BEIJING (AFP) — Mark Rowswell, Team Canada's cultural attache, is virtually unknown outside China, but a mastery of Mandarin street talk has made him China's best-known foreigner and a valuable asset for his native country.
Under his Chinese name, "Dashan", which means big mountain, the 186-centimetre (six-foot-two-inch) Rowswell has been part of Olympic events including the launch of the "One World, One Dream" slogan, unveiling mascots and running a leg of the torch relay.
At one point during the Olympic opening ceremony, Chinese television cameras panned past the parading athletes to zero in on a tall, bespectacled Canadian drawing huge cheers.
He has also helped bridge both sides of the linguistic divide by hosting China Central Television's "Olympics English" -- popular with Chinese cabbies -- and "Sports Chinese" for expats eager to bond over sports.
"This to me is the ultimate event where East and West are coming together for three weeks," he told AFP in an interview. "It's natural I would want to be in the middle of it."
In a country where accepted wisdom is that outsiders can never be fully accepted, Dashan occupies a unique place as someone reputed to be more Chinese than the Chinese -- and his popularity is extraordinary.
Walking through restricted areas around the Olympic Green toward the Bird's Nest, Rowswell was constantly greeted with "Hello Dashan!" and requests for photos from volunteers, mail men and Chinese journalists.
"These are all people I've never met in my life but they treat me like I'm an old friend," said the 43-year-old, who is married to a Beijing woman and has two young children.
Rowswell still rides the subway in Beijing, where his family lives for half the year, while spending the rest of their time on a farm north of Toronto.
He has witnessed massive changes in the two decades since he first appeared on television months before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
He said that China had now become so cosmopolitan, he probably would not be able to launch his career in 2008 as the novelty of a foreigner speaking Chinese had long worn off.
His unlikely rise began with a chance encounter two months after arriving at Beijing University in 1988.
A television producer was looking for a Chinese-speaking foreigner to co-host a show featuring European and Chinese singers performing Chinese songs.
Rowswell had a slight edge over most of his fellow students because he had been studying Chinese for four years in Toronto, but he still spoke with a heavy accent on the programme.
But it was enough to earn an invitation to play a character called Dashan in a New Year's special comedy sketch.
The sketch was a highlight of the show seen by more than 550 million people nationwide.
They brought him back the following year, but this time he appeared alongside a top comedian performing "xiangsheng", a tricky traditional form of comedy combining rapid-fire banter, tongue twisters and double meanings.
It did not come easily, but after much practice and coaching he pulled it off, he said.
"That's the one that really blew people's minds because here's this guy we remember from last year and all of a sudden his accent is gone and he's doing this art form," Rowswell said.
Rowswell performed similar routines for more than a decade but for the past eight years has branched out into other work. During the Olympics, he is appearing mostly on Beijing television as a commentator.
As the torch relay ran through Beijing before the start of the Games, he was asked to speak on a live broadcast -- circumstances he believes were only permitted because producers did not consider him a foreign guest.
At these times, he said his role was to be polite and honest. He was asked to explain the protests overseas during the relay.
"It's a lot like the Americans that way," Rowswell said. "Americans go overseas and they see the way people see them is very different from the way Americans see themselves. It's the same thing with the Chinese."
His role with the Canadian team has involved similarly trying to close gaps in understanding between Canadian and Chinese officials.
Navigating China life is difficult, he said, adding he empathises with all foreigners who make an effort to speak Chinese and inevitably get compared to a certain entertainer.
"You get into a taxi and you ask to go to your destination in Chinese," he said. "The comparison is always your Chinese is very good, almost as good as Dashan, or not quite as good as Dashan. I actually get it myself."
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