Rebecca Williams, 42, has always been a mimic. When she was very young, she would unconsciously imitate other people's accents, not to make fun of them, but more out of habit.
"So my accent has always been very fluid, depending on who I'm talking to," she told Beijing Review. She never expected this habit to land her a dubbing job in China decades later.
At 18, Williams was an exchange student at the University of the Nations in Hawaii, the U.S. Like most new adults, she was pondering what to do with her life.
Then, a group of exchange students from China visited the school. "They were sharing about China—just everyday stuff. As they were talking, something inside me just clicked, something got lit on fire," she said. In that very moment, she realized her future would lie in China.
Rebecca Williams (second left), an Australian dubbing actress based in Beijing, poses with other members of her band on December 31, 2021 (ZHANG WEI)
'Another ethnic minority'
In 1999, Williams started studying Chinese at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Later she went to Kunming, capital city of Yunnan Province, in 2002. Her first job was teaching spoken English at Kunming University.
Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse province in all of China. In the early 2000s, foreigners were still a rare sight in the region. Williams and her red hair turned many heads.
When her parents came to visit her in 2002, a curious crowd surrounded them every time they would walk down the street.
Williams loved to talk to locals and turned a blind eye to their gaze. "I was never embarrassed, but it was a very new thing because in Australia I'm just one of the crowd," she said. In Kumming, she stood out and was treated as "another ethnic minority."
"Local residents were very warm and welcoming. There was no distance, no sense of isolation. They would just welcome you with open arms," she said.
During her five years in Kunming, she constantly tried out new things. After teaching for two years, Williams worked as a freelance translator and joined a rock band. Some of her band members decided to enter a singing competition in Kunming at the beginning of 2006.
Following the event, Williams started getting invitations to do more guest appearances on a variety of shows, including Beijing Television's Arts From Our Land. "That show had foreigners performing Chinese arts," she explained.
After shuttling between north and south China for a while, Williams made the decision to move up north, to Beijing, in 2007.
Over the first couple of years, she was basically singing and performing. Most of the time, she'd be playing gigs at restaurants and on TV for free.
"Truth be told, I didn't, and don't, make a lot of money singing because you have to reach a certain level of fame to be able to earn real money," Williams told Beijing Review.
"But even so, I still find it's enough for me. I'm not a very ambitious person," she said. "And we don't have the tradition of sending money home to the family."
The dub connection
Williams got into dubbing when she met a couple who owned one of Beijing's earliest established dubbing studios. They came to the restaurant and heard Williams sing. At the time, they were looking for more English voice talents.
The wife, Guo Lin, believed that Williams had a good voice for dubbing and invited her to record a demo. Fortunately, Williams' voice was to the clients' liking. "And just like that, I started doing dubbing work," she said.
Williams first dubbed for children's English teaching materials. She usually dubs as a little kid or a little animal. "I try to experiment with different voices and then figure out how to maintain that voice throughout the whole recording," she explained.
As for TV shows and movies, dubbing actors would all come and read through the script together. When the epidemic broke out, many foreigners were back home. Williams was one of very few voice actors from overseas staying in China. "The past two years have brought me a lot more work," she told Beijing Review. At this point, she has dubbed for nearly 100 digital English teaching films, TV shows and movies.
"I learn a lot when I'm recording stuff," Williams said. Her favorite dubbed TV drama was the family drama A Little Reunion, in which she dubbed for the mom in the protagonist family. "It was heartwarming to see how they dealt with things as a family," she said.
Williams cooperates with several studios, including StarTimes. The latter, a joint endeavor between China and Africa, has a TV network in more than 30 African countries. Most of the TV shows she has dubbed for are broadcast in Africa.
"I think it's a really great way to bridge cultures, to allow people overseas to watch some of the dramas that Chinese people watch, and gain a better understanding of Chinese life, but in a language they can understand," Williams said.
A second home
The dubbing pro has lived in China for two decades. Though she used to visit Australia once every two years, she still missed out on many big moments in her family.
Luckily, there's no time difference between her hometown of Esperance and Beijing. And thanks to advanced mobile networks, she can just pick up her phone, and video chat with her family whenever they feel like it. "That relieves a lot of the homesickness or sadness from missing out on things," Williams said. "I can pick up my phone and do almost anything."
Meanwhile, she has become more and more at home in China. She regards China's high-speed rail as the thing that has totally changed her life. She joined a band called The Coming Rainbow in Beijing and sometimes they perform in other cities. "I love the high-speed rail. I don't fly anymore if I don't have to," she said.
"My favorite part about China... The people," she said. When she is available, she loves to hang out with friends, singing or watching movies and TV dramas. She also loves visiting friends who have young children.
One day, she'd love to have her own family in China. "I would like to find a husband and settle down in China," Williams said, adding that she would like someone who shares her faith, who wants to stay in China and who isn't tone-deaf.
Though she hasn't found her Mr. Right just yet, she and her mother do regard China as her home.
"When will Rebecca come home?" mom's friends often ask.
"Rebecca is home; China is her home," she always replies.
(Print Edition Title: The Vocal Bridge)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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