Wednesday, March 28, 2007

English Speaking Contest

So I've been trying to get this post up for a few days now...but I haven't been able to access my blog for about 5 days. I was convinced that China had put a clamp on or something. But today, all is better and I figure I should throw a blog up quick before it happens again!

Last Sunday, I was outside my campus limits at 7:30 to be picked up by Common Talk's driver and head downtown. Instead of going to my regular office, I was headed off to another high rise where "EF: English First's" offices are. The two organizations are working in conjunction to conduct what is Common Talk's largest and most heavily promoted annual event: the Fujian Province English Speaking Contest.

I was asked to be a judge for the event, the youngest they've ever had. Its a serious event too. Last year they had over 4,000 contestants enter. It was myself and 5 other judges to handle the opening day's round.

Myself and one other gentleman were in charge of all the middle school student's. These kids ranged from 12-15 years old. Getting my own office, I would sit behind my desk while one student at a time would enter and have 60 seconds to give a rehearsed speech in english. The subject was "My Biggest Dream."

For me, it was a personally rewarding experience due in large part to the topic. I found it fascinating to hear what Chinese youth were most excited about for their futures. In some ways I was surprised by the differences, and in other ways intrigued at some similar answers I would expect from American kids. I personally oversaw probably 250 students by the end of a full 8 hour day of scoring. Talking to that many youth, certain trends showed.

Many of them wanted to be doctors, and I was surprised to see that the other most popular answer was becoming a reporter. Their dreams seemed very giving and surprisingly mature. This can be attributed to the way that Chinese culture puts so much emphasis on the community as opposed to the individual. Many young girls wanted to take their careers and go to the incredibly poor western provinces and provide aid. I was pleasantly taken to find that many boys were well aware of the environmental challenges now facing the world, and especially, their own country. They knew of troubles with their polluted rivers, specific events and areas in trouble, etc...

The day was enlightening, exciting, and a great overall learning experience for me. The only sad part was having to rank and score the students, as I could only pass about half of them. Of those passed, I should get to see them again in the upcoming 2nd round being held in mid-April. The final round will actually be televised throughout the province, and chances are, I wont be around to participate in that which is a shame.

More as it comes...

My two, very kind chief editors after a hard day's judging.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Weekend in Beijing

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take my first flight across China completely on my own. Eckerd College's Choir group is touring China this week to participate in 4 perforamces over 10 days. One of my closest friends, Rebecca, was on the trip and worked out a way for me to hop up and visit for the weekend. I'm going to add more from my visit to Beijing once Becca emails me pictures, but in the meantime, here's an article I just finished for Common Talk based on my trip.

Tianjin Cultural Exchange
Jesse Johnson
March 19, 2007


An exciting and important cultural exchange took place in the northern city of Tianjin on March 17th. It involved a meeting between Tianjin University students and students from Eckerd College, a university located in the southern United States. The communication breakthrough came through a language that is universal to all people of all nations: music. Tianjin University invited Eckerd College's vocal choir to help kick off the opening ceremony for their 22nd Culture and Art Festival.

Eckerd College brought over 70 choir members and faculty to share the spotlight as honorary guests to China. They traveled from the university's campus in the state of Florida to take part in the event.

Featuring not only their talented vocal choir, Eckerd also boasts a unique musical team of ringers. The Eckerd Ringers are equipped and trained with special bells. Each bell rings in a very specific musical note, allowing the team of ¡°ringers¡± to perform some very intricate and pleasing musical tunes. With 56 bells total, this is certainly no simple task. As the ringers team is only a small portion of Eckerd's full choir, each ringer must be able to quickly move between multiple bells, as each of the ringers are responsible for specific sets of bells.

While all of the performances during the opening ceremony were of the highest quality, it was the Eckerd Ringers¡¯ performances that received the most enthusiastic response from the crowd in attendance. One Tianjin University student explained, "The bells are amazing. I've never seen anything like this before."

Learning new practices and ideas from one another is certainly the hope of any such international exchange. The American students were equally impressed by the performance of their Tianjin University peers. Tianjin's choir wowed the audience by exhibiting a very diverse set of songs. Each song managed to stand on its own as unique and memorable in their own right.

The Americans especially noted a beautiful solo by one of Tianjin's female vocalists. Dressed in a traditional white dress, she stepped to the front of the stage and took control of the room. All eyes (and ears) were on her as she sang.

Another unique aspect the US students appreciated was from Tianjin's final song. In a wild frenzy of an ending, the chorus soared, while a large drum clapped like thunder, leaving only silence in its wake. From the silence came the choir singing softly and using the snapping of their fingers to mimic a pleasant spring rainfall.

Despite their campuses being thousands of miles apart, Tianjin and Eckerd both share special stories linking the schools to Xiamen. One of Tianjin¡¯s choir boys grew up in Quan Zhou and has fond memories of Fujian Province. He loves Xiamen and would've loved attending XiaDa for schooling if he wasn't so intent on moving far from home to gain his independence. Tianjin's choir actually traveled to Xiamen just last year to attend a national music contest hosted in the city. The students of Tianjin refer to Xiamen in positive terms, not only for the city's natural splendor, but also because the school had good fortune at the contest, taking two awards home to Tianjin.

Eckerd College is currently working in a close relationship with Xiamen University, as the school has sent 12 students to study and live together on XiaDa's campus for the first time ever. Students from Eckerd have been living in Xiamen since February and will stay to finish their semester until May. "I never want to leave," says Eckerd College student Chas Macneil, referring to Xiamen's overall beauty.

Mr. Macneil may be on to something. It is stories like the interactions that were shared on March 17th in Tianjin that go to show how wonderful it is to discover the beauty each of us have, from east to west.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Busy as a Bumble Bee

Sorry for the delay of updates. Now that I'm back at Xiamen, all of the students have returned from their New Year's break and the semester has kicked into high gear. As I write this, its approaching midnight of what has already been another full day. But I read a short blurb from my little sister reminding me I need to keep this thing going, so without further ado, I shall attempt to spit a few words out.

The one major highlight of the past few weeks has been my new internship. Common Talk, the only english print, weekly newspaper in Xiamen (and the Fujian Province for that matter) has been kind enough to take me and Alex under their wing. Its a small, 8-page paper with a target market focusing on not only local expats but Chinese in their 20's and 30's who are interesting in improving/learning english.

We head to the office on Mondays after lunch, taking a 30 minute taxi ride across town to the 18th floor of the Xiamen Daily's headquarters. The Xiamen Daily is a massive print newspaper in Chinese, while Common Talk is a subdivision resting under the Daily's corporate span. Our two overseeing editors are very kind women who speak good english and seem very open to fresh ideas (as the paper is only in its 3rd year).

From Thursday through the weekend, Alex and I are on call to go conduct interviews that the paper lines up. Originally, I thought we would accompany one of the editors on these meetings as mere sidekicks who probably did nothing more than take notes and/or help with translation.

As I found out my very first weekend on the job, in actuality I get plenty of action. I got a call late Friday night from my editor, asking if I could be ready to meet her at the Xiamen International Conference Center by 10am the following morning. All I was told was that I would be interviewing the Mayor of an Italian city who was in town for some sort of "stone show," and to have a few questions prepared. I didn't have time to get a clearer idea, as I was in the middle of a bar (it was Friday afterall) with friends and loud music.

Well, that morning I drug myself out of bed, ran out and caught a cab. Handed my cell phone to the taxi driver with my editor on the other line to relay directions (I've found that is the most efficient and accurate method to reach my destinations). Little did I know I was on my way to what is the 4th largest marble, stone work trade show in the world (The largest in all of Asia).

And the mayor was from Carrara, Italy, the home of the marble Statue of David by Michelangelo. We got our press passes, headed into the showroom floor and tracked down the mayor. Little did I know, I would be taking the helm for the interview, as my editor told me up front she wanted me to write the article that would come of this.

So very exciting stuff. I was back in the dorm by 12:30pm with a pad of paper full of notes and an 800 word article to submit by 9am the next morning. I was pleased to learn that I would be writing for the "People" section which basically gets about the best positioning possible in the paper. The article fills up the entire centerfold page of the issue and is running tomorrow (Wednesday). I'll make sure to update this article with a picture of it when I get myself a copy.

Hopefully, they'll keep me busy with more work and bylines. Theres plenty else keeping me busy, what with 3 research papers coming up quick, a foreign language to learn and new Chinese friends to help me with such...More as it comes.