From 'JK' To 'Eye Gunk': Taking U.S. Slang To China
One of the most well-known American women in China is someone many Americans have never heard of. Jessica Beinecke is host of Voice of America's OMG! Meiyu, an English-language learning Web show that teaches American slang expressions to Chinese students.
Beinecke's fun, offbeat videos have racked up more than 15 million views over the past year — on YouTube and other Chinese social media sites.
"American English slang can be pretty ... funny at times," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But sometimes it's fun to see how we can juxtapose American culture and Chinese culture to help everyone understand it a little bit easier."
Each week, Beinecke asks followers on Weibo — the Chinese version of Twitter — what words or expressions they would like to learn. She gets hundreds of responses each time, leading to her explanations of expressions like "eye gunk," "big mouth" and "raining cats and dogs."
"They get a lot of access to American culture," she says, "but we just sort of help them make sense of it and pick out some key words that young Americans actually use on a daily basis."
During Thanksgiving week, Beinecke explained phrases like "stuffing your face," and different uses of the term "gobble" — gobbling up food versus the sound that the turkey makes.
Beinecke, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, began studying Mandarin in 2006 and spent a lot of time in China during and after college. One of her first language partners in college gave her the Chinese name Bai Jie to match her English name. She quickly learned while traveling that that is also the title of a popular porn novel in China.
The show began running in July 2011, and since then has become a breakout star in China and even has a fan club based in Beijing.
"I try to make it a little more fun and engaging, because if you're singing and dancing along with Bai Jie, you don't really feel like you're learning, you feel like you're playing," she says. "So I think that also ... adds to our popularity."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
You've probably never heard of Jessica Beinecke, but she's one of the best-known American women in China as the host of VOA's hit Web show "OMG! Meiyu," a video blog that teaches American English to Chinese students eager to understand the terms they hear but can't quite translate from standard dictionaries. Things like big mouth, butter up, and in a video that went viral, all of the icky stuff that comes out of your face.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SHOW, "OMG! MEIYU")
JESSICA BEINECKE: I always have sleepies in the corner of my eye when I wake up in the morning. (Foreign language spoken) - that mainly means your earwax. I use Q-tips to get the earwax out of my ears. (Foreign language spoken). Hey, get the wax out of your ears. (Foreign language spoken). (Unintelligible) booger(ph).
CONAN: If you've taught English overseas, what part of the language are your students most interested in? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jessica Beinecke joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
BEINECKE: Ni Hao, Neal. Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: And you ask viewers, what do you want to study next week? So what requests surprise you?
BEINECKE: Oh, gosh, they surprise me. Everything comes in about Mexican food, about love and romance and dating, coffee. Last week we talked about Thanksgiving, everything from the side dishes to the desserts. So you know, we cover everything.
CONAN: And this is because Chinese who study English in particular run into all kinds of expressions they don't quite understand.
BEINECKE: Oh, yeah. We don't make it easy. American English slang can be pretty...
BEINECKE: ...pretty funny at times, as you heard in the opening clip. But sometimes it's fun to see how we can juxtapose American culture and Chinese culture to help everyone understand it a little bit easier.
CONAN: And for that, of course, you need to understand Chinese culture.
BEINECKE: Yes, you do.
CONAN: And how well do you do that? You're not Chinese yourself.
BEINECKE: No, I'm not. I grew up in Ohio - Columbus. Go, Bucks.
BEINECKE: But I spent a lot of time in college, and in post-college, in China. So I got a chance to learn a little bit about Chinese culture and language.
CONAN: And this is interactive, as I understand it. One of the things your correspondents do is correct your Mandarin.
BEINECKE: So every week I ask our Weibo fans - Weibo being the Chinese version of Twitter - (foreign language spoken) - which means what does everyone want to study next week? And we get hundreds of responses on each post. And it's really fun to pick some of the most interesting ones that come in.
CONAN: And as you pick a different sort of subject every week - for example, as you mentioned last week, Thanksgiving.
BEINECKE: Yes, last week we discussed Thanksgiving, from the side dishes to roasting the turkey. We talked about all the different uses of the term gobble - gobble up food and the voice that a turkey makes, obviously.
CONAN: Of course.
BEINECKE: And also the top tradition of Thanksgiving, stuffing your face. And I so eloquently demonstrated how to do so. So it was really fun, and while those - that week was really special because while those aired during Thanksgiving, I was actually in Beijing meeting with "OMG! Meiyu" fans. I got to meet hundreds this time and I got to meet with a special few at restaurants. In Beijing they call them hot pot restaurants. And it's a traditional cuisine in Chinese that they like to enjoy during cold winter months, just kind of like how we enjoy Thanksgiving when it gets cold. So we got to talk about their cuisine and how they enjoy it. And we used American English and some of the "OMG! Meiyu" terms we learned online to describe hot pot.
CONAN: And we think of the Voice of America and perhaps incorrectly, as this stuffy old institution that broadcasts political commentary and news. And I guess it does that, but it also does cultural exchanges like your program.
BEINECKE: It does and I really want to be clear on this, that I don't generate the content. I don't tell them what they should study, and on OMG! Meiyu. Like I said, I ask them every week, you know, what do you want to study (speaking in foreign language)? And they tell me exactly what they want to know. So we really do crowd source the content on OMG and we keep the viewers involved in that way.
CONAN: And we think of the broadcast - you may be a little young for this, but back in the old days, the jazz broadcast to the Soviet Union among the most popular things ever done by the Voice of America and something that opened American culture to people on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In a way, you're continuing that tradition.
BEINECKE: Well, I like to think our Chinese audience, and especially OMG! Meiyu or fans on Waybuloo get a lot of Chinese culture from TV shows. They love shows like "How I Met Your Mother," and "Big Bang Theory."
I met one fan last week whose name - English name is Ted, and I asked him why. It's because he just loves Ted Mosby from "How I Met Your Mother." So they get a lot of access to American culture, but we just sort of help them make sense of it and pick out some key words that young Americans actually use on a daily basis.
CONAN: You mentioned Waybuloo. Is that the Chinese equivalent of Facebook?
BEINECKE: It's - yeah. It's sort of the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, but it's a mix of Facebook and YouTube and everything. It's pretty cool.
CONAN: And the government, as we know, watches closely on what's on those sites. And do they watch closely what's on your program?
BEINECKE: Well, I hope so because then they know how to use, you know, roasting a turkey and maybe they learn the many uses of the word gobble. But, you know, everything we talk about on OMG! Meiyu is about young people. It's about what we all have in common. And young Americans and young Chinese, there's really not too much, too many differences between us. So the fact that that is such a wonderful topic to talk about every week, I don't think anybody minds.
CONAN: You mentioned your friend - Chinese friend who had an English name, Ted. You have, of course, a Chinese name.
BEINECKE: I do. It's Bai Jie, which was given to me by one of my first language partners in college. And it sounds like my English name, Jessica Beinecke. So that's why I chose Bai Jie.
CONAN: But just as the English words like gobble can have several meanings, so can that.
BEINECKE: Yes, it can.
BEINECKE: Yes, it can. We found out, you know, when we were making some travel shows very early on that Bai Jie is the title of a popular porn novel in China. So that's why we chose the term OMG! Meiyu for the name of the show this time.
CONAN: OMG, I think even geezers like me can translate that. But Meiyu, what does that mean?
BEINECKE: Meiyu - well, I would like to mention that OMG really resonates with our young Chinese audience because they take that term to the next level. And they say, oh, my Lady Gaga, when they say OMG. And so we thought OMG would be a great choice. But Meiyu is sort of a play on words. It's a pun for those study Mandarin. You know, ying-guo really means English. So Meiyu is a play on words that means American English.
CONAN: We're talking with Jessica Beinecke, the host of OMG! Meiyu, an English language learning video series produced by the Voice of America for Chinese audiences. If you've taught English overseas, what part of the language were your students most interested in? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And let's see if we can start with Nina. Nina with us from San Jose.
NEEMA: Hey. How's it going? This is Neema(ph).
CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead please.
NEEMA: It's OK, no worries. So I actually taught English for a short amount of time in Iran. And it was - the really interesting, you know, going into the class and having the students come up to me with their questions about colloquialism in English. They generally centered around social interactions between young men and women, you know, as simple and as clean as, you know, what are you doing this Friday night, to, you know, just about anything that you can imagine on the raunchier end of the scale.
The other things that they asked about a lot were colloquialisms from movies and music that they would hear on the radio or see on the bootleg VCDs that they would be buying all the time at a local market.
NEEMA: With those students that be paying for the English classes, so they are more prone to being exposed to Western culture via the music.
CONAN: And when was this that you were teaching English in Iran?
NEEMA: Very recently, about four years ago.
NEEMA: And it's only - yes. It's only become more and more liberal since so.
CONAN: All right. Well, Neema, thanks very much for the phone call.
NEEMA: Yeah, anytime. Thank you.
CONAN: And, Jessica Beinecke, I suspect your Chinese students are interested in a lot of information about expressions in love and dating.
BEINECKE: Oh, yeah. That comes up a lot. And we have addressed everything from first dates to seconds dates, to hopeless romantically devoted an entire two weeks last February to romance and dating and Valentine's Day. And, of course, it was followed up by the breakup episode where there's a lot of crying, and they were wondering if it was real or not. So I always keep that secret. They don't know what my status is online.
But I can really relate to what he said about the greetings. I usually do, what's up? How to answer what's up. I do that sort of an episode pretty frequently because I think that is something that our audience really wants to know, just a basic conversation starter. And I've gone to the streets of New York, actually, to ask people, you know, how would you start a conversation with a new friend? And those go over really well.
CONAN: There are also words that could be whole episodes in and of themselves, dude.
BEINECKE: Oh, yeah, dude, girl, you know, and a lot of new phrases, totes, soups, stuff like that that is just a shorter version for totally. There's a lot of abbreviation right now in American slang.
CONAN: We're talking with Jessica Beinecke of OMG! Meiyu and the Voice of America. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Donnie's on the line with us from St. Louis.
DONNIE: Hey. How are you doing today?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
DONNIE: I just want to call and comment on, you know, I taught in China for two years. I noticed that my students were very interested in learning the idioms. You know, explain an idiom and you break it word for word down. It's often quite different and pretty funny sometimes, you know, going between two languages.
CONAN: I suspect it is. Do you remember any examples?
DONNIE: Well, one that I always laugh at in - it's a Chinese idiom. I think it's (foreign language spoken), which is like blind man rubs an elephant. And it means, I guess if you're blind and you touch an elephant leg, you might think it's like a building or a column, and you learn more about the item, because you're blind, the more you touch it. You know, so it's kind of like having a small window of knowledge and then expanding your knowledge about something. I just find it comical in English, you know, a blind man rubbing an elephant.
CONAN: Well, there's an old joke about three blind men and an elephant and perfectly clean it is too. Jessica Beinecke, the expressions that - American expressions that may puzzle Chinese. There are any number of Chinese expressions that I suspect puzzle Americans.
BEINECKE: Oh, yeah. Raining cats and dogs was one that they just did not understand. Like, why are dogs falling from the sky? What the heck do dogs have to do with rain? And I said, I don't know. It's just what we say when it rains really hard. You know, it's just - sometimes it's just explaining the basic meaning and not going into the total history of a phrase, but just teaching them how to use it. But he makes a really good point, and I can really relate to that because going the other way and trying to learn all those Chinese idioms is even - I think even harder than the American ones.
CONAN: Thanks, Donnie.
DONNIE: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jasmine, Jasmine with us from Longmont in Colorado.
JASMINE: Hi, Neal.
JASMINE: I taught English in France for a year, and my students were always wanting to have the lyrics of hip-hop and rap music translated, which was always kind of interesting.
CONAN: I bet.
JASMINE: Especially - at the time, they were really into Eminem. And, yeah, that got a little complicated.
CONAN: Who is the real Slim Shady, I suspect, yes.
CONAN: Jessica, is hip-hop the source of many questions?
BEINECKE: It is. And music in general is as well. Today's episode on "OMG! Meiyu," which were in YouTube and everything - you can check it out - actually addresses one of my favorite songs. It's not rap. But it's a song called "Hey Ho" by the Lumineers, and we do an English-Chinese translation sort of explanation of the song. So we try to do that on a regular basis. And actually, it's funny because I've had fans send me recordings of them singing Nicki Minaj just, you know, to the camera to show how much they love, you know, rap music. So those are really, really special moments in "OMG! Meiyu" history.
CONAN: I was discussing this conversation with Robert Siegel in the hallway, who reminded me that he used to listen in Moscow to an old VOA program where they would play rock 'n' roll songs in those days and a plummy-voiced announcer would repeat the lyrics over the music so that people can understand what they were saying, you know, sweet dreams are made of these.
BEINECKE: Yeah. I try to make it a little more fun and engaging, you know, because if you're singing and dancing along with Bai Jie, you don't really feel like you're learning, you feel like you're playing. So I think that also, you know, adds to our popularity.
CONAN: Jasmine, were you ever, in your translations of rappers like Eminem, forced to into subterfuge something that maybe you didn't quite mean?
JASMINE: Yeah. You know, there were a couple of times. I've been trying to remember, you know, some examples but it was a while ago so unfortunately, I can't. But yeah, there were some times when it was a little - it got a little tricky.
CONAN: I suspect you're right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
JASMINE: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Jesse(ph), Jesse with us from Salt Lake.
JESSE: Hi, there. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. This is a very fascinating conversation. And I - before I start here, I just - I have to say I second and I third with everything that's been mentioned before about what's the, you know, the previous callers, what they've taught in their classes before about hip-hop and slang. I taught in South Korea for three years, and I still am - I'm an ESL professional. I still do teach, but I'm back in Salt Lake City, doing it with refugees now. The thing that we taught there the most was - well, not the most, just a lot - it was actually in the curriculum - was fast food.
We taught them about doughnuts and pizza and French fries and hamburgers. And I kind of found that to be a little - I don't know. I just - I didn't really enjoy teaching that very much because they just, you know, the - we all know that the ramifications of eating that food a lot...
CONAN: It's not necessarily good for you. But, Jessica Beinecke, they must see characters on TV shows and movies eating this stuff all the time. Of course, they'd be curious.
BEINECKE: Yeah. I mean, KFC is really everywhere in China. And personally, I think it's better than the American version. Chinese KFC is delicious.
BEINECKE: And I take (unintelligible)...
CONAN: And good for you, I'm sure.
BEINECKE: And amazing, really just delicious for a treat every once in a while, you know, everything in moderation. But, you know, they...
CONAN: Do they offer extra crispy?
BEINECKE: Oh, it's...
BEINECKE: Yes, they do. And they have, you know, kind of cater to Chinese flavors over there. But even offering my comments on Chinese fast food as well just kind of helps with the cultural exchange there and, again, plays to how much we all have in common. Every once in a while, we'll get some fast food and enjoy it with our friends.
CONAN: Jesse, thanks for the call.
JESSE: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And, Jessica Beinecki, thank you so much, and good luck with "OMG! Meiyu."
BEINECKE: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: She joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, we'll be live from the Wilson Center and talk about what the Cuban missile crisis can teach new generation of leaders around the world. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.