World
8:56 am
Fri December 6, 2013

Milwaukee Man Is Unlikely Reality Show Star - in China

Liam Callanan chats with Mitch Teich about his unique trip to China.

If UW-Milwaukee English professor Liam Callanan assigned a "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay, his students would be hard-pressed to top his own story.

Callanan was called on to judge a reality game show on a Chinese TV network and in the process, elevate the profile of the university in that country. 

The show’s object: find the best English-speaking child in China.  

UWM English Professor Liam Callanan was seen by hundreds of millions of fans of a Chinese game show over the summer as he helped find the top child English speaker in the country.
Credit courtesy Liam Callanan

“It’s kind of a moving experience,” says Callanan. “We saw forty kids and they beat out four million other entrants.  So they were the one percent of one percent of one percent."

For his part, Callanan was about eight percent of the judging panel.  Three Chinese celebrities were the ultimate arbitors, while the dozen members of the international judging panel offered consolation and critique to the contestants who didn't make the cut.

For Callanan, that part was tough.  "I mean, every one of them was a winner," he says.  "And some of them spoke English better than I do.  But when they lost, and some of them would start crying, suddenly it became very much less funny."

Aside from the television notoriety, the stakes are high for the contestants.  "It launches careers in China, once you've won this thing," Callanan says, "and not just [the contestants], but their family, and their teacher - they're all quite, quite large celebrities."

While Callanan's own celebrity is not quite as large in this country - he's the author of two novels and a frequent public radio essayist - the experience has led to some national exposure here.  He writes about it in an essay for a relatively new online literary magazine, called Medium, launched by some of the founders of Twitter.

He's happy it found a home there.  "I like the idea that good stories sometimes take more than 200 words to tell - or, for that matter, 140 characters," he says, "and my story goes on for well more than 140 characters.  But then, I was in China for two weeks."

This interview originally aired on October 30, 2013.