This was supposed to be the post for last week. However, my first hate message ever derailed that, so I’m compensating for it this week!

Somewhere out there on the Internet and in books, someone has compiled a list of what it takes to be a successful leader. Businessperson. Negotiator. Human being. Scrap that, all these lists go on over and over again, re-hashing the points others have said before. Adaptability almost inevitable makes its way onto the esteemed list – at least, that’s the ones I’ve read. If anyone has something different, please let me know otherwise.

Fortunately, nearly five years of being trained in doing so makes me at least somewhat capable of adapting my speech and my presentations to rely on barely anything at all. Our English teacher also made it a point to train us to go onstage, give a ten minute presentation with nothing but a tiny cue card as a guide. It made things a lot of fun.

I didn’t write this blog post to brag. In fact, quite the opposite. Improvising is all and well when it’s in my strongest language – i.e. English. But put me into a situation where I have to make a speech on the fly in Chinese or Mandarin… well, it’s another story.

Who said being a native-born Chinese meant you were fluent in that language again?

The story goes as follows: a university student is lucky enough to be chosen to go overseas to lead an exchange tour of secondary school (or high school, if you’re from the US) students to Xi’an, Yan’an, and Beijing. She takes care of a group of absolutely charming kids in their final year dealing with public exams, having fun, laughing, and chatting away with them. Her duties include making sure no one gets lost, making sure no one gets left behind, admin issues, and generally being the lovely shadow that keeps the gears going. Front stage work? Leave it to the fellow tour group leaders, who are studying for a doctorate and going into a solicitor’s firm respectively.

So, foolishly and naïvely, I spent my first five days blissfully doing what I was supposed to do, safe in the knowledge that I’d be fielded by my two capable, wonderful, lovely group leaders – who were actually a riot to be with. I met them the first time I was at Shanghai working on another project, and maybe it was because of our age gap that we didn’t get along well.

This time around? It was a riot. We traded stories about university life, talked about career prospects, and the guy going into the solicitor firm had advice to offer me regarding how I wanted to go into my legal career (if I ever get there). Filthy stories? Yep, check. Occasional barbed comments? Yeah, that too.

I’m digressing. As I was saying, I was in a beautiful state of bliss, and when I arrived at the dinner hosted by the organizer of the exchange tour, I had been told I needed to stay backstage, make sure the guests arrived on time, generally unimportant small potato work. Which I did.

Right up till the moment when I went in to wait for the opening ceremony, that is. Because for the first time, I was called onstage to give a speech. I had a grand total of exactly one minute to get ready for it, between me getting out of my seat, and my fellow group leaders catching me back for a ten-second briefing about what I was supposed to say.

Apparently, me giving a speech wasn’t supposed to be on the programme, and to this day, I still haven’t found out who plopped me in to give a speech.

How did I do? A complete and utter trainwreck. I got the dates of the World Exposition mixed up with the Beijing Olympics, may have said something politically incorrect, nearly tripped on my way up to the stage, but I am proud to say that my pronunciation of Mandarin was spot on.

The sense of relief when I got off the stage was almost dizzying, and my group leaders gave me a sympathetic (wry?) smile before promptly piling my plate full of sushi and cold cuts to calm my nerves. For the rest of the night I dealt with people who were obviously lying through their teeth about me giving a spectacular speech, and wanting to die from embarrassment. In fact, shortly after I gave my speech, I excused myself, took my purse, and went straight to the bathroom to sit down and will my hands to stop shaking.

There’s nothing to take away from this story, but I thought it’d make for a funny – albeit embarrassing – tale to recount. It does show me how painfully unprepared for Chinese speeches I am, too, but it’s something I doubt will be changing for a very long while. Primarily because for me, Chinese is still as difficult as always. Maybe it’s because I grew up using English so frequently it’s supplanted my mother tongue – in itself, it’s a tragedy. But it’s something that can be changed.

I do not relish the thought of having to plough through Chinese books though. Not yet. Too soon. Spare m!


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