First off, I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year – today is the first day of the Year of the Dragon. My husband and I are in his hometown, celebrating with his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, making and eating too many dumplings and listening to fireworks.
Now, onto the story for the week…
Well, it finally happened. My moment of fame and fortune in China. The time when all my “connections” here paid off.
OK, not really. Not at all, in fact.
But I was asked to be a judge at an English speech competition at my husband’s workplace. Basically, they knew he was married to a foreigner and they wanted to know if I would be there to judge so it would look good to the leaders who were attending. So they asked him to ask me. And I agreed, because you never know what will supply you with blog post fodder in this country.
Being asked to judge an English competition is not rare for foreigners in China, nor is being asked to be a “white face” in attendance at something to improve someone’s status. This just happened to be the first time I’d been explicitly asked, and not in conjunction with my workplace. They asked for me, specifically (again, because my husband works there, but it always feels kind of nice to be chosen for something, right?). And hey, they also scheduled the competition on my day off so that I could attend – that’s a sign that I’ve got some sort of influence!
As the date drew closer, my husband started coming home with bits and pieces of information about what I had agreed to.
The first tidbit he told me was that all the speeches were going to be based on a single topic – How to Increase Efficiency and Decrease Costs at my husband’s factory. Oh boy, riveting, I know. However, this reassured me that I probably wouldn’t be listening to canned speeches that people had simply found on the internet and memorized. They actually had to write these speeches themselves, something I think is somewhat rare here.
The second interesting part was that he arrived home one night a couple of days before the competition with a flash drive containing copies of all the speeches. Apparently, I was allowed to read them beforehand! Took some of the surprise out of it, but I ended up being very thankful for this, as I got all the chuckling at poor grammar, bizarre idioms, and communist-speak (that’s the best term I can think of for it) out at home so that I wasn’t laughing at them during the actual competition.
For example, one contestant modified a quote by President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your company can do for you; ask what you can do for your company.”
Another concluded the speech by saying that the company’s “future will be the same as the morning sun, full of hope and vitality!”
Many contestants referred to innovation as being key, one going so far as to say, “Innovation is like fresh blood pouring into the general of our enterprise, which become a magic weapon of survival” for the company.
Finally, a very committed young man quoted Chuang-tzu, who said “life is like fire”. He then went on to say that the fire of their company “shall not go out if we immediately add a new piece of firewood into it before the previous one burnt out. Whatever firewood I am, it’s the faith and responsibility of my youth to burn all out for the glory of” the company. My guess is that he is not familiar with the more negative connotation of “burn out” in regards to one’s job.
If all of this seems a bit corny and over-the-top to you, you’re probably right. I suspect that many of them wrote their speeches in Chinese (their first language) and then simply translated them into English, using the longest and most complicated-sounding words they could find in the thesaurus of Google Translate, hence all the rah-rah, “we all breathe together in our company” talk, because from what I can gather, Chinese is a lot more flowery and metaphor-filled than English.
My husband later used the phrase “rallying cries” to describe them, and I think he’s right. These speeches weren’t so much about giving solutions as they were about praising the company and reminding all the workers that they weren’t individuals, but instead were simply a part of the larger company and that it was key to serve the company’s purpose (not that we don’t hear that in western countries too, but that it was just so bluntly stated here). The speeches all ended up sounding like political speeches – containing many words, but no substance. Most of the contestants’ solutions to reducing costs and improving efficiency were to reduce costs and improve the efficiency. Not a lot of actual implementable ideas.
Finally, on the eve of the competition, my husband came home with information to give me about scoring. As it turned out, there were to be three parts to this competition, and the English speech was only one part. It was to be scored out of 40 points, and he gave me a breakdown of those 40 points (for example, 8 points for content, 5 points for poise, 5 points for staying within the time limit, 5 points for having a neat, clean appearance, etc.). I looked it over and then waited for what I knew was coming – I was not to mark anyone any lower than 30, because they wanted everyone to look good for the leaders (this is not uncommon in China, either. In fact, when I test the students in my class at a local primary school, I am told not to score any of them lower than 90 on a 100 point scale – even if they cannot answer a single question I ask them).
On the morning of the competition, we got up bright and early and headed to my husband’s factory. It was all set to start at 9am, and would be finished by lunch – there were only 10 contestants. I made my way to the judges’ table (I even got my own name sign!) and waited for it to begin. The hired host took the stage, welcomed everyone, and introduced the judges (I was “the very important and well-known foreign teacher”).
When the competition finally started, I very quickly found out what the other two parts of the competition were. Each contestant ascended the stage, very nervously stammered out his or her English speech (fair enough – I’d be nervous if I had to give a speech in Chinese!), and then proceeded to much more comfortably give a speech in Chinese on the same topic. From what I could gather from the length of the Chinese speeches, the accompanying PowerPoint slides being shown, and the little bits the judge next to me translated in a whisper, these speeches were where the actual specific ideas for reducing costs and increasing efficiency came out. There were a lot of diagrams and mathematical breakdowns of cost and energy savings. Thank goodness I was only required to judge the English portion!
Following their two speeches, the contestant headed out of the room and the next took the stage. After this set of speeches, the first would return (having changed clothes) for the third part, you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t)…the physical endurance part of the competition! Each person was timed as they tried to do as many sit-ups and arm extensions as they could… in front of everyone!
As the morning wore on, the leaders in the first couple of rows slowly started falling asleep, with the contestants continuing on (I had to admire them; I would have been very upset to look out and see the most important leaders of my workplace in the first two rows of the audience sawing logs!). We finally finished, the leaders woke up and left, and the organizers tallied up the scores, congratulating the winner briefly.
After the competition ended, I learned my lesson for the day. Because it was only at this point, as we were putting on our coats to leave, that the judge beside me (the one who had been whispering into my ear the whole time) informed me of something that I hadn’t even thought of up until then – that the other judges were getting paid – 300 yuan – for doing this! I wisely kept my surprise in check and laughed with my husband later about being the sucker foreigner who just worked a whole morning for free! Note to self: Start asking about being paid for things, rather than just assuming one way or the other.
Update: I never breathed a word about not getting paid to anyone, but my husband apparently mentioned it lightheartedly to one of his coworkers who helped organize the competition. In less time than it probably took to have the conversation, 300 yuan was coughed up to pay me for my time and help!