Andrew Cajas, left, prepares to debate against competitors from England and New Zealand. To see an episode of the televised show, go here.
A master’s student in UCLA’s East Asian Studies program, Cajas has a throng of idolizing fans across that country and around the world who send him gifts and letters. But he didn’t achieve his fame by singing his heart out before a panel of judges — although he did sing a well-known Chinese pop song in a competition.
Cajas recently won international renown for his mastery of the Chinese language and knowledge of its culture before an estimated 100 million people worldwide who watched the popular telecast of Chinese Bridge, an international competition that pits non-native, non-heritage speakers against each other in a grueling test of language and culture.
Cajas became the highest-ranking American contestant, placing among the top six, in the 10thannual Chinese Bridge Competition for Foreign College Students held this summer in Changsha, Hunan Province, China.
He beat out thousands of potential hopefuls from 68 countries and regions and earned a three-year full scholarship to any university in China. The scholarship includes full tuition, room and board, a monthly living allowance, medical insurance and airfare.
Chinese Bridge is an international competition for students, ages 15 to 30, organized by the Office of the Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban.
Since 2002, more than 100,000 high school and college students from more than 70 countries have participated in regional competitions in their home countries; more than 800 of those winners have traveled to China to compete in the finals. 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.
"Hanban funds the UCLA Confucius Institute project," said 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."
A great deal of preparation goes into competing at the international level, said Chinese language instructor An Na, who was Cajas’ teacher and the emcee for the regional competition held at UCLA last 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," she said. Second, their language and culture knowledge is tested through experiencing Chinese culture. Third, they must give a performance, such as singing a Chinese song, that demonstrates their knowledge of Chinese."
No other UCLA student has ever performed as well as Cajas did, she said. "He is so excellent, and has so many fans in China now."
Cajas, who grew up in East Los Angeles and went to schools in the heart of the Hispanic community, was also at a disadvantage. He was the only contestant among the top six who had never studied in China. He started taking Mandarin lessons while attending Berkeley, where he earned an economics degree in 2010.
"I always thought Chinese was fun," Cajas said, "so I included it in my electives. I always focused more of my studies on Chinese than on economics. I just liked it more."
After arriving in Beijing on July 8 for a month of intense competition, he and his 119 fellow contestants spent a few days getting acquainted and visiting local landmarks, including the Great Wall, before being taken to Changsha for some additional testing and to perform in the talent show portion.
"It is almost like ‘American Idol,’" said Hong Cheng, a librarian in UCLA’s East Asian Library who has been a regional judge at UCLA. "You have to show some real talent.
After making the cut to 30 contestants, said Cajas, "We were then separated into groups of five or six," and journeyed to a different city — film crew in tow — where they lived with locals and immersed themselves in everyday Chinese life.
When Cajas made it to the next round with 11 other hopefuls, they were taken to Shanghai, where the final six were announced on Aug. 8.
Fame and friends aren’t the only benefits that Cajas has reaped. High-ranking competitors can look forward to having careers in China, including roles in the corporate world, consulates, media and business.
"There is opportunity," said Cheng. "It opens a lot of doors for students."
The 2012 Chinese Bridge Competition will be held at UCLA in the spring. To see an episode of the competition that Cajas was on, go here.