In an attempt to mitigate it, I’ve never denied my nerdiness. Yet I surprised even myself the other day in class when I heard a familiar voice rise from the front of the lecture hall.
“In ancient Chinese…” the voice was deep and rich. “Zhi means ‘to go,’ ‘to depart.’”
I know that voice, I thought, that’s the second-place contestant in last year’s Hanyu Dasai! I could only see his black hair from my seat toward the back. Yet simply by listening to this man’s voice, I was almost certain the rich voice was emanating from Hua Jiade, who was featured on last year’s televised national Chinese competition, the Hanyu Dasai.
Since at least the early days of Canadian Da Shan, Chinese people have taken immense pleasure in watching foreigners speak Chinese—a phenomenon some have labelled the “talking dog phenomenon.” Nowadays, under the pedagogical guise of a Chinese-language competition, the Chinese are awarded a chance every year to see foreigners speaking Chinese, describing what they love most about China, and performing traditional Chinese skills from singing traditional songs to on-air calligraphy at the Hanyu Dasai (literally, “Chinese Language Big Competition”). I liken it to the confusion of humor and warm feelings that come when seeing a squirrel water ski, a skill that contradicts what we normally think lies within the realm of squirrel capabilities.
I’ve never had the fortune of seeing the competition, but I have listened to it when it was featured on a chinesepod lesson. Fate being what it is, I loaded the Hanyu Dasai lesson onto my cheap, thumb-sized Chinese mp3 player while on extended summer vacation and didn’t have an opportunity to download any new lessons for several weeks. For the next several weeks, I listened to the two featured contestants explain what attracted them most about China dozens of times as I jogged through Hong Kong’s narrow streets.
As a result, half a year later, as I sat listening to a lecture on ancient Chinese, I was able to recognize second-place Hua Jiade by his voice alone. As a result, I was also able to recall a laundry list of his personal details when I approached him after class with a nervousness normally reserved for legitimate celebrities.
“Excuse me,” I said in English, not knowing whether it would be best to address an Iranian Chinese champion in English or Chinese. “This might sound weird…”
I prefaced my query because I had spent the last 20 minutes of class wondering what would happen if I had accidentally stumbled on the wrong guy. If it’s not the real Hua Jiade, what would he think if a stranger came up to him asking if he was the guy from the Chinese competition? Then again, I wasn’t sure whether it was more embarrassing to approach a guy you’ve misidentified as a national Chinese-language runner-up or to recognize that I have the ability to accurately identify him as such.
“…but are, are you the guy from the Hanyu Dasai?”
“Yes! Yes, I am,” he said in a friendly, welcoming voice suited to the stereotype of portly individuals.
“Hua Jiade,” I stammered.
His happiness radiated so genuinely that I was tempted to unload the full arsenal of knowledge I knew about him already, much in the way a fan of a movie star babbles incoherently about how, “I’ve seen all your movies, all of them! You’re amazing.”
As a result of my repeated listenings, I was now prepared to show Hua Jiade an uncomfortable amount of personal knowledge I had memorized about him. I knew he was engaged to a Chinese girl; I knew he was from Iran; I knew his Chinese name is constructed to represent his two homes, Iran and China (华, China, 家 home, 德 for “Tehran”); I knew that the part of China that enticed him most was the food; but I also knew that, in seriousness, as he said, what enticed him the most was his Chinese fiancee. This was unhealthy, and I knew it, so I stifled the urge to rattle off my knowledge as we talked.
In the end, I found the real Hua Jiade to be a friendly, welcoming guy who thankfully seemed not to be put off by my nerdly knowledge. I found he’s been in China 5 years already, and he’s already picked up the habit of reflexively exchanging cell phone numbers so common here. Thus, I left the conversation with his phone number programmed into my phone.
As I walked out of the lecture hall, I exclaimed to my classmate from Costa Rica, “That’s Hua Jiade. Hua, Jiade, the guy from the Hanyu Dasai. I mean, from TV, the national competition.”
My friend just rolled his eyes. “Who cares?”
“Right,” I said. “It’s no big deal,” I lied. Then I made a mental note to call Hua Jiade for lunch.