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To Boldly Go...Where Foreign Faces Speak Mandarin

Millions of Americans tune in to watch reality competitions like American Idol, The Voice, and X Factor. In China, a similar competition airs on state television, but millions of viewers watch foreigners compete in Chinese language competitions. My colleague (and now a celebrity judge) Chris Livaccari reports.

By Chris Livaccari

I've always thought that one of the best ways to understand the American vision of the world is to watch Star Trek. Whether it's the original series or one of the many spin-offs, you're essentially dealing with a world in which people (and non-people) of every conceivable background work together around a shared set of values that include justice, freedom, and democracy; where military power is projected benevolently into the universe to promote exploration and peace; and where technological innovation is a constant force for good. Star Trek is also a place—much like New York or LA—in which you wouldn't be surprised if someone with purple skin, green hair, and pink eyes opened his or her (or its) mouth and spoke native-like Standard American English. Not only wouldn't you be surprised—you'd absolutely expect to hear perfect English. I think this may be why some Americans seem puzzled when they find that the whole world doesn't speak English exactly as they do—after all, everyone on Star Trek does.

In much of the rest of the world, people tend to see a much stronger correlation between language and race. So if you're someone who speaks Chinese but doesn't look "Chinese," for example, many people in China will be surprised, perplexed, or delighted when you open your mouth to ask directions or inquire about the time. When I first went to China in the mid-1990s, I often felt like a zoo animal with all the attention I got just from walking down the street. I tried at various times to buy hats that would make me look like a Kazakh or Uighur or a member of some other "Caucasian looking" minority group in China, but never really fooled anyone. As my Chinese skills grew, I became more and more convincing, but it was my clothes that always gave me away. In the end, I'm not sure if foreigners that speak Chinese are more exotic or those that don't.

One argument for the appealing exoticism of those foreigners that do speak Chinese is the popularity of Hunan TV's Chinese Bridge Competition, an American Idol type show that features college students from around the world using Chinese to act and sing their way to the top. Last month, I had the opportunity to be a judge for the competition, and found it all fascinating. My first reaction was how incredible it was that there were so many students from so many countries that could speak such flawless Mandarin—definitely not the case back in the 1990s when I first embarked on my own Chinese language learning journey. My second reaction was how the appeal of the show is based on the notion that it is inherently interesting to watch Chinese coming out of the mouths of people who looked so "foreign." I can only imagine the reactions Matteo Ricci must have gotten when he arrived in China in the 1580s.

When I later became a teacher of Chinese, I discovered that the American media was just as interested in people speaking Chinese who didn't fit their profile of a Chinese speaker. I began to tire of streams of visitors and TV news people coming through for the sheer thrill of seeing white, black, and Hispanic kids speaking Chinese. While I don't have high hopes that Hunan TV is going to change any of this, I think it's wonderful that more and more students around the world are learning Chinese as a foreign language. If nothing else, I think it will help people all over the world to question the correlation between race and language, because there really is none.

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