The American walks down the street and is approached by star-struck teenagers chasing his autograph. The 1.9-m tall man stoops down to please his fans who are familiar with his blonde hair and green eyes from Chinese TV.
Nabil Huening is a 34-year-old Chinese-speaking actor, songwriter, singer and old China hand. At 17 he left Chicago after graduating from college to further his study in Asian culture and literature at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where he fell in love with a Korean classmate who is now the mother of his three children.
Today, the multi-talented Huening has performed across China, regularly playing lead roles in CCTV dramas and sitcoms.
He advises beginner language-learners to approach perfect strangers and ask the same question, such as "Where is the subway station?"
"Practice it several times if you are afraid of making mistakes. Ask 10 people on the street, which will help you practice listening as well because they will give you different answers as you walk," says Huening.
Many people refer to Huening as the second Da Shan, the popular Canadian TV personality Mark Rowswell, who is arguably the most well-known foreigner in China. However, Huening is uncomfortable with this comparison. He even wrote a song I am not Da Shan, which he sang in front of Da Shan on stage at a Spring Festival show on Beijing TV.
His most recent project is the completion of his first music album, The Tree of Life, a collection of 12 songs, in both English and Mandarin, which has found its way on iTunes and M-Zone and is currently being promoted across China.
His latest TV show is called Yan Hua Liao Luan (Dazzling), a CCTV prime night drama, in which he plays a Swedish traveler who decides to stay and work in Beijing.
"Before, people loved watching these shows because they saw foreigners speaking Chinese," says Huening, "But now audiences expect more than a laugh out of some silly antics by foreigners. They care about the story."
While some people still believe foreigners can easily become famous in China, Huening begs to differ. "Speaking Chinese is the reason I have had most of my opportunities, but if you don't use the opportunities well, you will fail," he says. "Language is like the seed of a tree, it won't survive unless you keep watering it."
Speaking of the secret of his success in both his career and in learning Chinese, the Caucasian uses a Chinese idiom ru xiang sui su, which means to follow local customs in a new place.
"Eat what the Chinese eat and do what the Chinese do," he says.