given were vague and boring, especially given the time limit. The higher level Chinese speakers were told to give a speech on the topic “My perspective on the cultural differences between China and the rest of the world”. This topic is exceptionally vague, and I get the overwhelming impression that there was little-to-no creative thought that went into birthing the topic. It sounds like every other “Chinese-Western world” presentation topic ever. It also requires absolutely no research to do. There is no academic effort required to present on this kind of topic. It is also unduly challenging to talk about anything meaningful in the ludicrously short time limit of 5 minutes. Consequently, all the on-topic speeches were about things like “white person gets stared at in China”, “Fat person gets called fat and gets insulted, when really the Chinese person was only trying to show that they care”, “Heritage speaker gets lambasted for having bad Chinese, and struggles to explain that they are from America” etc. These topics, while mildly interesting to somebody who’s never been to China, are likely to be encountered within 2 weeks of living in China. There isn’t much creative about talking about a personal anecdote like this.

Now, don’t get me wrong: these topics are very important. Understanding and navigating cultural differences is very important. But spending 5 minutes talking about a personal anecdote that everybody in the room has probably either gone through, or knows somebody who has, and saying nothing new on the topic, quite frankly, is a waste of my time. Of course, apart from the judges I feel like I was one of the only people who actually listened to all of the speeches. It was a very mind-numbing experience (and I’m not the only one who thought so — more on this later).

Not all of the speeches were mind-numbing, mind you. Some were really good. For example, Yumi Koga’s speech on how Japanese and Chinese treat very young children reflects on their societal differences was poignant, well delivered, and well organized (but sadly, only won a second-place prize even though it was the best speech in my opinion). But many of the good speeches (in fact, almost ALL of them) had a different kind of problem…

(3) A lot of speeches, especially winning ones, were very much off-topic. A prime example of this was one of the winning speeches in my category. A guy walked on stage in a suit, and orated an absolutely superb piece on the topic of freedom. Unfortunately, the content of his speech was only tangentially related to the topic we were given (talking about how different leaders around the world abuse the term “freedom” to unite people under their cause is hardly considered to be a cultural difference, and neither is talking about how more modernized societies start to think of freedom as personal). So while I did enjoy his speech very much, and I could tell it was well researched and really well organized and spoken, I can’t help but think about what happens to SAT essays that are written off-topic: they receive a grade of 0.

Another, much more painful example, was the winner of the high-level Heritage speaker category. His excruciatingly mundane speech was on a topic that had much emotional, tear-jerking potential — the struggle of his grandparents and his parents, through the lens of the pursuit of education. Unfortunately, his boring delivery, poorly organized thoughts, unsuitable vocabulary and lack of charisma (as well as a few pronunciation errors) made listening to his speech so unbearable I nearly stormed out of the room in protest. Fortunately, I kept my cool, but I have to ask a very simple question: how on earth did this guy win the competition in his group? There is no way anybody is going to convince me that all the other high level Heritage students in that room spoke a speech worse than that… and on top of it all, the speech was off-topic.

(As a side note, there was one other speech that deserves a special mention. A speech about how China has no racism. I personally found such a thesis exceptionally intriguing, and was interested to hear the proof. The speech was controversial at best, but I can’t say I agree with the fact that China has no racism. The amount of times I’ve heard distasteful comments about black people emanating from the lips of local people is enough empirical evidence for me to personally dismiss such a thesis, let alone an examination of historical trends. Questions that one should ask when dealing with racism in China include things like “Why is China more than 99% Han?”, “Why do China and Japan hate each other?”, “Why do many Shanghainese people treat other mainlanders and people of color with disrespect but are grossly polite to white foreigners?” etc. )

(4) I asked how he could have won the competition, and quite frankly, nobody on this planet can give me a straight answer, because there is absolutely no judging standard provided to anybody in the speech competition. One of the IUP teachers complained to me that the judging standards were entirely arbitrary. Essentially they attended a meeting 1 hour before the speech competition, and were told to give people who they thought should get first prize a score of 1, second prize 2, and in a similar manner, scores of 3 and 4 were to be prescribed. In order to “remove bias”, they would cut off the highest and lowest scores and then add the remaining scores up. Lowest score wins. There are a whopping 5 judges. The statistician in me is projectile vomiting at this putrid blighting of statistical theory, but anyways…

This system has many problems. There is no guidance for either student or judge, and so consequently, this so-called “competition” becomes an utter fiasco. Nobody knows the rules of the game, and there is no level playing field. Judges are free to give students a high or low score for any reason at all, and once the scores are turned into the prize committee, they have no control over what happens to those scores. My teacher complained bitterly about the decided lack of transparency in the process, feeling like there is definitely corruption present in this competition. Given the decided lack of quality/off-topic nature of the winning speeches, I would be inclined to agree, but this isn’t even my biggest grievance.

The fact that there’s no judging standard means that there is no feedback. There is absolutely zero opportunity for growth. Students who gave terrible speeches may have won prizes (and indeed, did), and may get the incorrect impression that they are doing really well, and students who gave good speeches might be left with a sense of confusion, and no way of figuring out where they may have gone wrong. The fact that such a debacle is being conducted under the auspices of top-name American Universities is decidedly worrying — nay, it is disgusting.

(5) Many of the winning speeches were not conducted in good Chinese. I already mentioned that the Heritage high-level speaker spoke with many pronunciation errors. In the mid and low level speeches, there were also instances of woeful pronunciation and grammar mistakes — and this is coming from a foreign student, who’s linguistic framework consists of Serbian and South-African English (if you’re wondering what I mean, it’s that after about the age of 8, people’s language capabilities become molded around their native languages, and it becomes incredibly difficult to learn languages with phonemes and grammar that doesn’t exist in their own linguistic framework). If I am hearing many errors, who knows how many errors are escaping my attention? I am amazed that anybody thinks it is ok to reward people for speaking incorrectly, without pointing out that they are doing so.

(6) The format of the speech competition is completely unsuitable for actually examining a person’s language ability. The fact that one is able to go home and spend hours memorizing and rehearsing a speech that has been corrected and re-corrected (and in some cases, almost wholly written) by qualified Chinese teachers defeats the purpose of displaying language skills. Essentially in a game like this, the only thing you’re testing is somebody’s ability to perform on a stage. I am reminded of New Zealand’s Nigel Richards, who became the World Champion in French Scrabble despite not speaking a word of French, or of Opera singers who, although know what they are singing about, do not necessarily know how to speak the languages that they sing in, or of the Yale Slavic Women’s Choir, who give really beautiful renditions of Slavic folk music in languages that most of them do not speak. If I wanted to work on my performance skills, I would sign up for a public speaking course or sign up for talent shows, or go to open-mic events at bars etc. Given the format of this competition, I would not participate in this speech competition which purports to display language skills.

(7) The celebrity status that Princeton in Beijing’s leader, Professor Zhou, appears to have makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable. During the opening remarks, teachers who made their way up onto the stage to address the crowd received moderate, polite applause as they entered and exited the stage. Professor Zhou, on the other hand, received thunderous applause and animalistic chanting as he went up on stage. He struggled to quiet the crowd down so he could get on with his speech. Having not said anything meaningful, he concluded his speech to thunderous applause, including drumming on the table, and many students gave him a standing ovation. While I have heard that he has contributed much to the field of Chinese-Language instruction, I struggle to think of any person in any field who would ever warrant that kind of mob-mentality ruckus. I have nothing personal against the man, I just find the wild and crazy behavior of students around him to be wholly unappealing and scary. It feels disturbingly like a cult of personality. Why this exists in a speech competition is anybody’s guess.

(8) I’m not the only one who feels like something is going wrong here. The program director of the Columbia language program went on stage to address us during the opening ceremony, because his program will host the competition next year. His opening address was filled with enthusiasm and optimism. His closing address at the end of the speech competition was sombre and pessimistic. His speech revolved around two ideas. The first one was the he has noticed a weird trend in Chinese-language students. The amount of higher level students has increased, and so has their ability. He seemed impressed by how some of the higher level students could speak well (not sure I agree with him but whatever), but he has noticed a decline in the amount of lower level students, and also a decline in their ability to speak. He cautions against neglecting beginner language learners, and I very much agree with him. Listening to the rampant barrage of horrific pronunciation that came out of the beginner first-place speech was not a pleasant experience for me; I can’t imagine how painful it must’ve been for a native speaker. The second one was that he noticed that a large number of students were placing far too much emphasis one using flowery language, fanciful grammar patterns and egregiously over-the-top performance and acting, and place little-to-no emphasis on the content of their speeches. On this I could not agree more, as I explained earlier. The fact that this professor stood up in front of the entire congregation and boldly enunciated these flaws, so soon after every single other professor had exclaimed what a wild success this latest iteration of the speech competition, paints a very dark and solemn picture indeed.

(9) I walked away from the competition feeling like I had gained nothing good from the experience. There’s not much to explain here. Apart from what I wrote above, about how I got to write my speech for IUP ahead of time, I didn’t gain anything from participating in this competition…. well, I guess I got an idea for a blog post.

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I am not here just to complain. I know that merely pointing out problems does little to solve anything. The best way to challenge the status-quo is to put forward suggestions that are better; that solve the problems that have been pointed out. Below I offer a few suggestions for fixing this competition.

(1) Create and distribute a rubric of judging standards, and publish (or at least grant access to) everybody’s results. This will ensure a fair competition, and ensure that students actually learn from their mistakes. It is also useful information for teachers to have, so that they know what areas of the students speech require attention.

(2) Give everybody an actual lunch break in the middle. This will solve two problems. Firstly, almost all the students I talked to complained of being hungry while sitting around waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. Secondly, teachers complained that they had no time at all to think or discuss their grading of the speeches. The entire processed was rushed. Adding a lunch break will appease the hungry students and teachers, and give teachers enough time to discuss the grading of the students.

(3) Make the speech competition an unprepared speech competition, or an unprepared debate-style competition. I personally prefer the second one for many reasons. First I’ll explain what it is exactly and then I’ll describe why I like it. Essentially my vision is that representative teachers from each of the programs shall meet together at some point and come up with a list of debatable topics. The topics must be such that they can be opposed or proposed. A simple example of this is “China should get rid of the hukou system.” These topics are to be released only on the day of the speech. Students will form teams of 3-6 students (although only 3 will speak, 3 others can assist in research and composition of the arguments. Teams will be randomly assigned a proposition Allow the students 1-3 hours of time to research and prepare their arguments (it might be helpful to provide useful information to students directly instead of relying on them to just research it themselves. Also one might consider allowing a teacher to help the students plan their speeches). Once the debate begins, the idea is to allow the first proposition speaker to open with their point of view, and the first opposition speaker then brings out their point of view, and the students try to debate on where their view points clash. Each speech must be between 5 and 10 minutes long. Allowing points of information should be at the discretion of the chair of the debate, who should be a teacher. Allow 5 judges to observe the match, each tracking something different in the speech: Content of own Argument, Rebuttal of opposing argument, Grammar, Pronunciation, and fluency. Of course the first two speakers shouldn’t really be rebuking the other team’s argument so they will be graded on a slightly different rubric. Once the debates are finished, everybody gets a long lunch break, during which teachers/judges meet up and discuss the grading of the debates, and winning teams are then announced afterward.

This approach is difficult to implement, a fact that I cannot deny. But it has many useful advantages. Firstly, it is by nature competitive. The act of giving a speech is not competitive, but the act of debating is. Therefore, it makes a lot more sense. Secondly, due to the unprepared nature of the speech, it actually tests writing, speaking and listening skills all at once (opponents must listen to each other’s speeches in order to effectively debate). Thirdly, the debates will be randomized, meaning it is likely somebody will have to argue against their own personal beliefs. This is an extremely valuable academic exercise. It teaches people what it actually means to be open minded. If one can successfully argue in favor of something that they do not believe in, they they have successfully figured out how to truly see the world from a completely different point of view. Fourthly, since it is team-based, there is a sense that the team comes from the program, instead of feeling like it is just an individual, so all the noise and cheering associated with winners coming from specific programs will actually have some kind of justification.

I think the first two steps need to be implemented immediately. The last one is definitely something to be discussed in more detail (though I do think the return to an unprepared format should be done immediately).

I’m sitting at the boarding gate awaiting my Emirates flight to Dubai (and ultimately Beijing) right now, and I suppose now would be a good time to start writing about some of the things going through my mind.

Fair warning: the things going through my mind are chiefly administrative right now, so this may not be the most interesting read. I have a list written down of the things I need to do once I touch down in China. For anybody thinking of studying for a year over there, this may be useful information.

First things first: I should mention that this time around, I’ll be attending IUP for the summer + year. Packing for an entire year is a tricky task, but it’s generally a good idea to review the climate of Beijing before packing to make sure you don’t end up frozen stiff come December. Emirates has a 30kg baggage limit, and I was surprised to learn that a mere 5kg extra was almost half the price of my one-way ticket to Beijing. So much for saving money on flights. Oh well, lesson learned: make sure you review baggage prices and include that when deciding which airline is most cost-effective.

But that’s all old hat, since I’ve already checked my bags in. Once I hit the ground in Beijing, the first order of call is to get myself a cellphone SIM card for the “new” iPhone 5 I got (it’s actually a hand-me-down from my younger sister – go figure). I’ll finally have smart phone capabilities in China, which means I can use WeChat absent any wifi. Pro-tip though: I’d advise anybody who doesn’t desperately need a cellphone in Beijing to wait until they get into the city to buy a SIM card, as they’re likely to be able to negotiate a good deal (especially if they manage to get a group together – negotiating power in numbers seems to work in China).

Once I have a phone, I will contact my family, and then my friends in Beijing, after which I’ll take a taxi to the hotel. Assuming I get to the hotel on time and am not horrifically jet lagged, it might be a good idea to try to get myself a bike, or at the very least, locate the nearest China Construction Bank ATM (Bank of America has a deal with them so ATM withdrawals are not nearly as expensive).

The next day I have to go to a not-so-nearby (but also not too far away) clinic in Beijing to do a physical examination. This will cost me RMB 500 and is important if I’m to (1) register for my classes and (2) get my residence permit. I also need to remember to not eat any breakfast before I o that.

Then begins the hunt for an apartment. This is an experience I’m both dreading and looking forward to. Nobody has yet agreed to be my roommate (there’s been a bunch of discussion amongst my classmates in an email thread about roommates but it doesn’t seem to have yielded any results), but I am not too concerned. I know where to look 华清嘉园,or, failing that, 西庄王 or 东庄王), so we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully I don’t have to do too much negotiating and scoping around to find an acceptable price for an acceptable apartment.

Once I find an apartment, I have to firstly, make sure they aren’t making me pay the tax that they have to pay on their rental income (sometimes they’ll try to sneak that in, so be on the look out). Then I have to get them to come with me to the police station with their hukou, ID, and proof of tax-paying so that I can get a temporary residence permit. This has to be done within 24 hours of me moving into the apartment, otherwise I’ll have to pay a fine (although apparently this isn’t the most strictly enforced law in the land from what I hear – still though, I shouldn’t dilly-dally). IUP was kind enough to provide me with a document that I can hand to the landlord that explains the whole procedure. Hopefully I find a nice landlord or landlady who understands everything and sees the value in having me as a stable tenant for the next calendar year in a complex that usually sees a lot of short term students (I’ll be sure to point this fact out during my negotiations).

Once I have the health clinic certification and the temporary  residence permit, then I have to go get a resident application form from Tsinghua University (the university where IUP is based in) and fill it out. Then there’s mercifully an agent at the university who can combine all the paperwork and give me my actual residence permit.

I have no idea what a residence permit entails, but it’s certainly a lot of trouble to get it. I guess the world just keeps getting covered in more red tape as it frantically spins around.

Oh, and I have to remember to make photocopies of everything and ask for receipts for every single payment I make, and I have to bring a ton of ID photos. And the JW202 form and the admission letter.

Well that’s it for now. The boarding gate will be opening relatively soon. Maybe I’ll have wifi on the plane? Regardless, it’s going to be good to be back in China. In spite of all the admin, I am excited to head over there for an entire year. A year that is sure to challenge and delight. Bring it on.