Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.
I don’t think anyone would dispute that 2017 was a weird year. As an American living in China, I certainly felt that my aggregate newsfeed was pretty insane; days began with finding out what section of Beijing had disappeared overnight and ended with watching America wake up to the latest tweet-storm.
I think this basically sums it up
But my 2017 was also very odd in a good way thanks to Yingke — an app I downloaded last December at the very casual recommendation of a few friends. In the past 365 days, I’ve gone from casually chatting with a few dozen viewers now and then to scheduling my morning around a sort of stream-of-consciousness, 21st century radio hour for a daily audience of 50,000-100,000 people.
[If you’re not familiar with the charming madness that is Chinese livestreaming, start here.]
So… why? Because I’m so gosh-darn talented and special? Definitely not. Because I’ve got super creative ideas for my broadcasts? F@#k no. Because of my hair? Maybe a bit, but mostly the issue is novelty; this is happening because normal human interaction with foreigners is something the average citizen of China — especially an adult — just doesn’t often have. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat enjoying the irony; after all, I spent two years walking around Beijing wishing people would stop staring so much.
Actually, I changed my mind. EVERYONE STARE AT ME ALWAYS.
But there’s a simple reason for the staring and a simple reason for my weird popularity on Yingke: Chinese people want to meet and talk with foreigners. We — that is to say, “China” and “The West” — know each other largely as these big depersonalized faceless ideas rather than as actual groups of humans. The way to break down that wall is naturally to meet real people from the other side.
While there are millions of Chinese immigrants all over the world that Westerners can meet and become friends with and learn from, there aren’t enough foreigners in China to help tear down the idea of “外国” (waiguo, out-of-country) as a single, monolithic entity represented at any given moment by whatever Western thing happens to be the most visible.
If there’s one thing that 2017 really kicked into focus for me, it’s how much easier it is for us (all of us) to be stupid and petty and generally awful when it comes to big groups of people we’ve never met. And when it comes to big groups of people who haven’t met each other, it’s hard to find a bigger or more important example than “China” and “The West.” Us getting to know each other better is vitally important — that’s basically RADII’s mission statement, after all — and you have the ability to contribute in your pocket.
Or more realistically, in your hand right now
If you’re interested in China, live in China, study Chinese, visited China one time, or have eaten Chinese food at some point in your life, I have an incredibly easy New Year’s Resolution for you — take out your miracle-phone and use it to have a little chat with a few people in China for free.
You don’t have to speak Chinese. Hell, you don’t even have to do livestreaming — there are a dozen language exchange apps with millions of people looking to practice English. And if you are feeling camera ready, get yourself a zhibo app and just poke your head in the door. I can’t tell you how it’ll end up going — it is the internet, after all — but odds are good that there will be plenty of people interested in saying hi and asking you about where you’re from and what brings you (digitally) to China. It’ll be five minutes out of your life and the world will be a 0.0000001% better place for your efforts.
And if you do end up on Yingke, let me know! It can be a surprisingly friendly place.