Testing The Chinese Olympic Volunteers


"I'm going up."  Blonde beauty Arielle Newsom blinked her large eyes at me and turned on the sound-recording hidden inside her t-shirt.  She headed straight to the Olympic volunteers in front of the big archway at Xinqianmen.  Our photographer silently followed her with a camera equipped with a long-range lens.

On the afternoon of August 14, yWeekend invited the American woman Arielle to help us test the language skills of the Olympic volunteers.  Interestingly enough, Arielle's husband Cullen Newsom came looking for her two hours later because he was worried about the heavy rains in Beijing.  So he was also recruited in our test.

Time: Noon, August 14, 2008.
Location: Qianmen
Method: A foreign friend needed to repair a mobile phone, borrow a camera or purchase a postcard, and tested the volunteers on foreign language fluency. 
Equipment: One broken mobile phone.
Purpose: To test the language skills of the volunteers

At 10:30am on August 14, I came to the home of Arielle Newsom at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yuquan Road as arranged.  Arielle listened to my full script.  I told her how she was to test the volunteers, and her husband was rocking with laughter.  "This is such a prank!"  Arielle shrugged her shoulders and said, "I like this kind of adventure."  So Arielle put on a big backpack like a real American tourist and went out with me to her "adventure."

At around 1:00pm, we arrived in front of the big archway on Xinqianmen Street, where we met with the photojournalist.  There was a volunteer station right in front of the archway.  The first test: The key on the mobile phone had fallen off, so where can Arielle get it repaired?

Arielle took the broken mobile phone that I had prepared and began her professional journey into darkness.  She took my sound-recording pen and stuck it inside her jeans.  She slipped the microphone underneath her t-shirt.

As Arielle walked towards the volunteers, the photographer followed her with a long-lens camera while I retreated to the sideline.

At first, I saw that Arielle and the volunteer were making hand gestures.  Then one of the volunteers began to make phone calls while another was leafing through a book.

Afterwards I listened to recorded conversation and I learned what happened:

Arielle: Hello.
Volunteer: Can I help you?
Arielle: I got a lot of problems.  My cellphone, you see, the buttons ...
Volunteer: 你稍等。(This may be the first time that the volunteer had come across a mobile phone problem and he panicked by saying 'Please wait a moment' in Chinese.  Then he began to make a phone call to seek help.)

Meanwhile, a girl by his side said aloud: "You ask him where to repair mobile phones near Qianmen?  It has to be a Nokia repair shop."  But the person on the other side did not come up with a solution.  Then I heard voices with all sorts of recommendations.  One volunteer said this American tourist should go to Xidan, while another said Chongwenmen.  Meanwhile something else interesting was happening.

Arielle told me afterwards, "Their English was not so good, but one of the guys spoke okay.  While the other people helped me to look up where to repair a mobile phone, this guy chatted with me.  When he learned that I was from Houston, he began to chat about Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets."

Unfortunately, Arielle is not very interested in basketball.  So the guy started to chat about the weather in Beijing.  By the time they got to talk about what Arielle's husband does for a living, the other volunteers had found the address of the Nokia repair shop.  But they began a debate over whether the Metro or a bus would be more appropriate.

After a round of debate, they told Arielle that she should take the Number 44 bus.

Since Arielle did not have this planned beforehand, she decide to act pushy and insisted that the volunteers take her there.  But the volunteers refused firmly, saying that Arielle only had to cross the street to reach the Number 44 bus stop.

So the volunteers only work at the location and they do not provide long-distance escort service.

Having given a full testing to the volunteers in the service station, I and Arielle decided to "sweep the streets" to look for stray volunteers.  We walked back and forth several times.  Perhaps because it was raining, there were very few tourists or volunteers in the street.

Suddenly, I saw a decent looking male volunteer sitting on a bench with a middle-aged woman who appeared to be his mother.

So I pointed at him and Arielle got the cue.  She turned on her sound-recording pen and she played the role of a foreign tourist who wanted to borrow a camera.

Arielle: Hello.  I forgot to bring my camera.  And I think it's pretty pretty beautiful here.  Can you take a picture of me and send it to me?
Volunteer: (Speechless for a while, because the string of English phrases was too much for him)  Hmmm ... Hmmm ...
Arielle: Camera?  Do you have a camera?
Volunteer: Camera?  Camera?  (He still did not understand.  At this moment, he turned his head around to the middle-aged woman and said in putonghua, "I forgot what this term means.")

Seeing that it was difficult to communicate this term, Arielle departed from my script and asked where she could buy a postcard.  She wanted to buy postcards showing nice scenery.

After repeating "postcard" several times, the guy probably remembered the term "post office."  He used a mixture of Chinese and English: 那个什么Postoffice,哦,follow me." (translation: "That whatever post office, oh, follow me.")

Although the guy did not speak English well, he took Arielle to the post office and helped her pick postcards.

When Arielle sauntered out of the post office to find me, she raised her thumb up and said: "Very nice guy."

When the test was over, this American couple both said: "They are so warm and friendly."  The friendliness of the volunteers made Cullen feel embarrassed for going too far to test them.

Actually, I find the volunteers to be very cute.  When they can't find the English words, Chinese words pop out.  This reminded me of my own English-language lessons at university.

Cullen comes to ask for directions at the volunteers' booth at the Metro

Cullen asked about how to go to Yuhuanlu
(actually, it is Yuquanlu but he deliberately misspoke)

Once the volunteer figured out that it was really Yuquanlu,
she began to draw a map with English annotations

Cullen leaves satisfied with map in hand

He returns and pretends that he did not know to buy a Metro ticket.
The volunteer tells him what to do.

Actually, a second part is even funnier when two Chinese reporters pretended to be tourists and sought help by using only their native dialects (Ningbo and Sichuan).  Here is the one in Ningbo dialect.

Reporter: 嫩好,额发晓得阿依哟麻博金烤呵? (translation: How are you?  Do you know where they sell Peking duck?)
Volunteer: Excuse me, can you speak English?
Reporter: 嫩晓得伐?阿拉阿姆阿伯想缺烤呵. (translation: Do you know?  My mom and dad want to eat roast duck."

Seeing that the volunteers were totally at a loss, the reporter took out her prepared prop.  There were two drawings.  One of them shows a live duck, and the other shows a cooked duck.  At the same time, the reporter kept repeating 烤鸭 (translation: roast duck) in Ningbo dialect.  This is approximately the same sound in putonhua.

Illumination came.  The girl with the glasses told the male volunteer: "She wants to buy Peking duck.  You take her there.  Quanjude (note: the most famous Peking duck restaurant in Beijing with takeout orders) is just further up."  So the guy made a hand gesture and led the way.

The reporter realized Quanjude is quite a distance away and the volunteers were very busy.  So she confessed using putonghua to the guy that she was conducting a test.  She asked, "What did you think I was speaking when you first heard me?"

The guy shook his head and said, "I didn't understand.  It sounded like a foreign language, but it also sounded like a dialect from somewhere."