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!”
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.