what does it mean to be a foreigner in shenzhen?

Yesterday I was a judge in the semifinals of the First Shenzhen Expats Chinese Talent Competition. An interesting experience both because the event itself expresses the Municipality’s determination to globalize and because it reflects the increasing presence of foreigners in Shenzhen. Indeed, the fact of the event points to the new symbolic visibility of foreigners in Shenzhen and the importance of the foreign to Shenzhen’s official representation of itself both at home and abroad. Specifically, the City organized the Competition as part of a search for a foreigner who can both represent Shenzhen’s foreign community (within China) and be a bridge between China and the World. Thus, who wins and how that winner is marketed will tell us all sorts of interesting things about the changing (or possibly solidifying?) symbolic valence of foreigners in Shenzhen.

According to Paul Shen, Executive Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Shenzhen Daily, which along with the Office to Promote English organized the event, there are now 480,000 foreigners in Shenzhen, excluding Taiwanese and, of course, Hong Kong residents. Half a million foreigners in Shenzhen, at least another half a million Taiwanese and Hong Kongese compatriots, in addition to the previously estimated 14 million Mainlanders in Shenzhen. Parenthetically, we can but hope that the ongoing census will give us some sense of the diversity that actually constitutes Shenzhen.

The eleven competition participants came from Norway, Korea, Russia, Indonesia, Columbia, Ghana, Toga, France, New Zealand, Malaysia, and the United States. Ages ranged from 6 and a half to married with children. Technical skills also varied enormously as the Malaysian and Indonesian participants were overseas Chinese, while the Korean, Norwegian, and American competitors were students in Chinese schools, and the rest were adults who had come to Shenzhen for business purposes and were learning Chinese accordingly.

Now, judging other foreigners’ various levels of Chinese disconcerts me because there are so many standards, most obvious of which might be glossed as technical skills – fluency and accent and control over advanced linguistic patterns come immediately to mind. However, there are also more pragmatic standards to consider. Significantly, pragmatic criteria for determining what constitutes linguistic competence are less measurable than the merely technical; interpersonal skills, cultural competence, and knowledge of appropriate historic contexts are abilities that are differently linked to technical prowess. Most foreign language programs (both in China and the United States) evaluate and test technical skills, while I tend to stress the importance of pragmatic skills, in part because my technical skills aren’t so great (yes, when flustered or angry or excited my tones are even less stable than they are when I’m concentrating), but also in part because the ability to appreciate technical skills itself falls into the cluster of pragmatic talents that differentiate speakers.

I have been fortunate to participate in Shenzhen’s performing arts circle and thus have heard technically excellent Mandarin and Cantonese; with an interest in and translator of Chinese literature, I have also read fabulous poetry and stories. I continue to watch movies and theatre and go to poetry readings in my native English and have preferences and standards for evaluating the quality of someone’s English. All this to make a rather banal point, most Chinese, like most Americans are fluent in their native language, but they are not bards. Consequently, I rarely decide to interact with someone simply because they are competent speakers of English or Chinese. Instead, I make friends based on how and what someone has to say – personality and insight, poetry and conviction appeal to me more than do accent and grammar, even when grammar itself is the precondition for performing personality or expressing opinions.

At the competition, one of the Shenzhen Daily student reporters asked me if I was looking forward to the Universidade next year? Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have answered that I’m looking forward to December’s Fringe Festival and next year’s Architecture Biennial. However, I wasn’t thinking, so I said, “No, because I don’t care about sports.” And that’s my point, however obliquely stated. Nationals from many countries constitute the Shenzhen foreign community. Each of us has different reasons for living here – economic, familial, educational, and personal. That we have emerged as a topic of municipal concern reminds us (again) the extent to which we (all humans, not just holders of foreign passports) do not live merely for ourselves, but rather in and through and for the webs and minds and expectations of those around us. A Batesonian moment this competition: human beings co-evolve and thus how we engage each other is the city – politics in the broad sense of social ecology.

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