The Importance of Being Blonde

Why couldn't she pick this one?!

Why couldn’t she pick this one?!

When I first arrived at Shenzhen University I was given a DVD of last year’s foreign-students-do-Chinese-stuff-show. Having done something similar for the Confucius Institute (I’m on the internet somewhere…) a few years ago, I was not going to put myself through that again. Hardly a month had gone by since I had spoken those ominous words when perchance I discovered my calligraphy teacher had entered me into the Beijing Language and Culture University’s calligraphy contest. My class teacher, Wang laoshi, had posted a link on WeChat, encouraging everyone to “vote for our students”, not knowing she meant me. This competition wasn’t too bad. It was a relatively obscure contest and there wasn’t much of me visible – although the sample of my work is one of the worst I have produced and the video is upside down. I had done my bit, or so I thought…

Soon after Wang laoshi approached me about the upcoming Shenzhen Expat Speech and Talent Contest. She said that it was important for the university to have their foreign students participate in such events, especially Western students. There are only three Western students in my class (the others are all Korean except for a Vietnamese and an Indonesian young woman), of which I am the only one with blonde hair and blueish eyes. Besides, I’m from a cute little country with tulips and windmills, so I was the obvious choice. As kind and sweet Wang laoshi may seem, she has magical powers of persuasion; no one has ever dared refuse her yet. And so, without actually really uttering the words, I had agreed to another competition.

I’d always wondered where people got the idea from that China is a mystical and mysterious place. I now understand what that means: if you ask for information, you only get cryptic and/or incomplete answers. As I was now taking part in a speech contest, I wanted to know what I had to say. Wang laoshi told me to write a piece about the beauty of Shenzhen and to turn up with my calligraphy materials at the end of the week. Wait a minute. Calligraphy materials? No one said anything about calligraphy. Wang laoshi: “You need to have a talent. We’re going to shoot a film for the selection rounds.” This contest was making me feel ever more uneasy and to make matters worse, I had caught a cold too. A day before the planned filming I felt really lousy, so I told my  teacher I was not going to be able to turn up the next day. I felt somewhat relieved that I wouldn’t have to go through with this whole contest and even had a real excuse, be it a little exaggerated – the deadline for submitting the video was a day later. My cold was a blessing in disguise and everyone managed to “save face”.

The story doesn’t end here. The next week Wang laoshi announced there would be a show with all the language classes participating. Feeling a little bad about the previous week I said I would sing a Chinese song. At least that is something I can do and have some control over. Well, I thought I did. Two weeks later I was handed a text and found myself playing a part in “The Voice of Shenda”. Of course this wasn’t just for fun, it had to be a competition; not so much between the students, but between the teachers. After some really good and entertaining acts (and about six renditions of Xiao Pingguo) – we were up with a mediocre play, it was really rather bad. At least I could sing a pretty traditional Chinese song without tacky karaoke background music, which went down a treat with the public. My performance wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t all that spectacular either. However, I am now recognised all over the campus. It didn’t help that Wang laoshi added a line in the play that revealed my Chinese ancestry (yes really, Chinese blood flows through my veins and I even have the forearm crease to prove it!). Also, Wang laoshi’s lobbying skills are very lihai*. During the judges’ deliberations she was cosy with just about anyone who might have some influence, including the dean of the international faculty. By now it should not come as a surprise to you that my class won first place.

Wang laoshi, proudly holding our Certificate of Excellence. The dean on her left looks proud too.

Wang laoshi, proudly holding our Certificate of Excellence. The dean on her left looks proud too.

Surely there is no more! Remember that speech contest? Wang laoshi has some serious guanxi* that reaches far and wide, because she managed to arrange that I could still submit my video at a later date. Of course I made it to the finals, lucky me. So there I was, the day after the “The Voice of Shenda”, hair and make-up fixed Chinese style by the organiser’s stylist, armed with a calligraphy brush and about to recite my view of Shenzhen’s beauty. Wang laoshi decided it would be a good idea that I also sing that Chinese song again for added cuteness. She mentioned I had a good chance of winning, because most of the competitors were Asian. In addition, the dean of Shenzhen University’s international faculty was in the jury. I was invited to the stage to give my speech and I might indeed have won if it wasn’t for me collapsing of exhaustion. The heat and noise might have had something to do with it too. In the end I did manage to get out of the contest after all!

Fear not, dear reader, Wang laoshi hadn’t finished with me yet. Two weeks ago she asked me to write a small piece for a memorial album of the Shenzhen Department of Education. This past semester I have taken part in a programme for local schools to introduce foreign cultures. It was a fantastic experience, even though I found myself stereotyping the Netherlands with as much passion as I have tried to do the opposite with China for the past four years studying sinology. Oh, the irony in criticising Chinese for making me do Chinese tricks! Windmills, cheese, the king, Xi Jinping and tulips… the Dutch government should be paying me. All the students taking part were invited last Friday to a ceremony with government officials, the university’s organisers, and school teachers. A lot of speeches, dancing and applause was involved, and of course the award ceremony, followed by photo sessions.

Shenzhen University is very proud of its international department and does its best to promote it to the outside world. However, the majority of the international students are Koreans whose appearance is difficult to distinguish from the Chinese population (for me, anyway). Therefore, anyone who doesn’t look Chinese/’Asian’ is put in the spotlight, especially if they have special features such as blond hair, pale skin, blue eyes, etc. If you are not Russian or American, that will make you an even more likely target for competitions and other promotion events. One is only considered a real foreigner if one looks like a foreigner. In some ways, my Korean classmates are treated like locals. When they speak Chinese, no one will praise their efforts as they would mine, just because people expect Asians to be (able to speak) Chinese. They have to work just as hard for their achievements as I do, but get only half the credit.

Some final advice for those studying in China: don’t bother trying to get out of any competition, there really is no point. Be especially prepared if you are blond.

* Google it.

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