For many youngsters the "Chinese Bridge" Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students is the beginning of a love affair with China.
The two-day culture tour of Hunan Province provided this year's "Chinese Bridge" contestants with plenty to see.
This year's annual contest, the 10th, featured 120 contestants from 70 countries and was held in Changsha, Hunan Province. It ended on Monday.
Since 2002, more than 800 college students from overseas have come to China for the final, organized by China's National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, or Hanban.
It awards contestants with the opportunity to study in China. Usually, first-prize winners are awarded with a full scholarship for a higher education course in China.
For the first time, 22 previous contestants came to Hunan to share their experience with this year's contestants.
It has been 10 years since 30-year-old Tan Yee Ning from Malaysia won the first Chinese Bridge contest.
Back then, Tan was a sophomore majoring in Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore. Though she started learning Chinese in middle school, she had never visited the country before the final.
"The competition was quite simple," she says, "What stood out most was my feelings about China when I arrived in Beijing. The city had so many bicycles!"
That short stay in the capital city captivated the 21-year-old and her curiosity about China grew. Her previous knowledge about China was limited to books and TV.
Her first prize in the first Chinese Bridge competition gained her a scholarship for a master's degree in journalism at Fudan University in 2004.
"My life went in a new direction after that contest," she recalls, "Even today, I can't imagine how my life would have turned out if I had not participated in Chinese Bridge.
"I might have just found a job in Singapore after graduation. I wouldn't have even thought about living in China unless I had competed."
Instead, she stayed in Shanghai and is currently working in the security consultancy field for a British company based in Beijing, taking charge of its business in China. Almost all her clients are from China.
"Today, when I tell my clients that I participated in Chinese Bridge, many of them are interested and we become closer," she says, "The competition is quite widely known."
Having excellent Chinese skills and getting a good job are just two of the benefits of participating in the competition. Another outcome is contestants can become well known.
Stewart Edward Johnson from Britain was the champion of last year's competition. In July, he came to China again to host this year's opening ceremony.
"After the competition, I had the opportunity to participate in many Sino-British diplomatic events, which I never thought I would attend," he says.
When Vice-Premier Li Keqiang visited Britain in January, Johnson expressed his wish to study in China.
The 22-year-old will start his master's degree in management at Tsinghua University in September.
"For me, the true connection with China might have just started," he says.
Umer Seemab from Pakistan participated in the competition three years running, but this is the first time he has reached the final.
In 2009, when the competition was first held in Pakistan, Seemab had studied Chinese in his spare time for just six months.
"Since that time my goal was to come to China for the finals and represent my country," he says.
Though he did not make the final in his second year either, CCTV Pakistan Bureau took note of his participation and he was offered the post of public relations officer.
"That is what I love about the competition," he says,
"You might not win, but your life is connected with China. Now my fianc has also started to learn Chinese. I hope this year's competition will bring me further opportunities."
Since 2007, final contestants take a two-day culture tour of various cities in China. During this time, they visit places of interest, learn about their history, live with Chinese families and even learn to cook Chinese food.
Yin Xiangzhi, a Chinese linguistic teacher from Hunan University, accompanies contestants on the two-day culture tours. He has noticed that students' grasp of Chinese has progressed significantly over the years.
"A major reason is that these young people's ways of learning Chinese are more diverse," he says.
"Most of them do not rely on books now. Some watch comedy talks online and imitate them in the competition to show off their talent."
Palasti Lajos Erik, a 22-year-old student from Hungary, surprised many people with his fluent Chinese at this year's competition after studying for just 18 months.
"When I started my first Chinese class in 2010, Chinese characters looked like pictures to me and were so hard to memorize," he says.
He thought four classes a week were not enough for him, so he turned to the Internet for help. His favorite Chinese-learning website is www.livemocha.com, on which he found two Chinese friends and chatted with them online.
This January, he was invited to the CCTV Spring Festival Gala to perform a comedy show with Mark Rowswell, a TV presenter who is known for his excellent Chinese.
"I turned into a famous person overnight because of the TV gala. When I went to the train station's cafeteria the other day, the caf owner recognized me, bought me lunch and asked to take a picture with him," he says.
His reputation grew further after he sang an ethnic song for Premier Wen Jiabao, during Wen's visit to Hungary.
"I learned this song by repeatedly watching it on YouTube and asked my Chinese friends to explain the lyrics to me," he says.
He won a four-year bachelor degree scholarship to Renmin University of China.
"I've decided to give up my undergraduate study of Chinese in Hungary, and to start afresh at university in China this September," he says.
"Each visit to China is so exciting. I believe that it will be a bright future for me."
(China Daily August 9, 2011)