By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach High School senior Charlie Hoffs spent much of October in costume, but her attire had nothing to do with Halloween. For weeks, the teen was styled by a professional team of hair and makeup specialists while competing in a televised, international challenge in China.
Charlie’s unusual journey began at San Diego State University, where she won the regional semifinal of a Chinese-language contest. After her victory, she learned she had won an expense-paid entry to the 10th Annual Chinese Bridge International Language Competition in China in October.
Paired in the regional final with Kaylee Doty of Roseville, Calif., Charlie embarked on a 17-day adventure in Beijing and Kunming. The two girls started as strangers, but became fast friends as they navigated life in China with more than 200 other students from 96 different countries. During their stay, the competitors slept in five-star hotels and went on various expeditions to see landmarks such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Chinese characters in a library book initially intrigued a 10-year-old Charlie, who was fascinated by words that seemed to be made from pictures. Her curiosity intensified after a family vacation to China two years later. When she returned home, Charlie found an online Chinese class and began to study the language. In addition to her online work, she said she loved going to dim sum restaurants to hone her conversational abilities.
Charlie entered the SDSU competition as a way to test her language skills and cultural knowledge. The southern California contestants took tests, gave speeches, and put on short performances. Although these challenges seemed intense at the time, they were nothing compared to the experiences she would have in China.
Unbeknownst to Charlie, the Chinese competition was part of a televised reality show. Cameras and reporters followed the contestants wherever they went. Charlie said she and Kaylee often scanned the internet and found funny stories about themselves.
The competition was composed of four rounds and teams were eliminated at each level. The first round included a written test on Chinese history. In addition, students were asked to perform a skit, recite a speech, and display their talent; Charlie decided to rap about Chinese pop culture.
When Kaylee and Charlie advanced to the second round, they only had 20 hours to learn ancient Chinese proverbs and poetry. They stayed up all night studying. Despite their efforts, they failed the poetry section. Luckily, the judges enjoyed their skit and moved them to the third round.
The girls arranged flowers, worked in a cookie factory, and conducted a tea ceremony with local officials during the “Amazing Race”-style portion of the competition. They were one of five teams selected for the finals, along with duos from Australia, Kyrgyzstan, Mozambique, and Russia.
In the fourth round, Charlie was asked to wear a beard and play a military commander in a Beijing opera. Apparently, her portrayal was convincing; Charlie and Kaylee won the contest. The Chinese Ministry of Education offered each of the champions a four-year scholarship to any university in China.
Jessica Tuchinsky, Charlie’s mom, traveled to China for the competition and called it “one of the most incredible experiences” of her life. Tuchinsky was particularly struck by her daughter’s interactions with contestants from so many different countries.
The international students were also a highlight for Charlie. She said the competition brought everyone together, exposing their commonalities as they all battled fatigue and struggled to succeed in a foreign country. Despite the group’s incredible diversity, she left China believing that people’s “differences are only skin deep.”
At this point, Charlie plans to forego the China scholarship and apply for admittance to a U.S. university with departments in international relations and environmental science. Eventually, she wants to become a diplomat.
Adept at following foreign protocols, conquering crazy challenges, and handling sleepless nights, Charlie’s skill set already sounds like it meets a State Department job description.