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Expats grapple with Chinese circus arts, wrestling

(Shanghai Daily)

08:40, April 17, 2013

Emma Phillips in the streets of Wuqiao, the small town where she studies acrobats.

Generally, when someone says they want to run away and join the circus, people take it with a pinch of salt. But when 23-year-old Emma Phillips told her parents she wanted to perform in a circus, she was absolutely serious.

So serious, in fact, that New Zealand-born Phillips flew halfway across the world to study at the Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School in a rural town famous for acrobatic schools in Hebei Province.

She arrived there four months ago with only a basic grasp of Chinese and, until the recent arrival of a Finnish man and woman, she was the only foreigner in the area with around 280,000 residents.

"No one speaks English here, so I was pretty much dropped in it," she says. "It's good to learn the hard way. It's starting to be less like me being a three-year-old foreigner. I'm starting to be able to join conversations and talk about random things," Phillips tells Shanghai Daily in a recent Skype interview.

Her 30-year-old coach, Liu Lin, also found communication challenging at the start. "It was a disaster when she started four months ago, we couldn't communicate with each other," she says in a telephone interview with Shanghai Daily. "Now we have developed ways to communicate without language, so it's going well and will get better in the next eight months before she graduates."

In addition to language barriers, the training has been tough. As well as being the only foreigner, she is the only adult - the other 180 students are aged between four and 14.

The students all live at the school, and are from the area.

Liu herself studied at the school from nine years old until she was 15, and since then has taught there. She has also taught other foreigners, most of whom began training when they were older than the rest of the students.

"Because they are older, they learn better in terms of digesting the guidelines, but physically, they are not as good as Chinese kids who started when they were less than 10 years old," the coach says.

Despite this, Liu says the 169cm-tall Phillips, who has a medium build, is doing well and will succeed. "Wuqiao is widely known in the acrobatic field, and our graduates have an advantage when they return to their home country to practice and perform."

To achieve her goals, Phillips practices six days a week for at least eight hours, training in contortion, aerial hoop, spinning small squares of carpet on her hands and feet, and juggling a one-meter-square table - a skill very few Westerners have learned.

I dreamed a dream

"When I tell people I can juggle table, they think I'm nuts," she says, laughing. "It's nice to know that if I train really, really hard I could be in quite a select group."

She is also learning to juggle Chinese umbrellas. "They're stupidly difficult. Whenever I tell Chinese people that I'm training in them, they're like 'Why'?" She picks the skills she wants to learn and discusses with her coach about whether they would be feasible.

She's often bruised and in pain from her intensive training, but the main challenge for Phillips is being so cut off from her friends and family.

"It does get pretty hard. Sometimes I just want to be around people, and I want hugs, and just to be around friends. Skype is really good - I can talk to my family and friends," she says. "This is probably one of the biggest challenges I'll ever go through. It's pretty crazy to be this isolated."

Despite all the challenges, Phillips is committed to her dream of one day performing in a circus company, touring the world with a show that combines circus, theater and dance.

It was a dream that began nine years ago, when her father took her to see the Cirque du Soleil.

"It was the most amazing hour and a half of my life. I didn't breathe or blink, I was just absolutely mesmerized," says the girl from Whangarei, the northernmost city in New Zealand and regional capital of Northland. "After that, I said 'Dad, that's what I'm going to do'."

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