The story of OMG! Meiyu, Jessica Beinecke's wildly popular web video series for Chinese who want to learn American slang.
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.
How much does the video personality resemble your off-screen personality? Did you intentionally adopt this "bubbly" personality because you were trying to reach a young Chinese audience?
First of all, I took an entire year of acting classes at the Studio Theater in D.C. last year because, after shooting the D.C. travel show for VOA, I realized I didn't know how to act! Those classes really helped me open up my emotions and develop confidence in front of the camera.
But I am also a naturally bubbly person. I guess I take after my father, who's the funniest and most encouraging person in my life. Being an eternal optimist, he would always say "Jessi, if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." He was the one who initially supported me when I started studying Chinese, and said it was the best investment he's ever made.
I'd say my default disposition is lively. But subconsciously, my Chinese was very influenced by living with female Chinese roommates in China. We spent so much time talking and giggling together, and I think their lighthearted silliness sort of comes out in my Chinese on the show. Also, I think it's very important to be authentic. I would never put any slang terms or idioms in the show that I wouldn't say to my friends. I think it's important to be as genuine as possible because our young Chinese viewers are coming to me everyday to learn authentic American slang.
I think social media presents a unique opportunity to let followers create the content. Every week I ask our followers on Weibo which words they want to learn, and I get hundreds of responses. So each episode is based on user-generated content, which is the core of this cross-cultural learning platform.
Have your videos received a lot of attention in China?
Yes, we have a very active fan club in Beijing. They threw an OMG! Meiyu party in December when I was in Beijing, and I got to meet hundreds of fans.
How much Chinese language training have you had?
I have the equivalent of about the fourth year Chinese language level. I reached fluency in 1.5 years, thanks to Middlebury College's Chinese language programs. I admit I wasn't the best student in class. I've always wanted to learn just enough to connect with people, make friends and learn more about the culture. I don't know every "chengyu" [Chinese idiom] and I can't recite ancient Chinese poetry. But I am really proud of the way we're connecting two cultures and starting conversations about language learning every day.
Being based in DC, how do you keep up your Chinese, other than doing the videos?
Shooting and posting the daily videos is only the first step in interacting with our followers. I "re-Tweet" their comments 24/7 to keep the daily conversations flowing, and that is always conducted in Chinese and English. Also, 95% of my coworkers are from Mainland China or Taiwan. My interaction with them keeps me fresh.
What advice would you give to US high school and college students who are studying, and perhaps struggling with, Chinese?
1) Watch OMG! Meiyu.
2) Learn the characters. Write them individually and in sentence form over and over. Muscle memory sticks!
3) You don't need to go to Middlebury or study abroad. You can start very cheap on your own by finding a language partner. I think an informal language exchange is so much more fun to have with peers. It takes a lot of motivation and drive to commit to a weekly meeting, but it's worth it.
4) Listen to as much Chinese-language music as possible. I love singing and dancing, so it barely feels like studying when you're having a great time.
What has been the hardest American slang to translate into Chinese?
Translating slang can be difficult because sometimes a direct translation doesn't exist. I mean, what's the Chinese equivalent of "badonkadonk" or "jiggly!?" Our followers love those fun words, and I provide a Chinese explanation for the American slang terms.
I also share my daily routine on a regular basis, which includes an ice-cold fruit smoothie every morning. Our followers were quick to comment and warn me of the impending health risks one faces when drinking cold beverages in the morning [this reaction is familiar to anyone who has spent enough time in China]. I love starting discussions about these US-China cultural differences because we have so much fun comparing and contrasting our day-to-day lives.
This is how soft power is done, by individuals trying and doing, unencumbered. These efforts add up and they are powerful.