Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe (Inke). If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.
As an American, there are certain things that I always knew – you know, with my brain ‘n‘ stuff – but didn’t really fully get before really looking at the US from the outside. Stuff like how nuts we are to refuse to use the metric system; or how unique and lucky we are to be raised speaking the language nearly everyone else spends their whole lives trying to learn. And, god help me, how irredeemably dumb it is to refuse to just call the world’s most popular and simply-named sport by its incredibly self-explanatory name.
Less hilariously, it’s also made it clear to me just how strange it is for the supposed “shining city on the hill” to have to keep explaining why someone shot up another roomful of kids.
In response to a LOT of questions about recent American news, I asked the audience a simple question: Do you think it’s a good idea to let people own guns? The results were around 75% yes, 25% no. Honestly, more balanced than I expected.
A reasonably representative sample (1 is against, 2 is for)
I’m not trying to start a gun debate, but look, here are the only two options I see: either America somehow defies the very notion of averages and produces a shockingly high number of kill-crazy people unlike any other nation on earth (kind of at odds with the whole aforementioned *shining city on a hill* thing) or our mass shooting problem has something to do with all the weapons of war we have lying around.
(And to the people who bristle at the term “weapons of war” being applied to guns, I’d ask that you have a little moment where you consider what, literally, guns were invented for and why a dictionary definition angers you.)
Anyway, China is obviously an interesting contrast to America. Despite inventing guns (sort of), you can probably imagine how common private firearm ownership is in the PRC – that is to say, it’s not at all. Of course, plenty of gun “enthusiasts” will cite China as the perfect example of what happens when citizens aren’t armed, but setting aside how much sense that may or may not make, it’s worth pointing out that personal safety is a BIG pro in every foreigner’s pro/con list for sticking around. You know what I think when I’m wandering down a dark Beijing alley in the middle of the night with a phone in one hand and a beer in the other and see a group of young men approaching? Basically, something like: “oh hey 哥们s (bros), what’s up?”
Pictured: good times ahead
Yes, there are stories of really drunk and/or really unlucky foreigners getting beat up, but statistically, there’s no comparison. This is a city of 24 million in the “developing” world where serious violent crime is big news; I’ve lived in some pretty shitty neighborhoods and never once felt unsafe.
You know, as long as I stay out of traffic.
Zhibo: Losing Face
A few days ago, this perfectly pleasant gentleman came into my streaming room for the first time and started asking me very thoughtful and good-natured questions about America, learning English, and the like. One problem:
Let’s put this as delicately and tactfully as possible: when you’ve got 5,000* years of your own history to learn about, it’s only natural that a few minor details about what was going on in the rest of the world would slip through the cracks.
Let’s put this a bit less delicately: in Western academia, we’re constantly self-flagellating – not without reason – over our tendency to focus on only the whitest bits of history. I myself have many times gotten up on that high horse when it comes to not-quite-acknowledging the full scope of horrors that was the Japanese occupation of China during WWII. Meanwhile, in Chinese schools, they’re still calling it the “Chinese-Japanese War,” (in which Americans were neutral at best) and the whole “Nazi” thing barely gets a footnote.
But alright, whatever. World history isn’t China’s strongest suit. Hell, it isn’t America’s either. Hitler has a weird kind of cult status in lots of places where the Holocaust simply isn’t really taught or understood, and this guy probably just saw the name somewhere and thought it was cool. Plus, it’s spelt slightly differently, so at least there’s that. So, let’s accept his friend request and see what’s on his WeChat profile, shall we?
We have now arrived at “thoroughly disconcerting.”
Well, now I had to ask. He had already reached out to see if he could join my English practice group on WeChat (seriously, the guy has been nothing but polite), so I simply asked him what was up with the name. Rather than attempting to narrate the conversation, you can just see it for yourself:
I still haven’t figured out how to respond to that, by the way. Where does one go from here?
Seriously, I’m asking.
Did I push something? Did I somehow hit a setting that inverts the color scheme? Did I anger some kind of trickster god? Are my many Michigan ancestors sending me a maize-and-blue message that I should be paying attention to March Madness? No idea, but it didn’t go back to normal till I quit and restarted the app.
This one really puzzles me. People assuming I’m gay on Inke is nothing new – they ask if I have a girlfriend, I say no, and that apparently leaves only one option – but I don’t have the slightest clue what “gay with your food” could possibly mean. I’ve never once eaten while streaming – setting aside the inherent sadness of streaming one’s dinner, watching hosts eat seems to be a whole separate weird obsession in the world of zhibo. I’m not looking to go down that rabbit hole.
So, discounting the possibility (perhaps unfairly?) that this person literally meant that foreigners are somehow merrier and more joyful when it comes to their culinary experiences, I kinda have to assume he means that I’m only into boy dumplings.
This app is weird.
I take what I can get.
More adventures in zhibo-land:
Zhibo: Are You an Inke Drinker?
Zhibo: Pimpin’ and Player Hatin’
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