Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tim Quinn Reflects on New Opportunities in Chinese Study

Read about Tim Quinn's experiences in his Chinese Study and be sure to catch a video performance of him by clicking on the first picture or here


By Tim Quinn
Quinn is a senior at GW's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. A Chinese minor, Quinn won first place in the 2011 Chinese Bridge Speech Contest at the Washington Regional Preliminaries, and also won first place in the 2011 Jiangsu Cup Chinese Speech Contest held at GW

After studying abroad in China during my junior year, I was really worried about coming back to GW and not having many opportunities to continue using my Chinese. The Chinese Department here at GW, however, proved that fear to be entirely unfounded. Immediately upon my return, I was encouraged to participate in The Chinese Bridge Competition – an annual competition hosted by University of Maryland’s Confucius Institute. With the help and guidance of one of the department’s most talented faculty, Professor Xiaoning Cheng, I was able to take first place at the competition. This past November, I participated in another competition, The Jiangsu Cup Speech Competition hosted at GW in cooperation with Nanjing University. Again, with hard work and the guidance of GW’s excellent Chinese faculty, I was able to succeed in obtaining a gold medal at the competition – a prize that comes with a full ride scholarship to do a Masters degree at Nanjing University.

Little did I know, however, there was a famous local director in the audience that afternoon. Luqun Zhao has directed The Greater Washington Area Chinese New Year Gala (大华府地区春节晚会)for several years now. This is a show that is put on every year at the Strathmore Music Hall in order to celebrate the Chinese New Year. In China, these types of shows are typical during the lunar New Year season and it is tradition that people all over China watch them when celebrating the lunar New Year – the most important holiday for Chinese people. China Central Television even puts on a New Year’s show that is televised all over the country. In the U.S., The Greater Washington Area Chinese New Year’s show is among the most famous in the country. Chinese-Americans from all over the east coast come here every year just for this event.
         
In the month after Ms. Zhao saw me at the competition here at GW, she contacted me and invited me to dinner. Over dinner, she introduced me to Qun Zhang, a ‘Xiangsheng’ artist who has performed both in China and in the U.S. He has consistently performed at the Chinese New Year festival here in DC and was looking for an American actor to perform alongside him during this year’s festival. I was both honored and thrilled at this opportunity to perform alongside a man of such talent.

Working with Mr. Zhang was a remarkable experience. He is not a teacher of the Chinese language, but rather a performer, artist, and comedian. This being so, I had the unique opportunity to advance my knowledge of a specific art form that is still extremely popular in China today. “Xiangsheng” is generally translated in English as “cross talk”, however this translation says little about what it really is. In many ways, it is similar to standup comedy, but only with two people. Xiangsheng performances tend to be characterized by thick accents and word play (Click on the photo on the left to get a video clip of the performance.). The first time I read the script he had written, so much of it went over my head. I understood the words, but the jokes consisted of puns as well as references to events and persons of cultural significance. In performing with Mr. Zhang, I was forced to explore the deeper meaning and cultural significance behind these references – a lesson that has reminded me that mastery of any language demands a consistent and relentless effort to understand its respective culture and history.
           
On the night of the performance, I was informed that over 900 tickets had been sold. Backstage I was introduced to famous Opera singers, actors, martial artists, dancers, and musicians. The one emcee of the event was even a recognizable CCTV (China Central Television) personality, while the other was GW’s very own Caleb Dependahl. Caleb is a senior in the Elliott School (double majoring in Chinese) who I have had the pleasure of working with both here in DC as well as in China. As a student who walked into CHIN001 at GW only about 3 years ago, the thought of walking onto a stage and speaking Mandarin in front of an audience of nearly a thousand Chinese and Chinese Americans was enough to put more than a couple butterflies in my stomach. Yet when the time came, I simply went out there and gave it my all. Watching Caleb go on stage first to introduce me also helped settle my nerves.
           
The audience was incredibly receptive and I got to meet many of the audience members after the show. While all the jokes had been explained to me and I had come to understand their context, I honestly didn’t anticipate much laughter. To be truthful, I didn’t really think they were that funny to begin with. Yet throughout the performance, there were multiple times when I was forced to pause because the laughter from the audience was too loud for me to deliver my next line! With all the laughs and applause, I found it hard to resist the temptation to break character and simply laugh along with them.
           
This experience has been but one of a series of great experiences I have had since my return from China. I never imagined when I first started studying Chinese at GW that I would be elevated and encouraged to use my Chinese in such a capacity. Since coming to GW and studying Chinese within this department, I have come to discover that by learning a new language I can interact with and have an impact on new communities that I never even knew existed. Sitting in Professor Miaochun Wei’s intermediate level class my sophomore year, I never imagined that I would spend the following summer in Ningxia Autonomous Region working in ethnic Hui schools.  Sitting in my dorm room in Guthridge making flashcards every week in order to prepare for dictation exercises, I never thought that the following year I would be on a stage performing ‘xiangsheng’ alongside an accredited Chinese performer in a concert hall. As a freshman registering for Chin001, I never thought that four years later I would be offered such an amazing opportunity to do graduate work at a prestigious Chinese university. Needless to say, my experience studying Chinese here at GW and working with the department’s outstanding faculty has been immensely rewarding. If I can offer any other language learners a piece of advice it would be this: always remind yourself why you decided to learn the language by getting out there and using it. Use your target language to meet new people and do new things – you never know what sort of opportunities it might open up!


Thanks to GW Department of East Asian Language and Literature and its Newsletter

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