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The story of OMG! Meiyu, Jessica Beinecke's wildly popular web video series for Chinese who want to learn American slang.

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Jessica Beinecke's "OMG! 美语 (American slang)" / YouTube

That language shapes culture and vice versa seems intuitive and axiomatic. Language and educational exchanges have always been a defining feature of the U.S.-China relationship. Regular people-to-people exchanges, including the State Department's "100,000 Strong" initiative started under President Obama, have been important to the bilateral relationship because of persistent and often serious mutual distrust. The experience of teaching English in China was perhaps most memorably captured in Peter Hessler's book Rivertown. Like Hessler and many Americans since, I too was once an English teacher in China, attempting to dissect the ingenuity of Jay-Z and explicating Hamlet's neurosis to my students. Though I can't say they fully understood the significance of H.O.V.A and To Be or Not to Be (I'm still not sure I do either), I hope they at least learned something about the diversity of America.

Given that experience, I was delighted to discover that, in the age of YouTube and social media, American English lessons have been taken to another level. Meet Jessica Beinecke, a Voice of America journalist who decided that she could leverage all the web 2.0 tools at her disposal to create a show that taught Chinese youth American slang. It's shot with only a webcam and was exclusively on Chinese Youku until recently migrating to YouTube. A profile in the Washington Post describes the show: 

Beinecke's two- to three-minute shows appear online only. She posts on Weibo, a Chinese social media site, where she has more than 100,000 followers. For each episode, she sifts through American lingo, introducing expressions and explaining their meanings in Chinese in her signature peppy, comical style.

"You can look up the word 'cow' in the dictionary, but knowing what that means, knowing that you can call someone that? In a dictionary, it's really hard to find," Beinecke said. The same may be said for "rocking a dress," "sweating bullets" or having a "muffin top," expressions familiar to "OMG!" watchers.

Beinecke's fans, particularly teens and 20-somethings, post adoring messages on Beinecke's page and eagerly await each installment from the woman they know as Bai Jie, the Chinese name given to her by a friend when she began learning Mandarin in 2006. Only later did she learn there is also a Chinese porn novel called "Bai Jie," which means white and pure; she kept her name, regardless. 

Beinecke went viral in China much earlier than in the U.S., having somehow struck a chord with a video about boogers that garnered 1.5 million hits:

She now has posted hundreds of shows -- covering everything from "badakadonk" to "chillax". The solo effort has paid off, winning hundreds of thousands of adoring Chinese fans on Weibo and accumulating nearly 8 million total hits on the shows. 

I caught up with Beinecke recently to chat about her show and her Chinese language training:

How did you come up with the idea of doing the web show?

OMG! Meiyu started as a monthly travel TV show produced for the China branch of VOA. The first travel show we produced focused on U.S. and UK English differences in April 2009, which we shot in London and New York. I hadn't been on television before that, having studied public relations and Chinese at Ohio University. Television was not my goal at all until I found the VOA job on Monster.com.

OMG is an acronym very popular among Chinese and American youth culture. Young Chinese people take it to the next level and say "Oh My Lady Gaga!" So we settled on a name that represents a slang term that both American and Chinese cultures use, and I think we reach a lot more people on a daily basis.

We posted the "Yucky Gunk" episode last August and it went viral.  You certainly can't find a lesson on "sleepies" and "boogers" in a textbook, which I think is why it resonated with our viewers. Although we discussed some gross terms in that episode, like snot, those words are useful in American English. Calling someone a "snot" is sort of like calling someone a snob, but you first need to know what snot means. 

Was VOA immediately supportive of the idea?

Last spring I actually gave a presentation about turning the TV show into a daily online show.  I don't think anyone could have imagined the overwhelmingly positive response we've received. We now have more than 200,000 followers and 7.8 million hits in 6 months. I am so excited to wake up everyday and interact with the cross-cultural community we've developed, and VOA has been extremely supportive.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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