UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide

Student hits a high note in international Chinese language, culture contest
Andrew Cajas, left, prepares to debate against competitors from England and New Zealand.

Student hits a high note in international Chinese language, culture contest

East Asian Studies student takes on the world at 2011 Chinese Bridge Competition.

UCLA Today

A master’s student in UCLA’s East Asian Studies program was the highest ranking American contestant in the 10th annual Chinese Bridge Competition for Foreign College Students held this summer in Changsha, Hunan Province, China.

Andrew Cajas beat out thousands of potential hopefuls from 68 countries and regions, placing among the top six and earning a three-year full scholarship to any university in China. The scholarship includes full tuition, board and lodging, monthly living allowance, medical insurance and airfare.

Chinese Bridge is an international competition organized by the Office of the Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, that tests the Chinese language and culture knowledge of non-native, non-heritage speakers ages 15-30. This competition is an important platform for international college students to learn the Chinese language and more about China. It also serves to help young people better communicate with each other.

“Hanban funds the UCLA Confucius Institute project,” says Susan Pertal Jain, the institute's executive director. “With this support, we have enabled more than 200 California high school and university students to travel and study in China. Having the opportunity to experience Chinese language and culture in its authentic context is so important.”

Since 2002, more than 100,000 high school and college students from more than 70 countries have participated in the preliminary competitions in their home countries and more than 800 have competed in the finals in China. In addition, an estimated 100 million people worldwide have watched the televised broadcast. Cajas was selected to compete this year after a strong performance at a regional competition organized by the UCLA Confucius Institute and the Los Angeles Chinese Consulate.

A great deal of preparation goes into competing at the international level, says Chinese language instructor An Na. She was Cajas’ teacher and served as emcee during the regional competition held at UCLA in April. “First, the competitors prepare a speech about their experience with learning Chinese, or something about China, and they must give this speech very fluently. Second, their language and culture knowledge is tested through experiencing Chinese culture. Third, they must give a performance, such as singing a Chinese song or doing some other kind of performance, that demonstrates their knowledge of Chinese.” She says no other UCLA student has ever performed as well as Cajas in this competition. “He is so excellent, and has so many fans in China now.”

The finalists landed in Beijing on July 8 for a month of intense competition. They spent a few days getting to know one another and visiting local landmarks, including the Great Wall of China, before being taken to Changsha for some additional testing and to perform in a talent show – Cajas sang a well-known Chinese pop song.

“It is almost like ‘American Idol,’” says Hong Cheng, a librarian in UCLA’s East Asian Library who has previously judged the regional competition at UCLA. “You have to show some real talent.”

From this group of 120, 30 moved on to the next round and the television show started. “We were then separated into groups of five or six,” says Cajas. Each group went to a different city — film crew in tow — where they lived with locals and immersed themselves in everyday Chinese life. Once this round was completed, only 12 hopefuls remained. They were taken to Shanghai, where the final six were announced on Aug. 8.

Cajas grew up surrounded by Asian friends. He started taking Mandarin lessons while attending Berkeley, where he earned an economics degree in 2010.  “I always thought Chinese was fun, so I included it in my electives. I always focused more of my studies on Chinese then on economics. I just liked it more.”

Unlike the other top six finalists, he had never studied in China. This made his results all that much more impressive, says Cheng.

Cajas’ involvement in the Chinese Bridge Competition earned him a thriving fan base in China. In addition, gifts and letters arrive at his parents’ home in Walnut, Calif. each week. But making new friends from around the world and gaining a certain level of stardom aren’t the only benefits of a strong showing in this competition. Cheng says that students looking for careers in China, including roles in the corporate world, consulates, media and business, can benefit from having this contest on their resumes.

 “There is opportunity,” says Cheng, noting that potential employers are impressed when they see candidates with this experience. “It opens a lot of doors for students.”

The 2012 Chinese Bridge Competition will be held at UCLA in the spring.