The staff and teachers at Ocean University have been trying pretty hard to convince me and my classmate (there’s only two of us) to enter the 汉语桥 competition. ’Chinese Bridge’, as it’s called in English, is a nationwide competition for foreign students in China, based mainly on their ability in Mandarin but also on any other interesting talents they might have. Imagine ‘Foreigners Got Talent’ and you’ll get some idea of what it’s like.
After repeated refusals, they’ve eventually accepted our decision and left us out of the competition. I’m very glad about that. Perhaps earlier in my stay in China I would’ve been more willing to give it a go. But even after one short year here I was immediately very cynical about the nature of the competition and what it would probably be like.
Right off the bat, it just annoys me that there’s a whole TV series promoting this “foreigners / Chinese people” categorisation of everyone on the planet. It also seems a bit of a shame that there’s no shortage of said “foreigners” willing to go on and play their part in this farce. I feel like it’s bad enough that this total separation of identities exists, let alone that it gets promoted on national television.
I might be overly cynical about this. Having a language competition is a perfectly valid thing to do. But as soon as I heard about Chinese Bridge I just had a hunch that it would be at least as much “look at the endearing foreigners trying to speak Chinese” as it would be an actual Mandarin contest.
One of our teachers showed us a video of a previous competition and, if I’m honest, it completely confirmed my suspicions, as did this thread on Chinese Forums. Foreigners came on stage one by one, a lot of them dressed in ridiculous outfits, and performed some sort of talent act, often some kind of Peking opera masks type “Chinese culture” thing. Then they’d do a little Mandarin speech and answer questions from the judges.
Firstly, if it’s a language competition, why do we need the other act? Not only that, but why does it seem like it has to be an attempt at imitating something stereotypically Chinese? The ones who just did some sort of general talent usually got rejected by the judges (or even directly criticised for it). What is this? The national “let’s get foreigners to try and pretend to be stereotypical Chinese people” competition? It’s just weird.
Then there was the fact that most of the Mandarin sections of each act were very mediocre. I’m not trying to get on a high horse about this; another reason I didn’t want to enter is because I didn’t want to splutter my way through an excruciating attempt at demonstrating my Mandarin. But if it’s a language competition, you’d expect the entrants to actually be very good.
A couple were, but a lot of them weren’t. And there didn’t seem to be a lot of relation between the level of Mandarin and the score given by judges. As far as I could see, it was more about how amusing, cute or quirky the act was in general rather than actually being proficient at Mandarin. Or, more disturbingly, the further removed you were from looking Chinese, the better a handicap you had. So a blonde white girl with bad Chinese seemed to get treated more favourably than a Korean girl with good Chinese.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I really do dislike this kind of banal, artificial garbage. There’s nothing of value in it, for anyone. Admittedly, the competition is a lot more impressive at the higher stages. But it still feels like it’s got its foundations in this idea that foreigners and Chinese people can never truly merge as groups, and that attempts to do so make good material for a slightly silly competition.
汉语桥 seems to be saying that different nationalities will always be very separate, and that only the rare and special can even make an attempt at being otherwise. When they do, according to Chinese Bridge, it’s just funny and nothing more.
Let’s turn this around
Just to hammer this home, imagine if the UK ran a “British Bridge” type competition. We get all the non-Brits we can find in our universities and get them to come on stage and try to speak British English. The judges ask them questions about the Queen, Yorkshire puddings and how to spell ‘colour’. Finally, all the forrins have to put on Beefeater costumes, Morris dance, and drink stout by the pint until they fall over. Then we put the whole thing on TV and have a cup of tea.
That is a slightly exaggerated version of how I see 汉语桥.