Teaching American slang on the Chinese Internet

December 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

OMG Meiyu

A star is born. It happened virally and unexpectedly in a part of the Internet that is off the regular English speaking end of the web. A young American internet broadcaster has become a surprise hit on the Chinese Internet by teaching American slang to young Chinese.

Jessica Beinecke is a young employee of Voice of America, the US Federal Government broadcaster. She is also the presenter of OMG Meiyu, a daily Internet show that introduces Chinese netizens to American colloquialisms such as muffin top, booger, freezing one’s butt, okey dokey and freaking out, among others.

The OMG Meiyu formula; introduce some inoffensive slang terms, sprinkle with some Lady Gaga or the Black Eyed Peas, take aim at young Chinese internet users and hope for the best which is exactly what happened when one episode called ‘Yucky Gunk’ went viral, turning Jessica Beinecke into a rising star on the Chinese Internet.

Beinecke says Yucky Gunk, about the crusty or sticky sleep in the corner of your eyes and the boogers from your nose, was ‘user-generated’. It had been suggested as a topic by one of the Chinese viewers who chat with her on the Chinese micro-blogging platform, Weibo, where she has over 100,000 followers, or who email the programme.

Here is Yucky Gunk on Youku which is China’s equivalent to YouTube. The number of views is on the top right hand corner – 1,525,878 by my last count.

Here it is on YouTube.

This might not sound like much in the context of the Chinese Internet with its 400 million plus internet users. But it is enough to see why the 24-year-old from Ohio who has been learning Mandarin for five years and speaks it fluently has a growing Chinese fan base and received more than a few long distance marriage proposals.

Here is a look at the OMG Meiyu profile on China’s Weibo micro-blogging service.

My Chinese friends say Beinecke’s Mandarin is ‘awesome’ and that she relates well to young Chinese who are learning English and who are curious about the United States. The subject matter is also not typical of any English language textbook which makes it more appealing and memorable to learners.

“But it’s really intimidating, the thing has gone viral. It took weeks for the show to get to a million total hits, then one week later, we’ve passed two million. Now I have to find ways to keep it fun,” she told The Washington Post recently.

Meanwhile, her employers at the Voice of America must be overjoyed. As a government broadcaster – which is an organisation with a very different mission to a public broadcaster – VOA is a projection of America’s soft power to the rest of the world, particularly towards China, a country that is a key strategic competitor and rising superpower.

Soft power is the term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to describe how a country can project and amplify its cultural influence to generate offshore goodwill towards it. It is all about the power of attraction while hard power is about using methods that compel other nations to bend to your will, usually by threat of force or economic bullying. Hard power and soft power are complementary sides of any foreign policy equation. One is coercion while the other is seduction.

New Zealand has a small military which rarely gets used aggressively, with the current exception of a small unit of SAS soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. But the enforcement by the New Zealand government of travel sanctions on Fiji’s military is an example of our country’s use of a hard power tactic.

On the other hand, our soft power is seen in aid and development programmes, sports diplomacy, peacekeeping missions and Radio New Zealand International shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific.

China, like the United States, has a powerful military and formidable economic clout but it too employs soft power to project its culture, language and its own historical perspective towards the rest of the world. China’s aid programme in the developing world, especially in Africa, and the increased resourcing of its state run media outlets (CCTV, China Radio International and Xinhua) are examples of the country’s global charm offensive.

Confucius Institutes are also springing up to teach Chinese culture and language to foreigners and are the same manifestation of soft power as the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, Japan Information and Culture Centres and others that work to showcase their respective countries’ cultures abroad. There are now Confucius Institutes in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and they support the teaching of Chinese language and facilitate cultural exchanges.

As you can see, there are many ways of projecting soft power. But it is significant that the digital era is consigning one of the workhorses of soft power into obsolescence. Shortwave radio broadcasts have been used since the 1920s to deliver news and information to ideologically different regimes so that those populations had an alternative source of information. Now all of that is changing.

The Internet is the new highway to the hearts and minds of people in countries where information may not flow as freely. It has become the new channel for projecting soft power as is hinted at in this article about the phasing out of traditional radio and television broadcasts at VOA.

In the meantime, the bubbly host of OMG Meiyu continues to record her short VOA programmes on her Apple computer in her Washington home that are then posted five times a week on popular Chinese websites like Youku and Weibo.

Her unconventional language and preppy style are helping make thousands of young Chinese feel warmer about America and make her a highly effective cultural ambassador and torch bearer of Sino-US relations.

“Working out and breaking up and eating chips, we all do that. Sometimes we don’t always realise how similar we are.” Jessica Beinecke, you are a soft power star.

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§ 2 Responses to Teaching American slang on the Chinese Internet

  • Renee says:

    The Confucious Institute nearest where I live seems to focus mainly on teaching young people Chinese. Doesn’t seem to be much available for an adult like me learning the language (that fits my limited budget anyway).

    Thanks for this interesting article. xie xie

    Shared this with a couple Chinese friends who are trying to learn English.

  • Charles Mabbett says:

    Thanks for sharing the link, Renee. Where are you based? You could always try Chinesepod, an online Chinese teaching service out of Shanghai. It is what I use and it costs a bit to be a subscriber. However, nothing is quite as effective as having regular conversations and lessons with a native speaker.

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