The Canadian government has hired Mark Rowswell – far better known here in China as "Da Shan" – as a "goodwill ambassador to China." Apparently we're leaving him here in exchange for the pandas.
It's unclear right now what Mr. Rowswell's new job really entails – or how much it pays (Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his entourage only landed in Beijing a few minutes ago) – but it's a smart move. Da Shan is likely the best-known foreigner living in China. The lanky 46-year-old (his Chinese name means "Big Mountain") effectively has been a goodwill ambassador for Canada for the two-plus decades he's been here, building up the image of the genial, culturally sensitive Canadian that has frankly been hard for the rest of us to live up to.
Most Chinese I've met love Da Shan, who first shot to fame showing off his mastery of traditional cross-talk comedy (and the Chinese language) on the annual televised lunar New Year's Eve show, a program watched by hundreds of millions of people. He later haunted us via the state-run CCTV channel, where he narrated bizarre little vignettes designed to help foreigners learn Chinese.
His language skills were so impressive that they're remembered 23 years after that first New Year's performance.
Tell a Beijing taxi driver that you're Canadian, and the first thing they'll want to talk about is Norman Bethune. The Gravenhurst, Ont.-born physician treated the wounded Communist troops during the Second Sino-Japanese war, earning him immortalization in a poem penned by Mao Zedong himself that was required memorization for generations of Chinese schoolchildren. "Canada? Bethune. Good," is often the way conversations here begin. (Bo Xilai, the up-and-coming Communist Party boss of Chongqing that Mr. Harper will meet on this trip, can recite Mao's "In Memory of Norman Bethune" from memory.)
The second thing the taxi driver will say to you is that your Chinese, however good or bad, doesn't hold a candle to Da Shan's. I know foreigners who have studied the language for 20 years and still curse Da Shan's name because they have come to realize they'll never be as fluent as Da Shan, at least to the ears of the Chinese they interact with.
"People are sick and tired of hearing the name "Da Shan," Mr. Rowswell himself wrote in a clever online defence of his alter ego. If you've ever been a Canadian in China, it's worth a read. (For the record, I've met Da Shan a couple of times. He's pretty much as nice and self-effacing as he seems. The cabbies are always happy to hear that.)
As Da Shan wrote: "I think Canadians probably wish there was a third topic to discuss, other than Bethune and Dashan."
Yes. Yes, we do. And now you and Mr. Harper have made sure that won't happen for at least a few more years to come.