OMG! New Craze of Learning AmE?

Jessica Beinecke wrote for her fans. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

Joe Keppel, an American teacher at Beijing Jiaotong University, has been puzzled by a question recently — how have some of his students, once the victims of “Chinglish,” become masters of American slang?

During an oral English class, one of his most troublesome students incredibly uttered words like “jiggy,” “muffin top” and “badonkadonk” when talking about the risks of obesity. “Avoid binge, and try not to inhale during your meal,” the student said confidently, “Those are the simple ways to control your weight.”

Though startled at first, Keppel didn’t pay much attention to this change. However, as pearls of the American lingo fell from his student’s lips, it was hard for him to ignore the remarkable progress.

“Finally, I asked whether or not they took some special classes on summer holiday, and it turned out to be a web show,” he said, adding, “Can it be that helpful?”

Keppel is by no means the only one who queries the power of this show. As a matter of fact, nobody will expect a coarse, homemade, and only two-to-three-minute-long web show to assist millions of Chinese students in unlocking the mysteries of American buzz words and expressions while navigating the kaleidoscope of American culture.

Nor will Jessica Beinecke, a 25-year-old Ohio native, a staff member at Voice of America (VOA) and the host of this web show, or “daily webisodes,”to be more accurate.

One of the episodes, “Yucky Gunk,” went viral, garnered more than 2 million hits and became an overnight sensation online. And consequently, she unwittingly shouldered the responsibility of delivering American slang for pop-culture-hungry Chinese fans.

“At the beginning, I thought it might take two years for 2 million hits, but after somebody put it on Renren (a popular social media website, the Chinese version of Facebook), things went crazy,” she said. “Now I really want to have an account there.”

Called “OMG! Meiyu” (in Mandarin “meiyu” means American English), this is a trendy, cross-cultural English teaching feature that mainly targets Chinese students. It was produced by VOA’s Mandarin Service, but was taped and edited by Beinecke herself on an aging MacBook.

For each episode, Beinecke sifts through American lingo, venturing beyond the limit of dictionary definitions and exploring the words, phrases and expressions. Then, in a quirky, comical, and exaggerated style, this energetic blond bounces around her Capitol Hill apartment while introducing them through her fluent Mandarin Chinese.

“I started learning Mandarin Chinese only six years ago. My major used to be music, and I found this language very musical because of its various tones,” she said, “That’s why I love it, it’s beautiful!”

For students who prefer to go online rather than follow a stiff class, OMG is perfect.

Qizhou Gao, 22, a sophomore at Essex County College, is a die-hard fan.

“I have been watching OMG for more than a year, and I think it is absolutely brilliant,” he said, “We are taught the native American English in an interesting way. And by the way, her Chinese is really perfect!”

“The topics she chooses are small but practical,” said Jiaxin Wang, a first-year graduate at Seton Hall University. “Like buying a cup of coffee, you thought you’d know how to order that because it’s too simple. But the truth is that you are always stuck there at Starbucks, not knowing how to express yourself. And that’s what OMG gives us. It focuses on the details of your life.”

As the show has rapidly continued building its online popularity, Beinecke created an account on Weibo (a Twitter equivalent in China), where hundreds of thousands of fans flocked to her page and followed her, checking, commenting and reposting all of her micro-blogs almost every minute.

This becomes an incubator for ideas. Most of the themes, ranging from food and makeup to family and relationship, are user-generated.

“I post ‘what do you want to learn next week’ in Chinese, and they suggest topics all the time. I think we will never run short of ideas,” she said, crediting her followers for their participation and inspiration. “I gather the ideas and pick the most popular, sometimes the easiest one.”

And also an effective platform for interaction, where floods of unbridled affection can be found. As part of the assignment, they are required to embed their comments with slang and fashionable words learned from the show.

After watching the show focused on “Body”, user @gaby_澎 posted: “I know I’d better to not wear my heart on my sleeve, but I’m head over heels for you. I can barely understand English by the skin of my teeth, but I have a good head for learning English. I decide to become one of your fans to make learning easier.” “LOL Very good!!” Beinecke replied.

“I check and repost their comments from day to night every day,” she said. “This is my favorite part of the program. I like to read their comments. They are so funny, so smart, and so passionate!”

Jessica Beinecke reported in front of the Capitol Hill about Chinese police beat foreign journalists covering Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Photo: Youtube.

Renowned as OMG is, suspicion and sensitivity still exist. On Baidu Post (a BBS-like social website), a user named “腐烂的猫(in Mandarin Chinese it means a decayed cat)” warned of the omnipresent infiltration of Western culture by presenting a video of Beinecke covering foreign journalists who reported Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution got beat by Chinese police.

Not everyone is buying it, though. Wave upon wave of criticism and opposition is written by some, calling it like “nonsense” and “omnipresent Wumao,” which refers to the 50 Cent Party, the legion of young Chinese Internet users who paid 50 mao, roughly 7 cents, to post comments on blogs, news articles, bulletin boards, etc., that are pro- the Communist Party, essentially to drown out critical voices).

“Then what about testing English in our National College Entrance Examination, isn’t it infiltration?” Wang said. “I don’t understand why there are always narrow-minded people who make things distorted.”

The producer of the show disagrees.

“We are not giving a bad influence. We don’t create a word,” said Yuyang Ren, Beinecke’s co-worker and a VOA video journalist. “The topics are not chosen by us. They’re by the audience. We just let them learn the words they want,” she said.

From Beinecke’s perspective, OMG is just “a platform for us to find common things.”

“I don’t think it is culture infiltration, that’s not what I want when I made this show,” said she. “Sure we have different cultures, but the more we communicate, the more we will know each other and find the similarity between the two cultures.”

Most Chinese students said they feel the same way. As Gao said, “Learning English can be a good way to help people get closer with each other, especially for people from different countries, and different cultures. This show teaches us English through culture. At the same time, we learn culture through English.”

And that’s why Beinecke created this show.

“I’m very glad that I can help young Chinese with their English,” she said. “I had great experience … learning Chinese, both at home and in China, and I hope they do as well. I can see their energy and eagerness, and I’m inspired and moved by them. For those who study English abroad or in China, it’s time for me to offer that back.”

But what she really hopes is that the craze of learning English remains for long, rather than fades and disappears quickly.

“The good way of learning English is to practice it every day and make it a habit, and of course, watching OMG every day,” she said.

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Mid-Autumn Festival: A New Way to Celebrate for Chinese Students in Washington

For Chinese people, the full moon resembles reunion. Jmtimages’ photo via Getty Images, searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important festivities in China, dating back more than 2,000 years. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the 15th day of the eighth month is the exact midpoint of autumn, and the moon appears to be at its roundest and brightest, a symbol of family reunion. On that night, families in China usually gather together to eat moon cakes and appreciate the full moon.

But for Sheng Fei Yang, a Chinese student at American University who just came to the States in August, this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a little bit different. Not only because it’s the first time that she spent it without her parents, but because of an exceptional experience she had on that night.

George Washington University Chinese Culture Association and American University Chinese Students and Scholars Association this year co-organized a special dating game to help the single Chinese students in Washington get socialized and make friends.

“This kind of dating show is very popular in China. So I hope such an activity will attract a lot of Chinese students to attend,” said Chuan Ping, the president of AU’s association.

And he succeeded.

Hundreds of Chinese students from AU and GWU, as well as from Georgetown University, came to Betts Theater at GWU to enjoy this non-traditional celebration on Sept. 30.

Twelve single women from AU, GWU, and Georgetown U are waiting for the first male participant. Photo: GWU Chinese Culture Association.

Called “If You Are the One,” this dating game originates from a Chinese TV dating show with the same name. A pool of 12 single women watch each of the six male participants’ video about their lives and histories and asks questions about them. If interested, the young women can press a flashlight to determine which guy will stay on the stage and continue to be tested. In return, the six men will secretly choose their favorite woman before the game starts. Those who survive the trial in the end may have the chance to date her if she says yes to him.

As one of the 12, Yang dressed up and sat on the stage along with other female participants. With the flashlight on and off in hand, Yang examined each of the six bachelors, sometimes laughing at the jokes they made, sometimes applauding for the remarks they lobbied. Though the night only saw two “potential couples”, yet everyone was amused and enjoyed.

“I think the event is very interesting,” Yang said. “Though I didn’t find my ideal person, I made many friends. Also I think it’s a special experience in my life.”

Todd Morrill, a junior at GWU, was the only American participant of the game. He was also one of the two lucky guys who found his dream lady. Morrill said he never expected that.

Todd Morrill is introducing himself. Photo: GWU Chinese Culture Association.

 

“I guess I didn’t go there with high expectations. I wanted to go have fun… kind of connect to the Chinese community,” he said,  “But walking away with a girl was definitely a nice plus. It’s a lot of fun.”

Morrill has been learning Chinese for years and joined several Chinese culture activities. He thinks culture plays an important role in language learning.

“Chinese language is very different from American English. Every word has its history. Learning Chinese is more about the language itself, but the culture behind it. Like today’s dating game, though I didn’t completely understand what they say, I put myself into the context and tried my best to learn,” he said.

Seeing the dating show a success, Ping envisioned more events alike.

“Actually it’s our ambition to combine the three universities to provide a better service for Chinese students here in Washington,” he said.  “So this is just the first step, and we will have more activities to achieve our goal in the future.”

Chinese Students Flock to Studying in the US

For each summer and winter, the price of flying from China to the United States soars. Tens of thousands of young Chinese in ponytails or sneakers eagerly head to their dream factories — American colleges — with bulged backpacks hiked up on shoulders and heavy suitcases rolling behind. After a more than a 13-hour journey, they present customs officers with neatly arranged sheets and pamphlets showing their destination to the exotic land: New York University, Boston University, the University of Florida, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, among others.

In the past decade, China has witnessed an explosion in the number of students studying abroad. The Institute of International Education (IIE)’s annual report says the number of Chinese students studying in the United States surged 23.5 percent in the 2010-11 academic years. China has been the top country of origin of international students since 2009.

Undergraduate students are the major force driving the growth.  By the 2010-’11 academic year, the number saw a 43 percent rise, with a total of 56,976 students comprising one-third of all Chinese students living in the United States.

Jawee Perla, senior advisor of International Student and Scholar Services at American University, said Chinese students now account for 12 percent of the international student group, at the largest at American University. Though the number of undergraduate students is still less than that of the graduates, its rapid rise cannot be overstated.

“There are 43 Chinese undergraduates in 2011, but this year the number is 52,” he said. “We see a large number studying in a range of disciplines in Kogod School of Business, Washington College of Law and School of Communications, etc. ”

For Chinese graduate students, the numbers of applications also continued to increase dramatically in 2012. Applications from prospective students increased 18 percent in 2012 following a fluctuation of 21 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2010. This is China’s seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth, according to the survey from Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

Unlike domestic students, international students, especially those at undergraduate level, have little, if any, financial aid. That means they pay almost 100 percent of tuition and fees.

“It is a large amount of money,” Perla said, “For undergraduates at AU, they have to pay $38,982 for one academic year, but that only covers the tuition. The actual cost includes mandatory fees, rooms, health insurance, etc. All of that together is about $57,000.”

With so much money to pay, Chinese parents are still willing to send their only child to the States. Perla said there are several reasons.

“With the expanding Chinese economy, the increased prestige of foreign education, and with certain economic factors, such as China’s one-child policy … it (is) possible for families to support fewer students for higher education, spend more money and pour more resources to their only child to study overseas,” Perla said.

The flood of Chinese students studying in America is also a new manifestation of Confucianism, which emphasizes education. Even before middle school, children from middle-class families begin to pay close attention to the information of meiguo liuxue — studying in the USA. They devote hours every day after classes preparing for American standardized exams from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). With the support of education programs and test trainings, they often score in the top quartile of those exams.

Eric Kuang, a first-year public relations graduate student at the University of Florida, has been in the States for only two months. Recalling those days of preparation for tests, he describes them as “a pleasant misery.”

“Compared with TOEFL, I think (the) GRE is a more difficult task for me. Memorizing thousands of words is very hard, and I usually devote three to five hours to that. But studying with some of my best friends made it less hard. We encourage and help each other to overcome the difficulties,” Kuang said. “So even if I’m not satisfied with my final scores, I still think it was a good journey to me.”

Kuang said he enjoys his new life.

“It is a totally different experience compared to my previous life in China” he said. “But there’s still far to go to completely adapt to this environment.”