An Unlikely Guest in Huangling, China

Last semester, while participating in a 7-month Fulbright-Hays scholarship program in Xi’an China, my friend, Jacob, and I befriended a woman who called herself Alli. Alli, only in her late twenties, was the owner of an English-language school located in Huangling, China, a city of 120,000 just 2 hours north of Xi’an. One night Alli made a proposition to Jacob and I over dinner: would we be “guest judges” for her English school’s section of “The ‘Hongen Cup’ Little English TV Show Contest”, China’s national K-5 English language competition. We immediately accepted (the pay was great and food and lodging were paid for by the school). Up until that point, the Fulbright program had Jacob and I meeting with local businesses, staying with a host family, and traveling all around China. Unbeknownst to us, judging this English competition would lead to some of our most interesting experiences during the program.

The competition was being held on a huge outdoor stage situated in Huangling’s center. As Alli showed us to our seats onstage, each adorned with a personal lanyard, score sheets, and a water bottle, the stage was surrounded by Chinese students, parents, and bewildered old guys alike, all eager to watch or participate in the competition. The show hadn’t even started, yet people were taking pictures of us, waving, etc. I’m pretty sure I even signed a few autographs for some kids bold enough to run onstage. Our Fulbright activities had taught us a good amount about Chinese history and culture, but they had not informed us how truly unusual it is for Westerners to visit some parts of China. The focus was supposed to be on the 137 contestants, who by now were being lined up backstage; however, most of these Huangling-ers had never even seen an American until we came along, thus we were given an almost celebrity-type air. I think it got to my head a little. I scribbled briefly on my score sheet, looked straight ahead and took a sip from my complementary water bottle, feigning indifference as if I was used to this sort of attention.

Unfortunately for my ego, once the competition began, I realized American Idol this was not. Despite this being an English competition, most of the kids – aged 5-12 – definitely did not speak English. Instead, they were just – only sometimes successfully – regurgitating phrases that quickly blended together: “Did he say ‘I like dog’ or ‘I like duck’?” I’d whisper to Jacob. “I have no idea,” he’d reply, “Just give him an 8.50.”

As if scoring these kids on a 1-10 scale with two decimal places wasn’t hard enough, half of the parents blatantly cheated. If my expertly posed question of “Do you like apple?” caught the contestant off guard, the ensuing silence would soon be cut by a stage whisper amongst the crowd: “Yesss! I like apple!” a parent would hiss in one of those oxymoronically loud whispers. “Yes, I like dog,” the contestant would hesitantly reply. “Very good. Thank you,” I’d say while scribbling an 8.50 on my score sheet. This sort of thing was repeated until the evening, at which time we broke for intermission, tallied the scores, and readied the prizes.

As we totaled scores, one of the parents came by and eagerly asked Alli what song we would be singing to close the ceremonies. Jacob and I looked at each other; Alli shifted uneasily in her seat. What we hadn’t been told was that this was sort of like American Idol – well, just the end to be exact – and we were expected to sing an English song onstage, with microphones and everything, as some sort of musical grand finale to the competition. Jacob, the braver of us two, nonchalantly suggested we perform an a-cappella cover of Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight.

30 minutes later we were called up onstage before a crowd that had now grown to 150+ onlookers: “And now, Afternoon Delight by Mr. Nick and Mr. Jacob!” Alli proudly announced. Jacob and I did a sort of excited slow-jog up onstage, sort of like how NBA players run out of the locker room, and took our places, microphones in hand. “So this is how Beyonce feels,” I remarked to myself while surveying the crowd of absent-minded parents, probably impatient to see if their kids had won or not, and confused elderly people. Without hesitation, we dove into our ballad.

Jacob and I got into it. At one point we even started harmonizing, my tender soprano complementing his baritone. However, when I looked I would notice that instead of being captivated, the crowd seemed bored and confused. None of them had any idea what we were saying. Nonetheless, singing onstage, along with judging the competition, was one of my most memorable moments in China. The Fulbright program offered amazing academic and business opportunities that I’m sure will benefit me for years to come, but delightful absurdities (which would become fairly commonplace during my 7 months in China)  like the Huangling English competition will be equally hard to forget.