Experiencing the Star of Outlook English Competition

I recently had the opportunity to be a judge for the Star of Outlook English Competition which is organized by CCTV. I had the privilege to be a judge for the National Semifinals where the ten finalist will appear on national television through CCTV. Here are some of the things I took away.


1.) The location was mind blowing. The competition was held at 九华山庄 (jiuhua international).  This is a large hotel complex set around 80 hot springs. The entire complex is big, really big. Here are some numbers from their website (all, of course, in Chinese)

The hotel boasts 1745 rooms for guests and 230,000 square meters of “exhibition space.” The complex has the second largest conference hall in China, totaling 40,000 square meters. There are different buildings that include various luxury shops.

The location left me with two impressions, first being the staggering size and second being  lack of life. Let me expand on the latter.

Although the complex had many visitors due to the English competition, facilities were far, very far from being utilized. The rooms smelled like old cigarettes, and the white paint was turning yellow. There was water damage on every floor I went to, albeit I stayed in one building. The exhibition space was large and clean, but the rooms and facilities for living felt old and un-cared for. The business model is clear upon spending a few hours walking around. This is a money losing product of an SOE that is meant to provide other SOEs a facility to have comically over sized conferences. Thusly, all amenities and characteristics that foreigners commonly associate with a large hotel/ hot spring complex are lacking. People were present, although far from filling the vast space, but the decay of rooms and empty shops  emitted a sense of foreboding.

In short, it is a great place to hold a meeting. It is an awful place for relaxing.

2.) I judged children ranging from 10 to 12.  Our group of judges, pictures below, was tasked to judge the English level of 278 contestants. We had to whittle this number to ten. It was incredibly difficult. The total amount of contestants nation-wide this year was 7 million, so all of the national semifinalists were extremely gifted. Many of these students lived abroad and were fluent in English.  There were a total of four rounds where students had to introduce themselves and answer various questions


As the competition is held by CCTV and the winning contestants appear on TV, much of the judging is less about English and more about personality and confidence.  For example, there were dozens of students who built various robots. The robots usually operated by voice command, iPad, or  visual cues. My childhood Legos truly seem inadequate. I have no doubt that the ‘robotics’ contestants will grow up to be highly successful, however my CCTV rubric had no love to give to introverts. Confidence and personality were more important than English ability.

We eventually decided on a list of twenty students for the final round. From these twenty we would go on to choose the ten finalist. Here is the list:


The Star of Outlook English Competition is huge. Seven million students throughout China compete to be on TV to showcase their talents. Isn’t it interesting then that such a large percentage of the finalist came from two cities: Shenzhen (red) and Beijing (blue). I am including Beijing as a formality. Of the final fifty students, close to half were from Shenzhen.


With the slow down in China, a lot of media has been discussing the various distinctions between cities and their different virtues. There have been a few well written pieces discussing Shenzhen, and it was encouraging to see such social capital. Anecdotally, all judges for all age groups coined some phrase to describe contestants from Shenzhen. They far exceeded their peers.

3.) I saw a copy of this year’s SAT.

Because of the size of the event, various representatives of the education industry setup shop. Many of the vendors sold ways to cheat on the 高考 (gaokao) and SAT.

If you have WeChat, you can view examples of SAT cheating products here. On an unrelated note, why bother putting a water mark on pirated information?

The prices for cheating were cheap. Copies of this year’s SAT were being sold for roughly 1,000RMB. You could also pay a company to take the test in your name for roughly 15,000RMB.  It was eye opening to see. It is crucial to understand that cheating is not a ‘bad’ thing in China. If you are smart enough to trick or game the system, you are worthy of success. Successful cheating is evidence of being intellectually superior to someone else.

This article details sophisticated cheating by Chinese students. However, I hope readers can understand that cheating here is exponentially more common and less complex. Lastly, the United States College Board needs to take this seriously. I now have no idea how universities differentiate Chinese scores when cheating seems so prevalent. Our rule sets and standards are so different.

I can only imagine the amount of fraud and ethical grey (black?) areas in other industries.Seeing such blatant, industrial scale cheating was new to me. Welcome to China.

4.)  I would like to finish by saying that I feel privileged to have had this experience. The teens and kids were gifted, and the overall experience certainly broadened my horizons. It was a blast to work with the professional staff at CCTV. I hope I can do it again next year.


Traveling in Yunnan : 大理 (Dali) and 双廊 (Shuanglang)


When traveling in Yunnan there are two must have stops: Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江). Today I will skip my financial monologue to tell you  about 大理, and why you should not go there.

Forgive my gimmicky sounding second sentence and hear me out. Erhai (洱海) is beautiful and worth visiting, however staying in 大理 or 大理古城 (Dali Old Town) is not where you want to be. Today I want to tell you to reside two hours from 大理 in 双廊 (Shuanglang)

Why is 双廊 better than 大理古城?

The company

Pop quiz dear reader: Which of these two pictures would you rather explore?



Here, I will give you another shot.



OK, this is your last chance:



If you’ve ever been on vacation and thought, “god, I wish this place was just packed with more people.” 大理古城  is the perfect place for you! 大理古城 is the same over priced tourist trap that you can find in most cities in China.  Don’t be fooled by the overcast sky in the three pictures of 双廊 (all, of course, on the bottom). It offers the same amenities with no crowds.

I can’t emphasize how much of a tourist trap 大理古城 is. Don’t misunderstand, it is worth seeing for a day. It is mindless fun; however, it should not be your main attraction. The pace is fast and the people working there want nothing more than to take your money. Consider this woman in Shuanglang:


She certainly isn’t selling produce out of the goodness of her heart, however she and the hawkers of Shuanglang were so fun, so comfortable, so relaxed. People in Dali were very nice, but people in Shuanglang seemed like they were on permanent vacation. The difference in hawking manners was tangible.

Why is 双廊 better than 大理古城?

The food

This is the easiest point to make. The food in 双廊 was, for lack of a better word, awesome. Really awesome. Picking a restaurant in both cities is incredibly easy. Most restaurants arrange their food outside.

Picking breakfast, lunch, and dinner amounted to saying, “oh, that looks delicious.” The food was always mind blowing in Shuanglang.

Yunnan is famous for mushrooms. Order them every chance you get. I was also enamored with the shellfish, eating a clam at least every meal. The food in Dali was good, but the food in Shuanglang was some of the best I’v ever had. I did not order “slutty soup,” but this menu gives a good idea as to food pricing in 双廊- cheap.




Why is 双廊 better than 大理古城?

The view

The view anywhere on Erhai is beautiful. Dali Old Town is certainly pretty, but the focus of the beauty is the architecture. Shuanglang is much more quiet and focuses on surrounding area. The view in Dali Old Town looks something akin to this:


This is the best photo I took of the scenery surrounding the town, because, as previously mentioned, the scenery is mostly focused on the architecture of the town. Contrast this with any of the small villages surrounding Erhai:



The conclusion is simple. Stay in Shuanglang for a few days. Rent a moped for 50元 for a whole day and go explore. You won’t regret it.