When the world turns its attention to China next year, a core team of foreign torchbearers will return the international gaze, running in the Olympic relay on behalf of their adopted home country.
Chosen via an open online voting system, and evaluation by a panel of judges, the successful foreign residents will join a total of 21,880 torchbearers from around the world.
This unique chance to be part of the 2008 Games has attracted entrants from expats of all walks of life, including a former Olympian, a pilot, television personalities and a singer, as well as executives, students and teachers.
One hopeful, Philippe Le Gall from the island of Seychelles, appeals to superstition in describing his unique connection to the Beijing Games.
"I was born at the 8th hour of the 8th day of the 8th month of 1954. The day of the Olympic Games opening ceremony is a lucky number in China and I feel the need to do something exceptional around August 8, 2008," Le Gall says.
Flying the flag for Brazil is Jorge Barra Viegas, a pilot for Shenzhen Airlines and former champion gymnast, who arrived in China in 2004 and found himself cheering for the nation's athletes in the Athens Games. "Getting emotional seeing Chinese youngsters competing was creating inside me a strange connection I could not completely understand. It felt just like a torch fire was lit up inside my chest and head, it was like I was in Greece cheering them," Viegas says.
Another popular contender is local middle school student Luis Hong-Sanchez, a Colombian citizen who was born in Illinois, United States, and moved to China with his parents as a baby: "I can speak fluently English, Chinese and Spanish. I love China, which has been my world all these years!"
The 8th grader has many Chinese friends and, despite his tender years, is well-versed in the concept of "world citizenship". "I do believe in world citizenship and I think this is a good opportunity to promote brotherhood and unity between all the peoples of the world," he says.
Israeli Victoria Nieuwenhuis says her long-held interest in China piqued the curiosity of her classmates at Tel-Aviv University, where she commenced Eastern Asia Studies in 1994. On graduating, Nieuwenhuis was awarded a one-year scholarship from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Ministry of Education, which brought her to Jinan, east China's Shandong Province, where she was the sole Israeli student.
She left China in 2001 to complete her master's degree, and began work in Israel with a technology company that was seeking to build business with the Chinese market.
Nieuwenhuis now lives in Shanghai with her husband, and works for a local manufacturer, promoting China's semiconductor industry internationally.
"I am sure that my personal connection with China and my inner development in China can contribute a lot to promote foreign-Chinese relations, and can be a good example of a foreigner finding another fruitful and meaningful life with lots of contributions to the Chinese in the Middle Kingdom," she says.
Fellow hopeful is Vipul Joshi, a 27-year-old computer science university lecturer from India who has taught in China for more than two years.
His first posting was at Henan University of Science and Technology. "Being a foreigner in a small Chinese city or town is quite an experience. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you're a spectacle," he says.
"Everything is difficult for you because you cannot understand Chinese and the common people cannot speak or understand English," says Joshi, who now works in east China's Fujian Province.
He says the constant attention spurred him to improve his mantle on Chinese. "I received so much love and affection from my students, their parents, and even the local public that I never felt home sick," he says. "I consider China as my second home."
He has also found a particular interest in experiencing the different cuisines on offer here. "The Chinese recognize the relationship between diet and good health, and believe that the ideal diet is one that stresses both diversity and balance," he says.
"When I talk about Chinese cuisine my mouth starts watering. Since I came China I started loving food," Joshi says.
Other entrants, such as Hungarian sports marketing professional Joseph Bunevacz, have impressive Olympic connections. Bunevacz competed in sailing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and has been involved with 12 past Games, overseeing arrangements for the Hungarian and Spanish national teams. "In my experience, Beijing is the most prepared (and) excited," he says.
Peter King, a retired Canadian engineer, was one of the organizers of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and has 30 years experience in sport as an athlete, coach, administrator and international referee.
He teaches English at Beijing University of Technology.
"Other countries do not know China, and they look at China without understanding so that we, foreign residents, have a unique role in bringing China to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to China," King says.
Fellow hopeful and Google executive Dan Brody is an American who has lived in China for over 10 years, first as a student and teacher before moving into the corporate world.
Brody, vice-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, counts among his favorite places: "Cosmopolitan areas of Beijing where even the old ladies doing fan dances are not surprised to hear you speak Chinese, and Xinjiang where people think I'm a local."
The nationwide hunt for foreign torchbearers is sponsored by the Lenovo Group, partner of the Olympic torch relay, and China Daily. To register, expats need to submit a photograph and a 500-word essay outlining their experience in China, and addressing why they should be selected, by the end of this month.
Organizers are searching for people who are passionate about Chinese culture and history, and committed to promoting friendship between China and the rest of the world.
Contestants' stories are featured on China Daily's website and the public invited to vote online for their favorite participants. The number of votes received will be taken into account by the judging panel, which will evaluate the entries and declare winners by the end of November.
(China Daily September 21, 2007)