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.
A few weeks ago, I came across this account on Yingke:
to be clear, this isn’t my account
A bit odd, to be sure. But hey, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Of course, the “they” in question are usually people making excuses for plagiarizing, so perhaps I should have been a bit more suspicious.
Nonetheless, I was excited to see that I’d made enough of a splash in the world of zhibo (Chinese live streaming) to have started generating fake Taylors. So with some amusement, I *followed* the fake account and hoped that at some point I’d get a notification that he/she/it was streaming and I’d have a chance to see what kind of fan (or troll) had decided to create it.
The next morning, all hell broke loose.
Ok, that may be a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a moderate dose of some religion’s punishment-based afterlife got out of containment. Within minutes of starting my morning stream, I was seeing messages about my “小号” and accusations of hating Chinese people. Problem #1: I didn’t understand what 小号 (xiǎo hào) meant. 小 means “small” and 号 can mean a bunch of things but usually indicates a number or some other kind of official mark. So it took me a little while (and the help of some fans) to figure out that 小号 means a secondary account — as in, my “little account number.”
Right, first part of the riddle solved — people think this fake Taylor is me. Now for problem #2: why the hell were people accusing me of hating China? Let’s take another (more careful) look at that fake account…
Again, can’t stress this enough, this is NOT ME
Wait, what? “No Chinese people or dogs allowed?” What on earth does that mean? Lemme look this up real quick…
Oh f@#k me.
Yes, it turns out that the time-honored wisdom of look before you leap still has relevance in the digital age; the fake account was NOT created by some overzealous fan and I should NOT have followed it. As it turns out, “华人与狗不得内入” is a reference to Huangpu Park (黄浦公园) in Shanghai, built in the late 19th century exclusively for foreigners (at the time, it was simply called “Public Garden”). Whether there were really signs specifically forbidding “Chinese and dogs” seems to be a matter of some debate — the picture of the sign that appears in most articles seems to be from the Bruce Lee movie Fists of Fury — but there’s no question that the phrase conjures up real bitterness over real segregation imposed on the Chinese in their own country by foreigners.
[Side note: This is almost certainly a coincidence, but the fake account lists my zodiac sign as Capricorn — the only difference between that account’s profile info and my own. As I’ve learned, Capricorn is symbolized by a half-goat, half-fish. One of the most typical nasty racist terms for foreigners in China is 洋鬼子 — “yang gui zi / foreign devil.” That first character, 洋, has two elements. On the left side are three dots symbolizing water. On the right is the character for sheep. COINCIDENCE? … Yeah, probably. Still cool, though.]
Anyway, this was not good. Imagine if someone took your picture and used it to make a Twitter account with the byline “this water fountain for whites only.” Sure, you’d probably make some new friends in shockingly high places, but I think most reasonable people can agree that it would be a pretty nasty experience on the whole. Ok, thought I – so that’s awful, but surely no one will think *I* made that account, right? I mean, why would I have a weird racist alter-ego account with the same name and picture? People will get that this is just a troll, right?
guess again, genius
As it turns out, there are quite a few people on the internet who a) don’t seem to be very bright and b) are inclined to think the worst of people.
I know, right?
Suddenly, even well-meaning fans were sending me messages asking if that was my account, telling me that I shouldn’t have such a nasty 小号, telling me that I shouldn’t follow it because people will think it’s me, etc. My usually near-zero troll density suddenly skyrocketed as people I’d never heard from before would come into my streaming room and start yelling about how I’m a foreign devil who pretends to be nice but really hates China. Or at least I think they were yelling — sadly (or perhaps fortunately), Chinese characters have no equivalent of capital letters.
It’s worth pointing out that this is pretty much the first seriously negative experience I’ve had on Yingke, and that for weeks I’ve done nothing but write about how despite *annoyances* and petty gripes, I’ve generally always felt good about my time on the app. I’ve claimed before that I’m winning the battle with indignation and am getting good at swallowing my pride when it comes to being laughed at. I’ve even gone so far as to wax poetic about how putting myself in front of thousands of people inspires/forces me to present the best version of myself.
So, this has been a bit of a “walk the walk” moment for me. Being confronted with accusations of racism because people honestly think I’d make a second Yingke account with the same picture and a nasty anti-Chinese bio is mind-blowingly frustrating. Why on earth would I do such a thing? What possible incentive would I have? Even if I was secretly a racist asshole, why would I use THE SAME REAL PICTURE OF ME for my little troll account? Why would I follow my real account with it? WHAT POSSIBLE LOGICAL PATH COULD LEAD YOU TO THE CONCLUSION THAT THIS STUPID F@#KING TROLL IS ACTUALLY ME?!?
walking the walk. walking the walk.
As satisfying as it might be to scream at my phone in public — hell, everyone’s already staring at me — I think we can all agree that it would be pretty counter-productive. This is a platform where people willingly come to watch me monologue about nothing and throw money at me in the process, after all. Plus, I’ve been seeing real-world improvements in my Chinese. Yingke has done nothing but good things for me. If I want this ride to continue, it’s my job to keep being fun and entertaining and tough out the bullshit.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. When someone brings it up, I laugh and say that although yes, I’m unquestionably dumb, even I’m not that dumb. For particularly loud trolls, I congratulate them on their detective skills and hope the sarcasm plays to most of the audience. For people who seem genuinely angry, I usually go with a quick “sorry you’re upset, but that’s not me and I hope you’ll stick around for a bit and see how obvious it is that I really love China.”
Exhibit A: There is a CHINESE FLAG ON MY WALL
There seem to be three kinds of reactions to my racist little doppelgänger. First, there are people who don’t really care and/or haven’t really given it any thought but are having some fun joking about it. I have one fan who comes in every day, asks me 你今天计划歧视中国人吗 / You gonna discriminate against Chinese people today?, but then chats normally and even gives me gifts and whatnot.
Second, there are people who stumble into my stream for the first time via the fake account (it follows me, of course) and are simply reacting to the only data points they have. These people usually get that it’s fake right away.
But then, there’s a (small) third group who see me talk about studying Chinese and loving living in China, see other people joking about how the account is fake, and still — seemingly genuinely — yell at me about being a sneaky two-faced foreigner who’s here to steal Chinese women and profit off their children and who knows what else. There’s not a ton of those people, but it’s definitely enough to bother and/or worry me.
Things have mostly calmed down in the past week, but this whole thing has gotten me thinking about tribalism and suspicion of foreigners. Personally, I think those natural instincts are essentially bad and counterproductive. I think that most of what the United States has accomplished over the years would never have happened had the nation not been built on the hopes and ambitions and creativity of people from all over the world. When you’re in America, you have no idea who might be a “foreigner” because there’s all kinds of people everywhere. And when Americans act fearful and suspicious of specific groups of “foreigners” or recent immigrants, I think they’re ignoring their own history, ignoring the values and ideals of the country, and ignoring the statistical realities of what’s most likely to take their job (mechanization, not Mexicans) or their life (heart disease, not terrorists). As an American, I feel justified and righteous and all kinds of soap-box-y when I see my own country turn against “foreigners” for intellectually lazy, lizard-brain reasons.
But here’s the problem. That feeling of righteousness doesn’t really make sense when I try to transfer it to my experiences in China. China isn’t a nation of immigrants; it’s been a famously walled-off (sometimes literally) country for enormous swathes of history. The language teaches every child from a very young age to define the world in terms of in-the-country (国内) and out-of-the-country (国外) — to the point that simply using “外国 / out-country” as a prefix is good enough for describing any foreign person, place, food, film, etc. without requiring any additional clarification.
For example, did you know that my enjoyment of spicy food is, in fact, quite unusual, as foreigners don’t like spicy food? Someone should probably inform India.
He must be preparing that for an “in-country-person.” What a guy!
But there’s no self-contradiction there. China has never proclaimed that anyone can “be Chinese” — quite the opposite, in fact. And while I don’t like that and don’t agree with the underlying philosophy, Chinese people aren’t violating any mission statement when they treat me with suspicion simply for being a foreigner. This is a nation with plenty of ideals — a perfectly harmonious society made up of strong family ties, stability, prosperity, a position of leadership in the modern world, etc. — but being open and unquestionably welcoming towards anyone from anywhere isn’t one of them. So regardless of what makes more sense or what’s right (whatever that means), it makes no sense for me to stamp my feet and pull my hair over Chinese suspicion of foreigners — even if it seems really contrived and dumb at times.
After all, I don’t get a vote. And that asshole did use my picture.