Poor is the New Rich in Viral Video from Expat in China

BY Paul Solman  November 14, 2012 at 12:03 PM EST

DANIEL ROLAND/Stringer South Korean singer Psy performs “Gangnam Style” during the 2012 MTV European Music Awards. Photo by Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Solman: Jesse Appell was an economics student of mine at Brandeis last fall who is spending this year in Beijing on a Fulbright Fellowship. An improvisational comedian, he decided to make a music video in the manner of something you simply have to watch if you’re to keep current: “Gangnam Style,” the South Korean “K-pop” sensation that, at more than 690 million views, is the second most watched video ever. (The first is Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”)

Jesse’s video is called “Laowai Style” and has drawn more than a million views thus far. He thinks its instant hit status says something about the economic mindset in China today and about the potential for US-China relations more generally.

Jesse Appell: A few weeks ago, I posted a video of some friends and myself cavorting around different areas of Beijing in a parody of the now-omnipresent “Gangnam Style” video. Our dancing drew crowds of curious Chinese wherever we went, and the video caused quite a commotion online as well. “Laowai Style,” about the life of a foreigner (“laowai”) living in Beijing, got onto the front page of Youku.com, the Chinese domestic version of YouTube, and has accumulated more than 1 million views in less than a month.

As someone who’s come to China this year to study Chinese comedy and try to understand Chinese culture and humor, it was absolutely amazing to see the video take off — and it’s given me a chance to learn about how foreigners are viewed in China, and how money, wealth and status mix with notions of how the Chinese perceive foreigners these days.


American expat Jesse Appell filmed his online hit “Laowai Style” on the streets of Beijing.

China is a place where stereotypes die hard, especially outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where a disproportionate amount of foreigners live. In most other places, people still believe that foreigners are wealthy men who come to China in order to make money and marry Chinese women, and who all drive BMWs while wearing Rolexes and talking on iPhones. Even for people in cities who know foreigners well enough to know we are not all rolling in money, we’re thought to reside in a separate and lofty economic class. Luxury brand advertisements flaunt foreign models wearing foreign brands, perpetuating the misconception, despite the fact that rich, patrician expats in China are vastly outnumbered by the horde of mid-twenties English teachers with a bad case of wanderlust.

Last summer I was conclusively disabused of the notion that I would be living the high life expected of me. I found myself living in a crumbling Maoist-era apartment block with a broken squat toilet. I was eager to get the message out: not all foreigners are living it up. So, I attempted to break down the perceptual barrier with a song, written and delivered in Mandarin: “I’m the kind of foreigner who saves money by having a crappy phone/The kind of foreigner who doesn’t drive a BMW, and instead has a secondhand electric bike.”

Many Chinese netizens reacted positively to the message. People left comments like: “I like this type of foreigner, more of a humble type of American, trying to fit in with China.” I think for younger Chinese especially, the low-budget, low-ego style of the video struck a chord. While the Gini Index, a measure of inequality within nations, is similar for the United States and China, in Chinese cities in Beijing, the wealth gap is pronounced. GDP per capita is $8,500, adjusted for purchasing power, but that’s pumped up by a massive real estate bubble and likely overestimates what the average Chinese person makes. Considering that the starting salary for a McDonalds’ worker in Beijing — not the best job in China, but far from the worst — is 11 Yuan, or about $1.70 an hour, a $900 iPhone 5 is out of reach for most of the young people who watched my video.

Living in Beijing and interacting with Chinese friends, I sense social pressure building up. People here are much better off than those in the countryside, and yet are constantly barraged by status symbols associated beyond their means.

I think that ultimately my video was popular in China because the ideals that the Chinese audiences found most appealing had nothing to do with money. Viewers commended me for being brave enough to dance in front of crowds without worrying about being mocked, and lamented that they themselves wanted to break out and be different but lacked the confidence. One commenter said, “I was in the crowd when they asked me to come and dance with them. If I had known it would have been such a success, I would have done it, but I was too embarrassed.” My willingness to “dance” in public was more cluelessness than bravery, but it still represented a break from the stereotype of the snooty, rich foreigner.

These aspects of the western lifestyle — increased individuality, freedom and willingness to depart from the social norm — don’t cost money. The wealth I brought with me isn’t cash or gadgets, but in how I looked at life in China and interacted with others; I brought “social capital.” And not being rich allowed me to spread that wealth more effectively.

If there’s a moral to the story, it may be that a healthier relationship between China and the United States might not be fostered by trade so much as the dissemination of culture, exposing the Chinese population to parts of the West that they see as admirable and, of course, that don’t cost money to emulate.

Editor’s note: So you can sing along, we’ve included the lyrics to Appell’s hit song:

“Laowai Style”

This guy is Laowai Style, Laowai Style
I’m the kind of guy who’s lived in Beijing a long time
Who eats Chinese food every day and doesn’t use a spoon
Who doesn’t wait for the light to turn green before crossing the street
Just a regular guy who’s a laowai

I’m that kind of laowai
Whose friends have crowned the King of Karaoke, that kind of laowai
Who researches Chinese culture at Tsinghua, that kind of laowai
Who thinks that Yanjing Beer is actually pretty good, that kind of laowai
I’m that kind of laowai

Life in Beijing is rich and vibrant
Taking pictures and putting them on Weibo
Beijing, this city, I don’t want to leave
So many good Chinese friends
Guys and gals sing it with me out loud

This guy is Laowai Style
Laowai Style

Heey! Laowai’s here!

I’m a laowai who sucks at basketball
A laowai who won’t be cheated when he shops at the Silk Street market
A laowai who doesn’t drive a BMW and instead drives a secondhand electric bike
Just a regular guy who’s a laowai

I’m that kind of laowai
Who avoids the north third ring road during rush hour, that kind of laowai
Who saves money by having a crappy phone, that kind of laowai
Who only drinks Wang Laoji and never eats KFC, that kind of laowai
I’m that kind of laowai

Life in Beijing is rich and vibrant
Taking pictures and putting them on Weibo
Beijing, this city, I don’t want to leave
So many good Chinese friends
Guys and gals sing it with me out loud

This guy is Laowai Style
Laowai Style

Heey! Laowai’s here!

Play with me, come on and play with me
Friends from all around the world, come and play with me [repeat]

This guy is Laowai Style
Laowai Style

Heey! Laowai’s here!

Jesse Appell is a Fulbright scholar who is studying humor in China.


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