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China syndrome

If you've read the Last Word essay by Liam Callanan, in the current issue, about his adventures trying to find a Catholic church in Shanghai, you may also be interested in this longer essay he wrote about the primary reason for his trip:

[W]hen a call goes out for schools to help staff a Chinese television show devoted to finding the best English-speaking child in China, my school raises its hand, and then raises mine (I’m a writer, right? Totally fluent).

It was like winning a Nigerian lottery, getting that email: any interest in going to China next Saturday to spend two weeks judging a English language contest on Chinese national TV?

He said yes, obviously. Hilarity ensued.

Call it a translation error, or an error in expectations, but when I arrive at the studio, there is not just one foreign judge—me—but close to a dozen, all from various English-speaking countries and institutions: Australia, the UK. And: Wisconsin. We are to sit in banked rows, a bit like a telethon, except instead of phones we have miniature desk lamps in silver and a button in yellow. Just the one button, but it’s large—about the size and substantiveness of an upturned plastic colander. When pressed, it simultaneously extinguishes itself and illuminates below a large, plexiglas, fluorescent-lit column that we have to pin between our knees to sit comfortably.

I press it. It works. My thighs are set aglow. I press it again. It works again. I am asked, via my translator, to stop pressing the button.

And then the competition started, and it wasn't so hilarious after all. Read about it here.