‘OMG Meiyu,’ a breakout hit Web show, schools Chinese in American slang

September 14, 2011

Ayoung Chinese woman wanted to know: What is the English word for that gunky yellowish stuff in the corner of her eyes when she wakes up in the morning?

She turned to Jessica Beinecke, the 24-year-old host of an online travel video program aimed at young Chinese viewers, and Beinecke responded with a humorous segment for her show, explaining in fluent Mandarin and exaggerated gestures all the icky stuff that comes from the face.

The segment, called “Yucky Gunk,” went viral, garnering nearly 1.5 million hits. And all of a sudden a petite blond Midwesterner, who is not Chinese and only began studying the language five years ago, became an iconic translator of American slang for pop-culture-hungry Chinese fans.

“We are so lighthearted. I dance to Lady Gaga and . . . talk about boogers,” Beinecke said of the low-tech show, taped in front of a MacBook in her Capitol Hill apartment. “It’s a one-on-one conversation with an American.”

The popularity of the show, called “OMG! Meiyu” and produced by Voice of America, has not escaped the notice of the agency’s executives, who recognize that hip and eccentric programming is vital to connecting with youths, many of whom prefer to go online than follow the stiffer, more traditional news and cultural programs the agency transmits through satellite TV and short-wave radio.

“We still do the straight-up news, and we’re going to keep doing that,” said David Ensor, the agency’s director. “But part of our mandate is to explain America to the rest of the world, and part of America is the way people speak.”

More youth-oriented programming is in the works, Ensor said, and so far the ideas have come from young people within the organization. For example, Parazit, an irreverent weekly comedy news show in Farsi, which has been likened to Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” was started in 2009 by two young Iranian employees and quickly became a hit in Iran.

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.

Most of the show’s themes come from viewer suggestions. “These videos serve as a spark for dialogue,” Beinecke said. “Working out and breaking up and eating chips, we all do that. Sometimes we don’t always realize how similar we are.”

After a show featuring the word “sick” — “sick as a dog,” “sick and tired,” “call in sick,” one viewer wrote, “Woooow, I feel not good, coz I’m extremely missing my girlfriend . . . How to describe this? Missing sick?”

“You’re ‘lovesick’!” Beinecke responded.

They also correct her Chinese. “They say, ‘Bai Jie, you said that wrong,’ and I go, ‘Oops, my bad,’ and they learn how to say ‘my bad.’

English teachers in China tell her they present “OMG!” to students. Chinanews.com, an online news site, has reported that “huge chat rooms” have opened to discuss “OMG!,” with many viewers re-posting the videos on other Chinese sites. Although the Chinese government tries to block VOA’s more serious Chinese-language news shows, it tolerates their English-teaching programs.

Fans seem delighted to hear fluent Mandarin from such an unlikely looking source. It’s key to her appeal, said Yuyang Ren, 23, a Chinese native who produces the show. “She looks like just what Chinese people think Americans look like,” Ren said.

Beinecke, an Ohio native, studied Mandarin at Ohio University and Middlebury College and in China. After college, she found a job at Voice of America through Monster.com. After three days of doing translation and research for the agency, she was asked if she wanted to try television.

The result was a travel show, broadcast monthly, in which Beinecke shoots in places such as New York and Las Vegas and talks about them mostly in Mandarin. But, eager to do something more frequent and interactive, she developed “OMG!,” which began running in July.

Each show has a theme — relationships, fashion, showering, colors — for which Beinecke finds American expressions that don’t appear in most English-teaching curricula. In Chinese, subtle variations in tone can result in different meanings of words. But as Beinecke points out, the English spoken by American youth has its own nuances.

When texting, she cautions, don’t confuse BFF (best friend forever) with BF (boyfriend). Using “BTdubs,” however, is the same thing as saying “BTW,” which stands for “by the way.”

Beinecke said she hopes her “online friends” will learn that life in America is not how it appears in the movies. “This is not ‘Jailbreak.’ This is not ‘Gossip Girl,’ ” she said. “We all like to hang out, get a bowl of noodle soup and talk to our friends, and this will show that there’s a few English phrases to use while you do that.”

Last week, she ran into a fan, Jiawei Wang, 21, a recent immigrant from China who was working in a Taiwanese bubble tea shop in Rockville, where Beinecke was filming her travel show. A marketing student at Montgomery College, Wang moved to Maryland two years ago but engages online in a Chinese chat room, where participants discuss what they learned on “OMG!.”

“American language is quite different from what we learn” in college, he said in heavily accented English. “We learn how to write papers about marketing. She teaches us how the young guys talk. Yeah, she’s cool.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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