I took part in the Chinese Bridge Competition!

26 May 2016

Studying Chinese is a lot like climbing a mountain: some days you feel like you’re progressing so fast that it’s absolutely exhilarating; other times, it’s exhausting, and you feel like you’re going nowhere.

If this is the case, then, for Chinese learners, it might be said that the Chinese Bridge competition, held once a year, is like Mount Everest.

My first experience learning Chinese came 8 years ago, when my Taiwanese friend’s sister started a Chinese club at my school. My friend asked me to come along, worrying that there wouldn’t be enough people to sustain the club. In the first lesson, we learnt the absolute basics – how to greet people, how to say thank you, and all the other things you expect from any language learner just starting off. I continued my Chinese education all the way through high school, and earned a place at the University of Manchester to study Genetics and Chinese – I’m often told this is a strange combination – and am now in my final year. When I got an e-mail from a lecturer at the end of January inviting applications for the Chinese Bridge competition, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I had never considered entering before. Was I good enough? Would I have the time to spare to practice? Nonetheless, I expressed my interest to my lecturer and, sure enough, a few weeks later I was asked if I would represent my university at the regional finals in March.

I was simultaneously overjoyed and absolutely terrified. The idea of meeting other passionate Chinese learners, and getting a free trip to London, seemed extremely exciting. On the other hand, this competition was unlike anything I had ever done before – certainly, I’d given presentations to other students at school and in my first two years of university, but Chinese had always been a very private hobby of mine. Would I be able to keep calm speaking another language in front of a room of natives? I started to think I had made a stupid decision!

But then my lecturer and I went to visit the branch of the Confucius Institute at the University of Manchester, and I realised I was not alone in preparing for this huge task. Mr. Wang, who worked there, discussed with me some ideas for my speech (which constituted the first of the 3 sections of the competition). As a science major, we came up with the idea between us of a speech about Tu Youyou, the first Nobel Prize-winning scientist born in China. Then, we decided on a performance for the final round: again, as a scientist, we thought it might be a fun idea for me to learn the periodic table in Chinese. To make the process even more interesting, it was suggested that I could learn the kuaiban – a Chinese percussion instrument – and play them while I was reciting the periodic table. With the arrangements in place, it was time for me to go home and start preparing.

About a week after I met Mr. Wang, I was introduced to Mr. Zhang, another teacher, who was given the difficult job of teaching me how to play the kuaiban. It is safe to say that I wasn’t a very quick learner – the first few times I picked up the kuaiban, I could hardly make them produce sound – but Mr. Zhang treated me with great patience, and within a couple of weeks I had made good progress. Mr. Zhang continued to message me during the week to ask how I was doing, and I met up with him a few more times. He continued to teach me the kuaiban, and showed me the art of reciting my performance in an engaging and fun way.

Soon enough, though, my practice time was over and the day of the competition had arrived. With butterflies in my stomach, I hurried over to the train station and met Miss Li, also from the Confucius Institute, who turned out to be a valuable companion during the day. She helped me practice my speech while we walked to the venue in London, and spent the whole day taking photos and videos of myself and Ola, the other competitor from Manchester. The journey to London was horrible – I felt sick with nerves, and I found it hard to concentrate. Miss Li, though, comforted me, and made sure I was as calm and happy as possible before the first round in the morning.

Then I took to the stage. I was so nervous that I don’t remember much, but my speech went OK, and my performance wasn’t too bad, except that I forgot my words at one point. Luckily, I eventually remembered, and I remember feeling grateful Mr. Zhang did such a good job at teaching me the kuaiban. When they announced that I had progressed to the final round in the evening, I was shocked. To celebrate, Mr. Wang and Miss Li took Ola and I for a delicious meal of Henan noodles, but I struggled to eat with all my nerves!

The final in the evening was a great show. Getting to meet all the finalists, I felt humbled to see what fantastically talented students there were. Even more exciting was seeing everybody’s incredible performances – Peking opera, theatre, rapping and dancing were just some of the brilliant displays put on by the students. Eventually, it was time for me to go back on stage to give my final performance. Encouraged by the advice of the team from the Confucius Institute earlier that day, I gave my all. My speech went even better than the morning, and my recitation of the periodic table was much smoother – thanks yet again to the tuition of Mr. Zhang!

When the prizes were awarded later, I was not expecting to receive anything – I knew my performance had gone quite well, but I had witnessed some spectacular displays of talent from the other students. I was absolutely astonished, then, when I was told I had won 3rd prize, and could see Mr. Wang snapping as many photos as he could in the audience!

I am extremely proud of the work I put into the Chinese Bridge competition, but what it clear to me is that the Confucius Institute was absolutely invaluable in my success. It seems that to climb Mount Everest, even the best mountaineer needs Sherpas!

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