How Do You Say 'Twerk' in Mandarin?
For the past three years, 27-year-old Ohio native Jessica Beinecke has scripted, acted in, and recorded about five episodes a week of OMG! Meiyu (OMG! American language)—her hit Internet program that teaches Chinese students American slang. Beinecke’s short, spunky videos quickly went viral on Chinese social media in 2011. Within a month she had more than 100,000 followers on Weibo, China’s popular microblog site. Her shows have attracted more than 40 million views by explaining phrases such as “LOL cats,” “frenemy,” “foodie,” and the “Harlem Shake.”
After studying Mandarin at Ohio University and living as a student in Beijing and Hangzhou, Beinecke started OMG! Meiyu while working as a translator for Voice of America in Washington. She recorded the first episode at the kitchen table of her shared house in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. In 2012 she moved to New York and kept recording from her Manhattan apartment. VOA has underwritten the show since it began; Beinecke won’t say for how much, but she doesn’t sell advertising or charge for views, and she doesn’t have a day job.
This year, Beinecke decided to flip her format and make videos geared toward the growing number of young Americans trying to learn Mandarin. Crazy Fresh Chinese went online in January with sponsorship from the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a Department of State initiative started in early 2013 with the goal of encouraging Americans to study Mandarin. The foundation awards grants to groups that promote foreign language programs in the U.S. “Here is this cute, peppy, young blond woman who speaks impeccable Chinese,” says 100,000 Strong’s president, Carola McGiffert, who calls Beinecke the foundation’s “most important vehicle for reaching students on the grass-roots level.”
Some of the first Crazy Fresh Chinese videos have translated “fashionista” (shi shang yu jie, which literally means “fashion imperial big sister”), “twerk” (dian tun wu, “electric butt dance”), and House of Cards (Zhi Pai Wu). The Netflix-produced drama is wildly popular in China, accessible through video-sharing sites such as Youku, China’s version of YouTube. For the House of Cards episode, Beinecke donned a brown wig to impersonate the show’s gravelly protagonist, Frank Underwood. “It’s very millennial,” says Scott Galer, chairman of the department of foreign languages at Brigham Young University, who’s integrated Crazy Fresh Chinese into his Mandarin classes. He says Beinecke’s biggest hit, at least in his class, is a video explaining how to say “Let’s take a selfie” in Mandarin. “She has a knack for knowing what students really want to be able to say.”
A typical video of OMG! Meiyu or Crazy Fresh Chinese starts with Beinecke acting out a situation and explaining how to use slang. She repeats phrases such as “I call shotgun!” with different facial expressions—rolling her eyes, looking astonished, cowering in embarrassment. Occasionally she puts on costumes if she plays two people in a dialogue. The quick videos feel spontaneous, but Beinecke says she took acting classes to prepare. “I want to teach phrases that students can instantly use, like how to order a soy latte,” she says. “That’s both fun and useful.”
With her platinum curls and penchant for bright lipstick, she’s often recognized in New York’s Chinese restaurants by students from mainland China, who tell her they studied English by watching her videos.
A self-proclaimed “one-woman band,” Beinecke uses an iPhone to record takes, then edits everything on Final Cut Pro. “I’ve perfected the selfie shoot,” she says. She then uploads her videos on social media and video-sharing sites, where she says they’ve generated more than 1 billion social media interactions, including clicks, tweets, and Facebook “likes.” Jeff Wang, director of Chinese language initiatives at the Asia Society in New York, is a big fan. “We need to get rid of this notion that Mandarin is so hard,” he says. “Jessica makes language engaging—and shows that you can get something out of this process fairly quickly.”