When Francis Tchiegue first arrived at Beijing International Airport in late 2003, the 32-year-old Cameroonian expected to see fighting in the streets just like in a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan film. He was disappointed, but only for a moment.
Tchiegue with his Chinese fans.
"It suddenly struck me that it was only in films and a whole lot of new things here had yet to be explored," he says.
In the coming years, he began to develop an obsession with the Chinese language and art forms, such as xiangsheng (crosstalk), Peking Opera and face changing, while his main purpose here was to pursue a PhD in aeronautics and computer sciences.
Back in Cameroon, he had already mastered 10 languages and held various positions - math teacher, radio broadcaster, television anchorman and United Nation's official among them.
"It's always been easy for me to learn foreign languages. At first I even thought that if I couldn't master Chinese, no other foreigners could," he says with a naughty grin.
However, all his assets seemed to be of little help when he hit the long, hard road of learning Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University.
One of his teachers gave him the name Jie Gai. While the name, similar in pronunciation with his French one, had no specific meaning, he loved it.
"There are too many characters to remember, and they are all square. It always took me a long time to draw a single character."
Different from the basic 26 letters of the English language, every Chinese character was formed with a unique sound and meaning. Tchiegue says sometimes he felt like an "alien" when thinking and speaking in Chinese.
"There are four tones for pronunciation. When I speak, I need to concentrate in order to find the right tone to use. At first I couldn't even say 'ni hao' (hello) correctly."
Fortunately, he had a stick-to-it mentality to get him through one hardship after another. "There are so many people in China. All of them can speak Chinese, so why can't I?"
Tchiegue then seized every opportunity to speak Chinese with his friends and professors. He even sacrificed his sleep and leisure time to practice listening and writing.
His progress was slow but steady. Six months later, the acclaimed Canadian crosstalk performer Mark Rowswell, with his nearly-perfect Chinese, set Tchiegue a new goal.
Tchiegue took it for granted that Rowswell, who is known as Dashan, was born in China. Then his friends told him that he was a native Canadian. That's when he aspired to master the Chinese language and learn to crosstalk, a traditional Chinese art form that required great speech techniques and intelligence, something difficult even for most native speakers.
In 2004, Tchiegue met Dashan's Chinese teacher Ding Guangquan on a China Central Television (CCTV) program. The experienced Chinese crosstalk performer has taken on several foreign apprentices.
"Mr Ding, I'm Tchiegue from Cameroon. I want to learn crosstalk." To finally speak it out in fluent Chinese, Tchiegue had practiced these words for days.
Knowing that Tchiegue had only studied Chinese for six months, Ding was suspicious. "How long have you been in China? Are you really brave enough to learn crosstalk?" he asked.
Though Tchiegue kept appealing to Ding afterwards, his request went unanswered for six months until the two met again during the shooting of another TV program. This time, Ding was moved by his hard-bitten spirit and assigned him a test: to recite ancient texts.
It took Tchiegue four days to finally memorize the text, a task that even his Chinese classmates admitted was difficult.
"When I finished the text as fluently as I could, Ding didn't say a word. Everybody was in suspense. I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm finished. Ding will never take me in.' Then, after a long silence, he said: 'Francis, it was really a success. You are now my disciple.'"
In mid-2005, he officially started to learn crosstalk from Ding with his 130-plus foreign counterparts from more than 70 countries.
Tchiegue revealed he was only able to understand some 20 percent of the script when he first started learning. "I have to record every performance and listen repeatedly to learn it by heart."
From then on, his tough nature also helped him fulfill his other wishes, such as learning Peking Opera and face changing, one of the oldest and most difficult performing techniques originating from Southwest China's Sichuan Opera.
Francis Tchiegue plays Peking Opera.
While he worried that he still had much to learn, his performances never failed to surprise the natives.
However, there were other prices Tchiegue had to pay for settling down in a strange country like China.
He's been cheated by a Beijing taxi driver who drove a long route to earn more money, found it difficult to order food and has struggled to use chopsticks.
"I insist on using chopsticks when having dinner. Every time they would slip out of my hands countless times, my fingers and wrist hurt so much by the time I finished the meal."
Now, while his foreign colleagues still use a knife and fork, he can show off his chopsticks skills.
Four years ago, Tchiegue had a big choice to make in Cameroon - study for another PhD at a prestigious university in China or finish a three-month internship in Australia for a more prosperous career with the United Nations.
"Many of my relatives and friends suggested I continue working for the UN. But I chose China because I was so curious about its culture," he says. "What they said was logical, but I'd rather follow my mind."
Tchiegue recalls when, as a child, his father took him to the cinema to see Chinese martial art films. As time went by, the impressions of this mysterious Oriental country became stronger and stronger in his mind.
During his five-year radio and TV career in his motherland, Tchiegue gradually discovered more about the 5,000-year Chinese civilization and fell in love with it.
Even after completing a PhD in mathematics, Tchiegue longed to study for another doctorate degree, in aeronautics and computer sciences at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
It was also in China where Tchiegue met and married a Russian wife with whom he has a son, named Jie Xinyuan - meaning outstanding, new and the first. "I'm sure that we'll have more children in the future. When the time comes, my children will have many opportunities to explore Chinese culture much deeper than I've done."
(China Daily March 3, 2008)