My Chinese Newspaper Interview

In previous post I wrote about my disastrous first painting class in China. Tho it involved a positive surprise ending, I saved the best for last. After a year of successful classes I was eventually asked for an interview by one of China’s largest newspapers. Prepare for the weirdest article you’ve ever read!

Niber having fun teaching painting as his classes are improving

Learning from the mistakes of my disastrous first lesson, I enjoyed a year of successful classes afterwards. But why were one of China’s largest newspapers interested in writing about my little painting classes?

At the end of my first lesson I thought I finally had a chance to unwind, but turned out the most important part still remained.

Many students wanted to brag about their new painting on social media with a picture together with their teacher. Feeling guilty for having so little time to help with their paintings, I felt the least I could do was pose for as many pictures as they want.

This was no small feat however. As the class was nearly all girls, five or six re-takes were not unheard of, as they self-proclaimed that they had a “weird expression”. At the end of these photo sessions my smiling muscles were literally twitching, never before had I held a wide “photo-smile” for 30 minutes straight. Althought exhausting these pictures generated a lot of buzz on social media, eventually getting me noticed by one of China’s largest newspapers.

The Marketing Power of a Foreigner in China

Marketing material for Niber's painting classes in China

Turns out marketing material for my class didn’t need to say a thing about my qualifications.

The idea of hiring a foreign teacher had worked, tho my painting skills are questionable, there’s an undeniable marketing advantage of being from a mysterious faraway land.

I used to think the Chinese characters in our marketing material described my ten years as a professional artist. Only when writing this blog post did I ask a friend for a translation, apparently it just says when and where, no background mentioned.

I don’t doubt that my foreign-factor influenced the explosion of student attendance for my first class. However there was another factor which would later exponentially increase the exposure of the class.

The Marketing Power of Pretty Girls and Cute Children

Cute child is helping her mother paint

Social media posts gets a lot of attention when the students are pretty girls and cute children. That’s why the buzz of my class spread all the way to the newspaper.

It is said that social media marketing is greatly overrated. Although it has the potential to reach a wide audience, the social media audience is known for its extremely weak focus.

But as my students were nearly all pretty girls and cute little children, the pictures of each lesson gained plenty of focused attention across the students social media accounts.

The marketing power behind this level of exposure meant we never had to worry about filling up classes. Perhaps more interestingly, it reached the eyes of one of China’s largest newspapers.

My Newspaper Interview with Sichuan Daily

Chinese newspaper article about Niber with photo of Niber painting

It was an honor to see myself mentioned in the Chinese newspaper, but answering some of the interview questions in Chinese may not have been such a good idea.

One such social media post had apparently reached the eyes of a reporter for Sichuan Daily, a Chinese newspaper with more than 8 million readers.

When he showed up to my class I couldn’t understand why such a large newspaper would think my tiny painting classes were newsworthy, but regardless I of course answered I would be honored to partake.

As the reporter didn’t speak any English I was lucky that one of my students helped me with the translation. Unfortunately however I got cocky and decided to answer some of the questions myself in Chinese. That was perhaps not a great idea…

The Difficulty and Dangers of Speaking Mandarin Chinese

Althought Chinese is one of the most verbally effective languages in the world, it’s also one of the most difficult to learn. Regardless of practice, a slight error in tone could completely alter the meaning of your statement. Even words with such dramatically different meaning such as ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ is pronounced the same apart from their slight changes in tone.

Online chat shows the offense Niber's limited Chinese skills commonly cause

As seen in this example, even with a dictionary my Chinese is commonly misunderstood. What made me think I could answer the interview with my own Chinese?

Perhaps worse is the many variations of different words. Using a dictionary to translate a simple English word into Chinese can easily give you a dozen results, all with subtly different meaning that the dictionary fails to explain.

When I practice my Chinese I like to use an app called TanTan. Practically a identical clone to the western Tinder but with one major advantage. By allowing you to record brief voice messages (similar to WhatsApp) I can have a verbal conversation with a stranger in my own pace. Allowing me plenty of time to look up words in a dictionary before I speak them.

Despite this relaxing pace and despite having a dictionary on my phone, my Chinese is STILL commonly misunderstood. For example in the screenshot to the right I merely asked the stranger if she likes nightclubs (since all her profile pictures were such). As usual however the translation for ‘nightclub’ returned several answers. Without explanation the top translation was a special kind of nightclub with some apparently offensive implications. I could only hope I didn’t do any similar mistakes for my newspaper interview.

The Results: How I Mistakenly Insulted 14 million People

A week after the interview I was happily surprised to see my face printed in newspapers all around Chengdu. I brought a copy to the office to brag, but contrary to the admiration I was expecting, I received either laughter or stunned silence as I showed the article around the office.

One of my bi-lingual colleagues asked “How can you accuse Chengdu people of being fat, when there’s so many obese foreigners?”. I was shockingly explained that I said no such thing! I considered they were playing an elaborate prank on me, but after putting the online version through Google Translate it turned out they were right!

Google Translate translation of Niber's comment insulting Chinese people

A Google translation confirmed that my friends weren’t playing a prank on me, the newspaper really did quote me claiming Chengdu people are fat!

The full online article can be found here, but to truly bring home the point of how difficult Chinese is, even Google Translate can’t make much sense out of it. Even to this day I don’t understand the bulk of it. The things that makes sense (such as my apparent admiration for pandas) are things I’m pretty sure I didn’t say a word about. Still, it was a great honor to leave a tiny little mark on the huge empire that is China.

That was it for my adventures as a painting teacher in China but rest assured there will be more mildly interesting adventures to come so make sure you sign up to blog updates by email!

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