Sunday, November 14, 2010

English Superstar Competition: My Debut as a Judge

A combination of English fever, a growing mandate for creativity, and a long time love affair with competition means that speech contests abound in Korea these days.

I was invited to be a judge at the 2010 English Superstar Competition at an "English Village" outside of Seoul in early November. I don't know much about public speaking, but English is probably my only expertise here in Korea, so I agreed.

Secretly, I was thrilled.

The judge's table
A friend warned me not to let the title go to my head and break out in Simon Cowell-style criticism during the competition. I assured her I'm much more like Paula Abdul, the original American Idol softie.

The event was held in a cavernous auditorium, and emceed by a Korean television personality and an American actor.  My fellow judges were a Yonsei University professor, a theater expert, two English teachers-slash-"edutainers" (one of whom had just returned from a three-day audition in Los Angeles for the real American Idol!), and one official no-show.

Wearing school uniforms or blue jeans and wireless microphones, students aged 8 to 18 pontificated on points sometimes adolescent and sometimes heady. In three minute intervals, they mounted their soap box to explain -- in almost entirely coherent English -- why it's important to have self-eteem, why Korea needs to welcome more multicultural students, how we can follow our dreams, or how the English language is Korea's "achilles heel," from a failed policy perspective.

An elementary contestant
There was also a drama competition, including more than a dozen five-minute performances. In one skit, a group of elementary students portrayed a watery environmental dystopia, with litter-spewing octopuses polluting the oceans and killing a young mermaid, whose death prompted a massive clean-up effort.  In another, a high school bully fell on her desk and became blind, leading to a new appreciation of difference and a lesson on friendship.  In a fast-paced and frightening skit, two girls dressed as American GI's held two Iraqi women at gunpoint while they debated the underpinnings of Iraq's occupation. 
We rated each performance on a numerical scale on traits such as creativity, originality, interest, depth of research, use of grammar, clarity, posture, and gestures (I had flash backs to my own robotic arm movements as a chorus member in Oklahoma and the Music Man.) I raced through the score cards to keep up with the fast-moving program.

While the organizers tallied our totals, a b-boy performance cut the nervous tension: The Korean break dancers elicited shrieks from girls in the audience. Then my fellow judge and recent American Idol contestant sang "You are So Beautiful to Me."  Finally, to my surprise, the emcees called me up to the stage to offer some comments about the contest.

I found myself standing before hundreds of expectant faces, my heart pounding. All I could think to talk about was a feeling I'd had all day: It's difficult to stand in front of a room full of strangers and express your thoughts or opinions. But to do it in another language, that's truly an admirable feat.  

The Victors

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