Update: Liam won third place in the 2010 competition
Lausanne, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Liam Bates arrived home to the Lake Geneva region in Switzerland from China 28 July with more than the six-month scholarship he won from the Chinese government as a finalist in its international university competition for Mandarin speakers: he had a broken leg plus damaged shoulder from a motorcycle accident and headed straight for the CHUV (university hospitals) in Lausanne, scheduled for an urgent skin graft.
He also had several hundred new fans from among the two million television viewers who watched the popular annual “Chinese Bridge” competition that rewards the world’s best students of China’s language and culture.
The competitor who hobbled onto the stage to give a speech four days after surgery on his leg, explaining why he wouldn’t be showing them wushu (kung fu) moves, caught the crowd’s eye.
But it was the large-screen background clip from a film of his travels across their country – a journey few Chinese have made – that sent his Chinese web site traffic zooming up by almost 10,000 percent in just days.
The trip came to an abrupt stop, with two of them hit by a trailer pulled by a tractor, two days short of their destination, Shanghai. The passenger behind Li-mu, as he is known in China, also suffered minor injuries.
They had left Lhasa in Tibet, home of one of the four, Gesan, and ridden across the isolated province of Qinghai, over the mountains of Sichuan, up to the flat plains of Inner Mongolia, to the ocean at Tsingtao and were heading down to the coastal urban sprawl of Shanghai.
The others in the group were a Han Chinese, Wen Xiang, from the east coast and a Brazilian-American musician friend Patrick, from Vancouver, where the two are students.
Bates, who reads, writes and speaks Mandarin fluently and is a student of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, was representing Canada at the international competition, with 112 competitors chosen from 80 regions in 60 countries. Jonathan Truffert from the University of Geneva represented Switzerland.
Bates kept fit during the motorcycle trip in preparation for his wushu performance, which was scheduled to include backflips.
Instead, standing on his good leg in Changsha, Hunan province, he described the China he had just crossed to the Hunan TV audience in the country’s heavily populated southeast corner, showing them images of empty roads, mountain peaks and vast plains that are startlingly different from their own region.
Back in Switzerland, where he is recovering from his bike crash injuries, he talked to GenevaLunch about his experiences.
GenevaLunch (GL) – When did you start learning Chinese and how did you reach this level – are people wrong in thinking it’s an exceptionally difficult language for foreigners to learn?
LB: I started learning Chinese in my last two years of high school with a private tutor in Geneva. [Ed. note: schools in the Lake Geneva region are now starting to offer Chinese, unavailable in 2003). After graduating from high school – La Chataigneraie in Founex – I spent a few months in China before starting university in Canada, majoring in Chinese. Chinese is definitely harder to learn than most European languages, but not as hard as many people imagine. It’s important to divide Chinese into oral and written Chinese. I personally find the latter a lot harder than oral Chinese.
GL: Why do you think Chinese audiences are so interested in hearing foreigners speak Mandarin fluently? Were they surprised to see a group with a Tibetan, a Han Chinese and two Westerners traveling together?
LB: Fifty years ago there were only a handful of foreigners in China who could speak fluent Chinese, and though that number has grown it is still a tiny percentage of the enormous Chinese population. In many parts of the countryside the locals have never seen foreigners, so when you speak in their language that’s even crazier! As for us being together they seemed to find that very logical: the Chinese were our guides. Wen Xiang would always jokingly say that I was the guide, as I’ve been to more parts of China than he has.
GL: the Dalai Lama is visiting Switzerland this week and you’ve just crossed part of Tibet and been traveling with a Tibetan. Is the Dalai Lama a subject people avoid, or do they talk about him with visitors?
LB: This really depends on the area. In some parts of Tibet where government controls are very strict people will avoid the subject, but contrary to popular belief, most people are quite willing to talk about him, both Han and Tibetan, assuming you can speak Chinese and are willing to ask more than once. Reactions are mostly similar across the Tibetan Plateau where he is revered and respected by most. It is important to realize, however, that being in favour of the Dalai Lama doesn’t mean the people dislike the Chinese government – many are very satisfied with the government’s policies and also support the Dalai Lama. In much of Tibet this works well for both the people and the authorities. In a few small areas, not so well.
- kuaibanr performance, Chinese Bridge competition (Video)
- Chinese Bridge competition, TV viewers’ popularity votes
- Li-mu.com, Liam Bates’s Chinese website
- Motorbikes, Mao and a Yak (film in the making) website
Liam Bates has contributed several travel articles to GenevaLunch, including one on Tibetan burial rites in July 2008. He was a finalist at the end of July in China’s government-sponsored annual language competence contest for foreign speakers of Mandarin, with students representing universities from over 60 countries. His motorcycle trip across China with three friends is to be the subject of a documentary, “Motorbikes, Mao and a Yak.”