Student runs away to join the circus

By Hannah Norton of the Northern Advocate -
Emma Phillips during a performance. Photo / File
Emma Phillips during a performance. Photo / File

Kiwi Emma Phillips, 22, has well and truly run away with the circus.

Over oceans in fact - the former Whangarei Girls' High student is now based in the small rural Chinese town Wuqiao - which was the birthplace of Chinese acrobatics over 2000 years ago.

Ms Phillips is training 8.5 hours a day, six days a week at the Wuqiao Acrobatics School in the Hebei Province of China, with her specialties being juggling Chinese parasols, spinning carpets, contortion combined with carpet spinning and aerial hoop.

"Not only am I the only international student alongside 180 Chinese children, but I am also the only foreigner in the whole county which is over 280,000 people," she said.

"My only interaction in English is speaking to my friends and family on Skype. As I am the only international student at the school they are unable to provide me with a Chinese language teacher so my only option is to teach myself Mandarin from books and computer programmes."

But this is no hurdle in her attaining what became her life dream as a teenager.

"I saw Cirque Du Soleil with my dad when I was about 15 and was captivated by it, the skill, the artistry, the music."

After going to circus school in Christchurch she has been at Wuqiao for the past two months, and before that spent six months training at the Beijing International Arts school - home of the world renowned China Acrobatic Troupe. She said life in China couldn't be more different from life in New Zealand.

"As I am now living in rural China it is now more of an authentic Chinese experience compared to living in Beijing. At least when I was in Beijing I would do my own cooking and we would eat out at foreign restaurants often enough that we didn't get too sick of Chinese food. But now I am eating with the kids in a school canteen environment where they get served up chickens feet, cartilage, gristle and some foul looking fish on a daily basis."

And as the only foreigner in a small town she has become "sort of freak show whenever I'm out in public", she said.

"Cars stop, kids look terrified by the very sight of me and people will yell out to their friends to 'come check out the foreigner'."

Although when she explains what she is doing in Wuqiao she is readily accepted.

"Acrobatics as a profession here is as common as doing a building or electrical apprenticeship back in Northland."

However, she definitely goes through stages of missing home.

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