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‘OMG! Meiyu’ Introduces China to American Slang, Idioms and Jay-Z

March 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Combining the powers of social media and fluent Mandarin, Jessica Beinecke teaches American slang to eager Chinese minds half a world away. Hari Sreenivasan reports on Beinecke's success with Voice of America's online video program "OMG! Meiyu" and her role as an ambassador of American culture and language to China.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: We’ll be hearing a lot next week about ties between the U.S. and China, as that country’s vice president visits Washington.

But, for the moment, one of the best-known American women in China is neither a politician nor a Hollywood star.

Hari Sreenivasan has this story about slang.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Millions of Chinese are picking up American slang, thanks to what’s happening in this Washington, D.C., apartment.

Meet Jessica Beinecke, China’s newest English-language star.

JESSICA BEINECKE, “OMG! Meiyu”: My four friends and I are renting a car and driving to New York City. I’m so excited.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Five days a week, from the comfort of her dining table, the 25-year-old writes, hosts and produces a show called “OMG! Meiyu,” or “Oh, My Gosh, American English.”

In it, she explains idioms and slang to her Chinese viewers. Beinecke began studying Mandarin as an undergraduate. In 2006, she enrolled in Middlebury College’s intensive language program, and spent the first half of 2007 studying in Beijing and Hangzhou, near Shanghai.

JESSICA BEINECKE: I had the best experience studying Mandarin in mainland China, and studying the culture and everything. I feel like it was always me talking to young Chinese people. That was my big goal when I was in China, to make as many friends as I could.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She didn’t become a star in China until last August, when she produced a video called “Yucky Gunk.”

JESSICA BEINECKE: It was about all the gunk that comes out of your face, and we talked about eye gunk and earwax and boogers.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSICA BEINECKE: You have a — you have a booger right there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That video went viral, and has since been viewed more than one-and-a-half million times.

JESSICA BEINECKE: That’s never going to be in a textbook. And so they’ve sort of — so now they see “OMG! Meiyu” as a place where they can go to get the most authentic American English that young people use.

Jiggly. Jiggly. My arms get jiggly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Beinecke, or “Bi-jee-eh,” as she’s known to her Chinese fans, curates six social media accounts in China and the U.S.

JESSICA BEINECKE: It starts on the weekend, where I ask them (SPEAKING MANDARIN), which is, what do you want to study next week? And they — I get hundreds of responses every week.

HARI SREENIVASAN: “OMG” is becoming a hit in China. On the Chinese equivalent of YouTube, “OMG” has garnered more than seven million views. And on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the program is now followed by more than 200,000 people.

Beinecke’s bosses are taking notice. She works at VOA, Voice of America, the 70-year-old U.S. government-funded broadcaster with programs in more than 40 languages around the world. So why is this working?

DAVID ENSOR, director, Voice of America: She talks to them on their level, and I think that’s something we need to replicate around VOA.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Ensor is Voice of America’s director. He says, while “OMG” may not fall within the traditional idea of what VOA does, the show helps the Chinese further understand American culture.

DAVID ENSOR: We are a communications company, multimedia, on many platforms. We’re reaching out to various peoples around the world, and our mission is to report the news, yes, but also to explain America and American values to people around the world.

What Jessica is doing is going to be something that I think you’ll see more people doing here, which is reaching out to the younger generation in different countries and communicating with them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But why does it resonate with Chinese audiences?

For some ideas, we visited nearby Georgetown University. There, we asked a group of Chinese nationals and Ph.D. candidates in the linguistics department why Beinecke’s show strikes a chord.

HUANG HAI, graduate student, Georgetown University: So first of all, the girl is very cute.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Huang Hai moved to the U.S. in September.

HUANG HAI: One of my friends sent a link to me through China’s Weibo, which is China’s counterpart of Twitter. Yes, so I know that this video got very popular in China, especially among the teenagers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Huang Lihong has studied and taught in the U.S. for eight years. She hadn’t heard of “OMG,” but, as a teacher, could immediately see its value.

HUANG LIHONG, graduate student, Georgetown University: My first impression about her is that she’s very energetic and enthusiastic in teaching English. She uses a lot of facial expressions and body language to help the learners learn the language that she is teaching. I think that’s very helpful.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her colleague Luke Amoroso studies English-language instruction in China, and sees obvious benefits of focusing on American slang.

LUKE AMOROSO, graduate student, Georgetown University: It’s cool to learn slang. And any language when you learn slang, people like that, because now you’re part of the group that knows those things. And that separates you from older people or people that aren’t in your group, and that’s definitely attractive.

HUANG LIHONG: Her teaching is very interactive and communicative. And it can be a good complement for traditional textbooks, especially for naturalistic learners.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chinese education has traditionally relied heavily on instructive teaching, lectures and rote memorization. But until recently, the country’s closed history has meant it has lacked foreign-born teachers who could add context and authenticity.

HUANG HAI: We Chinese often learn English from very formal classes, and it’s like very far from our everyday life.

HUANG LIHONG: The idioms, expressions, slang that she teaches are not easy to find in traditional textbooks. And I think those expressions are very useful in our daily lives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what’s next for Beinecke and for “OMG”?

JESSICA BEINECKE: It would be ideal if we can start this year inspiring more people to break out of the online community, which is thriving, and it’s really exciting, and to go and meet in person, and to be leaders in their community to further the discussion with their friends.

Whether that’s in a classroom or that’s just with their friends at a KFC around the corner or something like that, I think that would be another dream come true.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her other dream already came true. In December, she returned to Beijing to meet her fan club, which includes more than 4,000 members, some of whom traveled four hours by train just to meet her.

JESSICA BEINECKE: What do you want for Christmas?

WOMAN: Well, I’m a dog person, so I want a puppy, a husky or a pug.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Those passionate fans also voluntarily built apps for smartphones so “OMG” can be seen on iPhones and Android devices in China and around the world.

For now, Beinecke continues her conversation with Chinese admirers and pupils half a world away.

JEFFREY BROWN: On our website, Jessica Beinecke offers more about how her Chinese audience helps her choose the daily slang words.