It has been a long time since I have talked to him, but I still clearly recall going to school with Mark Rowswell. In China he is much more commonly known as “Da Shan”, or Big Mountain. Mark is not only Canadian, like myself, but also comes from Toronto, my home town.
I met Mark while attending classes at Beijing University. As fellow Canadians in a place with many more Americans and other foreigners, we, of course, got to know each other. It turns out that his parents lived near lived near my parents, in the quiet suburb of North York, around Don Mills and Finch.
It was clear very early that Mark was gifted at learning Mandarin. Apart from his BA in languages from the University of Toronto, he spent the time to hang out on the streets of Beijing, near our university, to talk to the locals. Over time he had picked up some pretty guttural Beijing Hua. He could switch it on and back to standard Mandarin like a light switch, which was amazing.
While Mark had inspired me to run to the Beijing Foreign Language Institute in order to purchase a Beijing Hua dictionary, colloquial Beijing Hua never stuck with me. I still speak with a very standard Dongbei accent, albeit with an unconscious trailing ‘r’ on many words. The Dongbei people I meet find it odd.
One thing about Mark was his dedication to studying Mandarin. He took classes in the Zhongwen Xi with other native Chinese students. He studied hard to keep up. There were few students that studied harder than Mark.
One night a group of us were chatting in our dorm when Mark came by. He told us about his idea of learning Xiangsheng from a famous Xiangsheng master. Which Xiangsheng master would spend the time to teach a student, much less a foreign student? He told us he had, with the help of friends, already found a Xiangsheng master, and that he was taking classes. The goal was to practice for the New Year’s Festival.
He told us about his Xiangsheng costume. He went to his room get it. He returned dressed in a long dark green silk dress, the ones seen in old Chinese movies. His sleeves were large at the openings. The quality of the material was excellent. Mark told us that such costumes were difficult to find in Beijing and were expensive. As Xiangsheng newbies at the time we had a good laugh at his costume and wished him very well.
A recent news article stated that Mark had just become a new Canadian cultural ambassador to China. I would counter that Mark has been Canada’s cultural ambassador to China for a good twenty years. He is a truly nice guy, fun to be around and quite normal by any measure. Yet his Mandarin stands head and shoulders over any other foreigner I have heard, including myself.
Mark’s curiosity and dedication to China is unquestionable. While we were evacuated to HK during the Tiananmen incident, Mark went just a little south of Beijing and stayed with locals. When I returned to China in August, Mark was nonplussed: He had never left China. There was no risk to foreigners, he said, and he was correct.
When I returned to China in 2008 I turned on the TV to find Mark teaching Chinese the English words for officiating soccer. I saw his face on shopping bags and on billboards. It was interesting to see Mark’s face 15′ high. I also saw Mark lead the Canadian Olympic team for the opening games in Beijing. Was that not part of his ambassador role?
As a Chinese Canadian I will never stick out like a white foreigner in China. In China Mark Rowswell attempts the impossible: To be a native Chinese in China and he does a good job of it.