Every so often, I am called upon to MC a pageant, judge a speech competition, or give a keynote address on quantum mechanics at the Petroleum University. A lot of the foreign teachers here regard the English public speaking circuit as a lot of drudgery that is to be avoided at all costs. I, however, jump at the chance to stand behind a podium with a microphone. There is something liberating about ad-libbing a speech that the adoring public will applaud unconditionally, no matter how little of it they, or you yourself, understand.
A few months ago, Jacob and I judged the regional semifinals of the CCTV Cup, China's coveted English oratory championship. The theme was, "Which is more important: science smart or culture intelligent?" I am not joking. Each of the nineteen contestants trembled in front of the podium for five minutes, pontificating on the delicate balance between science smart and culture intelligent. By the fourth speaker, I had just about bitten my tongue in half. The urge to laugh was impossible for me to supress, but cracking up mid-speech would mean a tremendous loss of face for the speaker - nay, by the time I was done laughing, there would be no face left to lose. And of course, it wasn't the poor kid's fault: all over the country, at the behest of CCTV, tens of thousands of Chinese undergrads were talking about science smart this and culture intelligent that.
By Contestant Number 6, I vowed that I would award a perfect score to anyone with the balls to point out that the very question "Science smart or culture intelligent?" was grammatically absurd. But no one did. Mediocre scores across the board. By far the highlight of the competition was a fire-and-brimstone nationalist who might've belonged to the Chinese Kennedy family. He concluded his speech - which, happily, did not address either science smart or culture intelligent - by pounding his fist on the podium several times and shouting, "God bless you and God bless China!" He received a standing ovation but was eliminated in the first round.
Tonight, I was tapped to judge a campuswide storytelling competition. I was ushered to my front row seat by a flock of usheresses in matching banana yellow suits. The auditorium was full to capacity. Ambient Michael Bolton on the PA system. A complimentary bottle of Nongfu Spring water on my desk. Balloons everywhere. Nice.
The competition opened with a skit dubbed "The Peacock Flying Towards the Southeast." My Wikipedia research tells me it was an adaptation of a Chinese folktale, but at the time it reminded me of something Samuel Beckett might've written if he'd fallen in with the American Beat crowd. There was a two-timing temptress named Lunch. Her husband, played by a girl in a cowboy hat, galloped about on a hobbyhorse shouting, "Lunch! Lunch! Lunch!" There was a plastic swordfight followed by a few competent kung-fu scenes. In the end, I think the cowboy got back with Lunch in time for dinner, but it was hard to tell. The lights came up and the MC welcomed someone named "Keat" to the stage. After my boss elbowed me in the ribs, I realized it was me.
If you're new in China, you'd do well to write and rehearse a five-minute speech the morning prior to any large social engagement. Tonight, China had once again caught me with my pants down, but if nothing else, I at least had my boxer-briefs on.
"Well," I said, sweeping up the microphone, "how am I to follow an act like that?"
A round of applause.
"As something of a storyteller myself, I am extremely happy to be here, judging this year's China West Normal University English Storytelling Championship," I said. More applause. "In my college days, I studied creative writing. By reading my work out loud, I learned that when you tell a story, the reaction you get from your audience is not always the one you expect." I took a gulp of water and Tom Waits-growled into the microphone. "When I wrote seriously, my audience found me amusing. When I wrote for amusement, you could hear the crickets chirping."
"When we learn a foreign language, we sometimes focus so intensely on grammar and pronunciation, examinations and certifications, that we forget the simple pleasures language affords: the ability to express our thoughts and opinions to people of another culture, to make connections and build bridges. Language gives us the voice to share our stories with the world." I was gagging on my own words. Every platitude that came out of my mouth was like a wallop of castor oil. C'mon, kid. Wrap it up. "Storytelling is the expressway to the American heart." Jesus, did you win a Daytime Emmy or something? Cut and run! Abort, Keith, abort! "From The Monkey King to Shakespeare, from Lu Xun to Hemingway, it is storytellers who bring unity to our lives and to our world, and it is your stories I have come tonight to listen to and learn from. Thank you." I took a bow. A standing O. "And so, with no further ado: gentlemen, start your engines!"
The Chinese definition of plagiarism differs from our own in the west - in short, it does not exist. My students will sometimes look up Wikipedia articles on their phones in the middle of class, and present the information as though it were their own writing. But they seem unaware of any wrongdoing, or of anything that could be construed as wrongdoing. Of the sixteen storytellers, fourteen of them read scripts that they'd printed from the internet or lifted from textbooks. One of the stories - "Loveing [sic] and Losing Michael Jackson" - sounded instantly familiar, and by the third paragraph, when it became clear that the narrator was not a college-aged Chinese male but a teenage girl living in West Philadelphia, I realized that I had heard the story on NPR.
Perky, pigtailed Contestant Number 5 didn't so much tell a story, as much as she performed the Chinese answer to an American USO show. Her story was named "I Love You, China."
"I love you, China!" she shouted. Feedback. Then: softer, more reflective, "I - love you - China."
"I love you, China. I love you for feed me and make me strong," she said. "My dad is go to America on business. His boss ask him if I speak English and he very proud say yes. Every student learn English in China. His boss is very surprising. I love you, China. I am proud of you, China. I love you because you teach me English and make me strong."
I was waiting for a red flag to drop down from the rafters, a six-man Lunar New Year dragon to go snaking across the stage.
"Now I want you to clap your palms with me. Clap your palms. Clap clap clap."
She sang. The PA system whinnied like a flogged horse.
"I love you, China/I am so proud of you, China/thank you, China/I love you too much."
She bowed. I clapped. "7.2," I wrote on the scorecard.
Happily, when all was said and judged, the winner deserved to win. Contestant Number 14 had obviously written her story herself, because there were nitpicky little grammatical errors everywhere, but her delivery was impeccably ... human. She told the story of Thanksgiving, of Myles Standoffish and the Pilgrims, of maize and pumpkin pie and the Injuns and all the rest. At one point, she described the American rite of sitting around the television post-feast, holding one's belly and groaning with gluttonous exhaustion. I laughed and the contestant smiled at me, and I smiled back, and at that moment I wanted her to win and to win overwhelmingly, with a ten-point spread between her and the next guy, with his ten-minute robot sermon about being yourself and living life to the fullest. And to my surprise, through some scoring fluke, Contestant Number 14 did win. They gave her a badminton racket and a down comforter.
The Chinese word for judge is pingwei, which, so far as I can tell, means "one who levels things out." And tonight, I feel as though I have done my own little part in leveling shit out, in tilting the scales of culture smart and science intelligent one metric iota closer to equilibrium.