An American in Chengdu

Shining English

April 19, 2010
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In high school I was a Lincoln-Douglas debater, and spent many Saturdays in various Colorado high schools arguing about the individual versus the collective, feminism, individual rights versus state stability, censorship–all topics about which no one really needs to hear a high schooler’s opinion. Accordingly, usually the only other people in the room when I debated were my opponent and the judge, though final rounds might garner more of an audience. The drama and comedy events would draw spectators, but only teammates who’d already committed to spending Saturday in the high school. Even our parents wouldn’t think to show up unless we made it to a big tournament like State or National Qualifying.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I first agreed to help judge a “Shining English” speaking competition a few months ago for the campus English club, and found it was designed to be entertaining. Held in a large room full of uncoerced spectators, it was set up like a TV show, complete with smartly-dressed MCs (one male, one female), visual effects (projected onto a screen on the side of the stage), and decorations.

On Friday I judged my second Shining English event, this one a drama competition. It started out with dramatic music and some scripted conversation between the MCs (“Vivian, have you seen the movie Avatar?” “Why yes, I have” “Do you remember when X character says to Y character, ‘you’re not in Kansas anymore’?”), then quickly segued into a play by the first of the eight teams, a sort of CliffsNotes version of the Wizard of Oz. In all eight plays the performers lip-synced along with dialogue tracks they’d pre-recorded, which I thought must increase the level of difficulty significantly. Most included impressive costuming and at least one dance number. Some threw in fake commercial breaks for laughs. All this in about 10 minutes each.

In my favorite play (which took second place), James Bond moonwalked onto the stage where the evil queen was consulting her talking mirror, and agreed to assassinate Snow White. However, when he showed up at her door disguised as a deliveryman and bearing poisoned Haagen Daas, Snow White insisted that he try some too. Then Bond returned for a quick interlude with his wife like Patrick Swayze in Ghost (complete with a few bars of Unchained Melody) before he was whisked off to the afterlife to join a game of poker. Then the whole cast joined in a dance number set to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

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April 4, 2010
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One-way streets are proliferating in Chengdu these days, and for the past few weeks I’ve been watching one of the streets between home and work change from two-way to one-way. The old street had one car lane and one bike lane going each way. The first step was to replace the lane lines so that the new street had three car lanes and one bike lane going one way, and one bike lane going the other way. I was happy that bikes were to be officially allowed to go both ways, although given the popularity of the bike lane for such activities as parking and walking, I knew I’d need to use the oncoming car lane frequently. However, once the lines were in place cars continued driving both ways as usual.

A few days later, the powers that be installed a traffic light at a 3-way intersection that was previously controlled only by a stop sign. The light was far more successful than the lines in garnering drivers’ attention; even the cars going the wrong way stopped, though their drivers couldn’t see the signal. They stopped when the walk signal was red. Once the signal turned green, they kept driving the wrong way.

As a few more days passed, the traffic going the right way became heavier than that in the reverse direction. But the city buses were still going the wrong way in what seemed an official enough acknowledgment of the street’s continuing two-way status.

Finally, near the end of last week, the city put up temporary do-not-enter signs and posted traffic directors at intersections to discourage would-be wrong-way drivers. The bus stops on the wrong side had signs announcing new routes. It was the end of an era.

Or maybe not quite. As I biked home on Friday an ambulance passed me going the wrong way. It was traveling away from the hospital and its lights weren’t on. It passed a couple of crashed motorcycles and their drivers, who looked to have sideswiped each other while going the wrong way (fortunately, they didn’t look seriously hurt).


    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.