The invitation came unexpectedly out of the blue. Would I, your favourite blogger, care to participate as a judge in the forthcoming New Media New Future contest that is to be held in a month’s time? Being a man of the world, maybe I know a thing or three about new media, Web 2.0, SNS and the like?
It sounds like fun, but being (relatively) new in China I wonder if the powers that be appreciate the fact that my Mandarin runs only as far as buying vegetables in the market and telling the taxi driver how to get me home.
No worries, I am told; the proceedings will be in English. I will be one of six judges of whom three will be Chinese, one American and another Brit. Well what do I have to lose? I sign up on the dotted line straight away.
What are the rules? What do I have to judge? We’ll tell you about that nearer the time, I am told. I try to contain my excitement as the big day approaches.
Meanwhile I discover the contest is the offspring of China Daily’s web site with a plethora of sponsors, not least the BBC who are taking an active role.
The day before the competition I go for a briefing in the China Daily offices where I meet my fellow judges. One of them is Raymond Li – the Head of the BBC’s Chinese section who has flown in from London. Although he joined the Corporation three years after I left the Beeb, we find we have a number of mutual friends. As they say, once a Beeb man, always a Beeb man.
The "New Media, New Future" contest, the first English speaking competition to test participants' perception and operation of new media platforms in China, will provide the top three contestants with a free trip to study at the BBC in London and the Missouri School of Journalism in the US.
Come the next day my alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 6am. 6am I ask you! I didn’t know such a time exists until today. Outside it is still murkily dark as I stagger to the bathroom for a hot shower (actually I just love cold showers, but being the masochist I am, I always have a hot shower instead!).
Out comes my smart grey suit from the wardrobe, brought over in case I ever need to present myself in a respectable light. A double-cuffed black shirt with a stunning red and black tie complete the ensemble and I feel the very essence of suave sophistication as I set off for the University of International Business and Economics, where we are due to meet at 7.30.
The campus is easy to find…
… being right across the road from China Daily’s main offices…
… but I am glad we are to meet up at the west gate as I wonder if I would ever be able to identify the right building to go to.
Inside the hall they are putting the finishing touches to the set. It looks like a game show on a TV channel, which in a way is exactly what it is.
The entire proceedings are to be broadcast live over CNLive mobile TV and on the Twitter-like micro blog site Sina Weibo. The equipment in use is the rival of any TV network’s.
Excitement is at fever pitch. Tweats – or to be more precise – Weibos are filling the ether with live reports and pictures…
and the entire show is being hosted by two presenters who chatter away in a mix of Chinese and English, bouncing off one another in professional fashion.
All in all there are 30 contestants who have been whittled down from more than 2,000 students from nearly 100 universities and high schools across China, including Peking University, Sun Yat-Sen University and the high school affiliated to Renmin University.
Although they are being judged individually, they have been paired up into teams of five and given the task of working as a team where teamwork is as much a necessity as individual skills.
At the end of each team presentation, we judges have the opportunity to lay into the students with pithy questions designed to ferret out the good from the bad, the brilliant from the no-hopers, the quirky from the straight-down-the-middle.
Should I act the part of a Simon Cowell, I ask myself? But I guess I am too much Mr Nice Guy and instead I try to come up with a pithy, intelligent-sounding question or three.
One major problem that none of us judges has thought about is the fact that it is already feeling like winter. But this being China, it is not yet officially switch-on-central-heating date yet (that’s two weeks away, I gather). So the hall is icy; and despite the fact we are all wearing warm(ish) clothes, the combination of starting at 7.30, it being freezing cold and the fact that there are no breaks for the first four hours means that I am not the only one who is DESPERATE for a pee by around 10am, as I shiver to try to keep myself warm.
Our shivering is noted by the organisers (bless their cotton socks) who arrange for cups of hot coffee to be smuggled over to each of us. A lovely thought, but I am now in even more of a quandary. Do I warm up with coffee and feel my bladder complaining even more? Or do I carry on shivering and put up with my bladder complaining for another two hours?
Luckily the proceedings break into a spot of Chinese, and I grab the opportunity to climb over the judge beside me and make a dash up the aisle to the loo outside the hall. Oh… BLISS!!!
On my return I find I have started a trend as some of the others make a similar bee-line up the aisle. Finally we can enjoy the warm coffee and the next two hours fairly whiz by.
At midday there is an hour’s break for lunch and we all traipse over to the university canteen. Despite the fact it is a Sunday, the place is almost overflowing with students. What on earth is it like on weekdays I ask myself.
We grab a tin tray and have tepid meat balls, rice, green veg and a pear dunked onto it together with a pair of metal chopsticks. I wonder if the army’s catering corps is making a little extra money on the side.
The afternoon session runs through at an even faster pace and suddenly the competition itself is all but over as our mark sheets are collected and we make polite conversation while the marks are totted up.
I knock back a can of Red Bull to give my energies a boost and grab a couple of bites of chocolate – a rarity for me in China. And then the prize winners are announced as Yang Chunya, Managing Editor-in-Chief of China Daily Website, together with some other good-and-great make appropriate speeches to honour the occasion.
Each of us judges is asked to present some of the certificates and goody bags that each contestant receives, and we then all pose for a group photo.
As the event draws to a close, I have a bevy of – mainly female – contestants come up to me asking to have their photograph taken with me. I reckon it must be a combination of my stunning red-black tie and my British accent that is such a babe magnet. One of the girls even asks if I would like to attend a performance of Peking Opera at her college. Shame that I am (almost) old enough to be their grandfather!
To end the day in style, we are taken to a celebratory meal in a hotpot restaurant close to the university campus.
The meal is lovely and with a liberal amount of Baijiu (白酒), or "white liquor," flowing, the proceedings are lively to say the least. Now, Baijiu is a clear drink usually distilled from sorghum, and is normally around 80 to 120 proof, or 40-60% alcohol by volume.
At the table are nine Chinese who are determined to have some fun with these foreign devils and hardly a five minute interval passes before someone is making yet another toast. Little do they know that I am good at holding my liquor! (But little does your favourite blogger know that Baiju is lethal stuff!)
By the time I have finished off my fifth wine-glass I can feel the first indications that the time has come to call a halt to knocking back the clear liquid. I carry on with the toasts, drinking tea and I doubt anyone notices, as most have gone way past the point of no return long ago.
Eventually it is time to draw to a close and as I wander out into the cold night air, having made my fond farewells to all and sundry, I suddenly feel as if I have been smashed in the face. I also notice that during the time we have been inside enjoying the meal, someone mean and nasty has altered the curb of the pavement.
As it is quite dark, I have difficulty seeing the actual pavement itself and miss my footing a couple of times as I step onto where there should have been pavement, but which that mean and nasty person has actually removed.
My head feels as if it is about to explode, but I manfully stroll along the main road in a slightly circuitous route and safely make it back home before…
… I wake up at around 2am still in my smart suit sprawled across the bed. My head is pounding and I am so thirsty I stagger to the fridge and grab a bottle of ice cold water which I down in seconds.
I spend the night drinking water and feeling sorry for myself. By the time that dratted 6am comes around once more I am just nodding off to sleep when my alarm that I forgot to switch off yesterday wakes me up with a shrill blast.
I throw it across the room and bury my head once more into my pillow. But time waits for no man, and eventually I stagger out of bed to the kitchen, make a strong coffee and a large plate of porridge and dowse myself under the hot shower before being able to face another day.
Who on earth was it who said Judge not others, lest you be judged yourself!? I will know for next time. I may now be one day older, but I reckon I am certainly the wiser for it.