During the final semester of his Bachelor of Arts in Chinese last year, Tom Nicholls (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Maru) entered a Mandarin speaking contest.

After a month of preparation, pronunciation practice, late afternoons and cups of Oolong Tea in the Asian Studies office, he took part in the Chinese Bridge Speech Competition for University Students… and won.

Tom delivers his speech at the Chinese Bridge Chinese Language Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in Changsha
Tom delivers his speech at the Chinese Bridge Chinese Language Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in Changsha

What he hadn’t realised at the time was just how big the competition actually was. The Chinese Bridge Speech Competition has been going on for the last 14 years, and involves more than 90 countries.

Each year around 133 university students fly to China to compete in the Chinese Bridge Chinese Language Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in Changsha.

As the recipient of the ‘special prize’ in the Auckland competition, Tom secured a return trip to China to compete in the international speech competition, and a full scholarship to study for a masters degree at Fudan University in Shanghai.

From there it got out of hand.

Tom had no idea that the international competition would be broadcast on Hunan Weishi, China’s biggest entertainment TV broadcaster, and he never expected that he would place in the top 10 internationally.

What he definitely did not expect was that the top 15 competitors would be participating in a reality TV show as an extension of the competition.

He describes the experience as “one big perpetual surprise”.

The contestants were flown to Beijing, Quanzhou, Dali and Changsha, living together in a big — often quite luxurious — house in each city, performing challenges and taking exams to gain points.

They were filmed 24 hours a day for three weeks.

“It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I made so many new friends from around the world (Korea, Columbia, America, Uzbekistan, England, Cameroon, Italy, Botswana and Christchurch, just to name a few), had the opportunity to travel to places I had never been before, got to experience what it’s like to be an actor in China (not at all what I expected), and I got to practice my Mandarin!”

Tom explains that a whole month of speaking only Mandarin did amazing things for his spoken ability, and recommends being out of your comfort zone like this as the best way to make progress.

He is also less intimidated by public speaking, and says that singing, dancing and speaking Mandarin in front of 300 million people “really puts things in perspective”.

Tom is currently teaching Mandarin at Queen Margaret College in Wellington while he prepares to take up his scholarship at Fudan University.

The staff in Asian Studies are absolutely thrilled with Tom’s success, and wish him all the best in his future studies.

Source: Arts Faculty, UoA