Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The event was anticlimactic. And grueling.

The first day, Friday, we saddled up full of pep and energy, leaving the school at 8:30. On the bus we discussed strategy, opening lines and speculated on how things might be. I met our Chinese debate team then, too.

Competition guidelines stated that, for every 2 English teams each school sends, one Chinese team must also debate. Of course, the guidelines also stated that each school could send as many English debaters as were qualified. With our 4 English teams, we were within the guidelines grooming 3 Chinese teams. Having been mandated to cut our English team in half, we now had more Chinese debaters than English ones.  

What I mean by ‘English’ and ‘Chinese’ debaters refers to the language they would speak in competition. Of course, all the students are Chinese, as are all of the coaches, except for me. The teams I coached were to debate in English and the other teams would compete in their native tongue.  

After much excitement and a pleasant, formal welcome by the competition organizers at a hotel in front of the campus the contest would take place at, we all made our way to the Language Arts building, on top of a hill, toward the back of campus.

This institute’s architecture was reminiscent of Greek schools: soaring facades, Doric columns, gabled entryways and all. In fact, the setting reminded me of the Acropolis. The school borders a lake and the various ‘colleges’ – buildings dedicated to teaching an entire major’s curriculum were built in concert with the hilly terrain. Even the dorms featured scalloped friezes around the windows. For all of the architecture and the cultivated grounds, for the pleasant breeze coming off the lake, and even for the teaching buildings’ appearance of austere academia, I couldn’t get away from the fact that all the buildings were concrete, just like every other building in Wuhan. Just goes to show: no matter how dressy the frontage, fundamentally, all is the same.

Another thing all the same: the crowding. Intellectually I am used to the lack of personal space, or, should I say the outright disregard for personal space. But, because I tend to go out in small groups and avoid crowds whenever possible, the unpleasant idea of being herded came to mind. Hard to step away from the masses when you are surrounded. Nevertheless, being pressed into from all sides was not a shock. After nearly 4 years of living in China, I can take this type of thing in stride.

What was shocking was the lack of organization. I honestly can’t tell you what I expected or anticipated, but I can guarantee you the event did not come close to what we imagined.

We had to enroll our teams ten days before the event took place. One would think that, will all the teams registered, the matches could be set in advance. However, that first day, nothing was set.

Initially, coaches were to undergo training on how to judge at the same time as the contestants trained on how to debate. Just as we arrived at the room where training was to take place we were told judges’ training was canceled. What to do with the rest of the morning?

We ambled around. One of our coaches, Tibby, had just graduated from that university. She gave us a guided tour. At 11:30 we were treated to lunch provided by the hosting campus. Again we were surprised. Instead of the school’s cafeteria providing lunch it was catered in. We each got a take out container of rice, and another of vegetables and meat. It was a bit spicy but tasty, and welcome. The morning’s exertions had made us all hungry.

At lunchtime is when our school’s contestants met up again. I have to admit: I was a bit uncomfortable about being separated from the team I coached. My idea of being at the competition with them was to offer moral support, to let them know we were in this together, till the end. Instead, I judged 4 different face-offs, not one of them consisting of any of my teams. I’ll get into that a little later. During lunch we chattered about the morning’s experiences. All of us kept our disappointment at bay, expounding only on the interesting parts.

After lunch everyone reconvened in the English Salon, an auditorium type of room, to get our assignments and see the list of pairings. Unfortunately the room was not large enough to accommodate everyone, so the coaches/judges were sent to a classroom, which proved too small for us all. A further division: English team judges were to repair to yet another classroom while the Chinese team judges would stay put.

Now the grumbling was audible. The day was getting late and tempers were fraying. Decorum flitted away. Claws were unsheathed and maws gaped. I even spotted a few fangs. However, no venom was spilled and we coaches/judges sat around for another hour, waiting for something…  A directive. Or… SOMETHING!!!

At 3PM all coaches/judges were told they should go to the large room below the English Salon for training. Again, the room was too small and Chinese judges had to go to another room. At 4PM the trainer, who freely peppered her lesson with profanity told us we were to go back to English Salon to prepare for Round 0 debates.

Now it is 5PM. We have been waiting for an hour. Still no matches set, no assignments. The dismay intensifies. Now, at 5:30, we’re hoping nothing more will happen today. We were supposed to be done by 6PM. Word had it that, if nothing was settled or started soon that we would all go home.

So much for that word. Round 0 debates started at 6:20. We did not get home until 9PM.

The next morning, bright and early. 8:30 we board the bus, by 9AM we are back on Grecian Campus. This time things seem to go relatively smoothly. We still had to sit around, waiting for assignments. However, with Round 0 under our belts we now knew what to expect. In fact, due to my experience judging Round 0 I was looking forward to judging again. Judging Round 1 was not a pleasant experience. The two women I judged with did exactly what we were told NOT to do in training: judge based on whether we agree with a contestant’s arguments. We were supposed to judge based on eloquence, number of points brought up and whether that debater fulfilled his/her role. I was out-voted and a contestant that did not merit accolades was given first place.

From then on, it became a bloodbath. Contestants’ claiming they were unfairly judged was the chief complaint. From my perspective, that complaint had merit, but such allegations slowed the seeding process even more, so that we only judged 3 debate rounds instead of the intended 4. However, we did get home on time that night. Thank goodness!

I had coached my team according to World University Debate Competition rules, which specify that the first minute of speaking should afford the contestant time for introduction, and summarizing his/her position in one sentence. After which should follow 5 minutes of talking: bringing up points of information pertinent to the issue, and backing them up. During the final minute, the speaker should summarize his/her argument, and be back in his/her seat by the time the 7 minute bell tolls. Each speaker has these 7 minutes and keeping time is crucial.

Bri and Celine caught up with me after the first debate round to tell me the judges said their introductions were pointless, and in fact they had lost points because of it. I approached one of the competition organizers with this problem. She stated that I must be far more qualified than all other coaches to have trained my team to that standard. She advised me… nothing. So I advised my team that, prior to debating they should approach the judges and tell them they were trained to introduce themselves. If the judge deemed that unsatisfactory, they should rethink their opening minute to conform with the norm.

Late in the day I was accosted by a team of fierce debaters I had judged, who were angry they were only second place. They could not believe that timing was crucial, and that they lost points because one of the speakers only spoke for 4 minutes. It was my pleasure to direct them to the Rules website I had consulted. Somewhat mollified but still fuming, they strode away.

Come Sunday night we were all wrung. On the bus, going home, silence prevailed. Until Sam spoke up.

It seems our debaters had earned some prize money! The English team came in third tier and the Chinese team second tier. Not too shabby for a bunch of kids who only had minimal time to prepare. Sam gave each contestant 50Yuan, and promised them their certificates of participation as soon as they were scanned into the school’s database.

They glowed!! They knew they were getting certificate but had no idea there was prize money involved. Even that surprise was not enough to rouse them from their stupor, but their smiles indicated their joy. These are truly kids to be proud of. And I am.  



1 comment:

  1. Your skill at writing, including the detail to shape the image for the imagination has bee taking shape over the years. Not necessarily your years in China either. In my experience as a reader, the amount of detail you provide to the reader is nearly equal to Stephen King. (though not his subject matter)
    I have chosen to peruse rather than to read in detail, unless the article's meat is in those details. Your audience is knowledgeable for that attribute. In this, I ask for a private audience. Bobby