Thursday, April 28, 2005

Here comes the Judge: the English Contest

On Wednesday April 27 I went to act as a judge for the Taichung County Public School English Contest. This was my second year performing -- and I use the word advisedly -- as judge and already I have become a bit of a fixture.

The contest was held at the spanking new, spacious Shuangwen Junior High School in Tali, south of the city of Taichung.

Shuangwen Junior High, more like a small college than a junior high school.

The school was quite high, higher than any of the surrounding buildings for several kilometers in any direction (thanks to the island's insane land use laws), resulting in some surprisingly good views.

The view from the top.

The contest was held in the school classrooms, so things were a bit cramped.

Taking a break.

Contestants practice.

Contestants came accompanied by school officials or by their parents.

One of the most interesting problems that emerged during the judging was the divergent cultural expectations of the judges. The westerners all expected to see dynamic, interesting speakers who had a variety of facial expressions and hand movements, and who spoke their piece in a "natural" tone and manner. We downgraded students who stood stock still and delivered their speeches with stone faces and a high-pitched, jerky, overstylized intonation.

Judges shoot the breeze between events.

By contrast, the local judges interpreted this as the proper formal style, and gave low marks to students who did not perform as close as possible to the ideal of expressionless, artificial delivery. Those of you who have watched Chinese give speeches may now understand why they give them so poorly by our standards. The local speechmaking style is "serious" and "formal." The American style emphasizes the establishment of a warm inclusive relationship between speaker and spoken to, but in Chinese culture that is a boundary violation. Authority in Chinese culture must impose at least a moderate amount of distance between itself and the spoken to.

This was rather dramatically illustrated by a former student of mine, Ruby, whom I had the good fortune to run into at the contest. Ruby is a talented speaker herself who has won speech contests, and I had a hand in her training.

Teacher and Student pause for a pose.

Ruby told me the sad tale of her own student at the local junior high. This student had prepared a fantastic speech, complete with visual aids. The judges knocked her way down with comments like "all this movement and humor is for children, not junior high students," "too active," and so on. "I wish you had been one of our judges, Michael," she sighed as she reflected on how this cross-cultural problem had manifested itself in her case. I wish I had been too!

The County seems to be unaware of this significant disparity in judging. The woman in charge did, however, instruct us to give the students scores between 70 and 92 in all cases. She said it was very ma fan (a pain) to handle if the scores fell outside that range. These instructions I cheerfully disregarded, and so did many others. This problem of "predetermined" scores is a widespread one in Taiwan.

A second problem that had arisen was the incredible stereotyping of the speeches. No student ever takes risks. There were three speech topics:

My School Life
Seeing The Doctor
What Will I Be When I Grow Up

Those of you who have lived in Taiwan for a while know what happened. My School Life turned into a stereotyped hymn of praise to schools where the teachers were all warm and friendly and caring, the students supportive and fun, and the breakfast on the way to school memorable. There was no mention of the deadly mountains of homework, the cliques, the immense pressure on junior high school students, and so on. The second topic was even more sterotyped, if possible: each speech involved an initial hatred and fear of docs, getting a cold, going to the doc, getting a shot, and finding out that the doctor was really a warm, friendly, patient guy. Worse than the Synoptic Gospels. The final topic was picked by eight students out of 26 (topics were randomly drawn from among the three by each student) and sure enough, in five cases the person wanted to be a doctor. A writer and a pilot rounded out the lot. The eighth student, an attractive young woman named Lindsey, went to the local bilingual school nearby and spoke superb English. Since she had contact with foreigners, her speech was totally different, a musing on how she really wasn't old enough to think about the topic yet.

It is customary after the contest for the judges to give feedback. The other judges said that they remembered the great job I had done the year before and instantly nominated me for the job. Since my life is driven by ego, they had no trouble flattering me into the task and themselves out of it. After the speeches I gave a comical review of how to give a speech, in both Chinese and English. The windows and room were packed with listeners, whom I kept in stitches, no doubt sparked by the steady stream of grammatical and usage errors.

That was the morning. Lunchtime was a couple of hours chatting with foreigners, including a vivacious, delightfully cynical and acutely perceptive Filipino woman married to a Taiwanese, and a highly intelligent and thoughtful American teaching in a local high school. Enjoyed the company, guys! And don't forget! It's black pigs! Meeting people is one of the best reasons to go to these contests.

Bleary-eyed after seven hours: can I go home now?

The afternoon brought the reading contest, fifth graders. My daughter had originally been pressured by the school to do that for the third grade, and I was glad to see that she had declined. They sent the other half-n-half from my daughter's third grade class, and a fifth grade girl. Thirty-five readings later, the contest was over, and I was richer by some County government cash and several new friends. See ya next year!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I was in Dajia May 3/4 for the annual Chang-lin foundation English Speech and Drama contest. Maybe it was because I was judging younger learners but I found the cultural difference was that as a western judge, I didn't appreciate the exaggerated and cliched gestures that accompany the speeches. For example, whenever they mention an elderly person, they clench their fist under their chin to signify a beard. As a bearded 41 year-old, I immediately detracted points from those students. (;