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.
Thus far, my time on YingKe has been all about Chinese. Getting better at Chinese was the whole reason I started spending my days raising my eyebrows at my phone like a crazy person, after all.
And there’s certainly no objection to my using YingKe as a particularly unorthodox study tool. As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, foreigners are already a rarity, and a foreigner streaming at all, let alone in half-decent Chinese, is a statistical anomaly. People are always happy to teach me new words, be impressed by my occasional successes, and chuckle at my many, many failures. I get improvement; they get entertainment. Everyone wins.
But, there’s another way a whole lot of Chinese netizens see me — and for that matter, every white face: as a source of potential English improvement. Of course, as it happens, I actually do have a decent amount of experience teaching English in China — but that fact is neither a known quantity nor a consideration for the thousands of people asking me if I can teach them English.
And “thousands” is in no way an exaggeration. You have to remember, studying English in China isn’t like taking a few years of French in college — it’s a huge part of almost every student’s life from the day they start school. English plays a key role in the gaokao (college admission exam), which is arguably the most terrifyingly soul-crushing *academic* experience ever devised by humans. Speaking good English isn’t just for people hoping to go abroad; it’s a direct path to better-paying jobs here in China across a wide variety of industries.
So, I get a LOT of messages about English ranging across the spectrum of normalcy. Plenty of people just ask if I’ll speak some English during my broadcast, which of course I’m more than happy to do. Unfortunately, quite a few people are *less* ok with it, and I can usually count on one hand the number of seconds into an English sentence it takes for this message to pop up: “别用英语，我啥都听不懂!” (Don’t use English, I don’t understand it at all!) Usually, I just say that if you send an English message, I’m happy to respond in kind, and anyone who doesn’t understand need not fear, for the foreigner’s nonsense (废话／胡说) isn’t worth their consideration (punctuated with a very over-the-top wink).
Semi-pro tip: rattling off tongue-twisters is a surprisingly effective way to make people laugh while stemming the tide of requests for a bilingual broadcast
But then there’s the private messages. YingKe also has Facebook-style private messaging that you can check when you’re streaming or at any time from your profile. And it’s here where a bit of discomfort has started edging its way into my increasingly public life.
When I get a private message asking can you please teach me English and my initial jokey response is met with no seriously please teach me, I’m at a bit of a loss. Gross sexts I can handle, but how do I tactfully explain to a high school student that sorry, no, I’m not gonna just go become your English teacher? You might be thinking that I’m overestimating my importance — I usually am — and sure, 90% of the time these sorts of conversations end on a perfectly pleasant note, but I’ve had enough indignant people — perfect strangers, mind you — demand to know why I won’t take their money for private classes despite having never offered such a service. In fact, I almost never actually refer to myself as a teacher on YingKe, not that it makes any difference. It’s a purely-skin-color-based assumption.
Of course, I am actually a teacher. I don’t teach full-time anymore, but it’s still a major part of the hodgepodge collection of part-time jobs, consulting gigs, writing work, and other entrepreneurial nonsense I use as an excuse to avoid moving home and getting a real job. And the very fact that I spent at least 10 minutes on the previous two sentences illustrates how uncomfortable I am with identifying myself as “a teacher.” There’s the fact that opening that door on YingKe would likely quadruple the messages I get and don’t know how to deal with; but there’s also the fact that I am, on a more basic level, uncomfortable with my *English teacher* status.
Working in and around the ESL industry — and make no mistake, it is an industry — in China is a tricky and often unpleasant reality. China has a massively underserved need for native English teachers; this is a country with more students of the English language than anywhere else on Earth, and impossibly few native speakers living here. As a result, foreign teachers at most Chinese schools are paid far too much for far too little, and are rarely accountable for results or any kind of professionalism. They’re frequently hired based solely on their picture and their passport, and once schools have gone to the trouble of arranging a visa, housing, and transport halfway across the world, they can often be nearly impossible to fire. Being unprepared for classes, failure to produce any kind of results, and showing up to work blatantly hung over — or not showing up at all — are all the kinds of things that should get you replaced. But — and this is a problem of China’s own making, unfortunately — it’s way harder than it should be to replace native English speakers here.
The point is, despite the fact that it raises my value (and teachers are respected and even feared in China), I don’t love being referred to as a “teacher” by thousands of people with no additional contextual knowledge of my life in China. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a paranoid feeling; it’s increasingly popular in China to point out the *Loser Back Home* phenomenon of foreigner English teachers. Streaming audience members come and go in seconds — I don’t have the luxury or required level of patient self-obsession to tell every single person I meet on YingKe my life story in an attempt to convince them that I’m not like *those* foreigners.
And besides, I don’t say any of this from a soapbox. I was hired as a foreign teacher by a Chinese school after a single Skype conversation a few months before I graduated. No experience, no real qualifications; I showed up and the combination of my nationality and skin/hair color guaranteed me not only classes at the best branch of the school, but gave me immense leverage in negotiations over scheduling. My middling Chinese skills and desire to be in China had nothing to do with my initial good fortune here, and certainly had nothing to do with the work visa and free (albeit horrifying) apartment I spent my first year in. All following successes and career advances I’ve made started with a job I didn’t deserve.
I’m not trying to sell myself short here. I ended up being a good enough teacher that the school ended up offering me a behind-the-scenes job managing foreign teacher training and HR for their newest branch. But any skills I developed on the job and/or competence have nothing to do with the opportunity that was handed to me on a golden platter, and I think it’s always important to properly separate those things out.
So back to YingKe. At the end of the day, I do want to offer some kind of English assistance. Selfishly, it boosts my popularity. At the risk of sounding cliché, I’d like to give back on some level to a community that is dramatically boosting my Chinese reading and speaking abilities on a daily basis. On a practical level, I’m personally and financially invested in a world where Chinese people are more excited about English.
So honestly, I’m not sure what to do. I can keep jokingly deflecting until the end of time (that’s kinda my whole thing), but I’d like to find a way to give out a bit of English advice and assistance beyond just correcting people’s spelling when they tell me to go fack/frk/fuk myself. Perhaps I’ll open the world’s first subway-based school.