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.
If you’re a dedicated Radii reader, my apologies — I was out of town and couldn’t get an article together in time last week. But as luck would have it, my trip provided an idea for this week’s post.
You see, last weekend was a friend’s birthday and we went up to a near-deserted section of the Great Wall — did a bunch of hiking and climbing, sang KTV (karaoke) with some extremely friendly old people, played an unfathomable amount of cornhole, set way too many things on fire, and met a tiny puppy named Peanut who is essentially the dictionary definition of “I. Can’t. Even.”
Watch here (You’re welcome, internet.)
There was just one problem — slow wifi and limited 4G. By all rights that shouldn’t even qualify as an issue. Usually I’m the kind of person who derives a lot of pretentious joy from ignoring every form of electronic communication on trips and getting on my high horse about the virtues of going “unplugged” for a few days. But as we climbed our way past the “Don’t Climb This, Idiots” sign and made our way to a lookout tower with one of the best views I’ve ever seen, I realized that not being able to stream the experience felt like a genuine problem.
Here I was at the tourist-free section of an iconic Chinese landmark — all of the beauty with none of the crowds — and I was missing out on a guaranteed chance to be #1 on YingKe. All those new fans! All those gifts! This *meaningful fun with friends* bullshit was hurting my burgeoning social media career!
pictured: a face of regret and despair
Ok, fine; I’m probably exaggerating a bit. Realistically, the thought went something like “oh darn, this would have made a fantastic stream.”
Still though, I’m at the point where I have to acknowledge that zhibo (live streaming, if you’re new here) is now officially a *thing* that I *do* in some semi-official capacity. It produces a half-decent bit of income, it often impacts how I schedule my day, and — lest we forget — it gives me the opportunity to ramble about China on the internet every week. It’s growing quickly and has given me the chance to meet people and come across opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise.
But it’s also starting to occasionally produce a feeling of obligation. The moment at which I question doing something fun with my friends because I feel like I should be blabbing into my phone tends to prompt a series of internal questions, staring with what the actual f@#k is wrong with you?
Seriously though, what are you doing? You’re spending hours staring at yourself in your phone, saying thank you for imaginary lollipops and cucumbers, telling people where you’re from a dozen times a minute, and all for what? For better Chinese skills you could get by just, you know, living your life in China as a slightly more outgoing person? For some hypothetical future of bizzaro-fame and fortune that would tie you permanently to a country you only meant to spend a few years in? Do you have any idea how many books you could read or memories you could make in the time you spend telling strangers that yes, you do in fact like Chinese food?
Yes, it seems I’ve reached the existential crisis portion of this roller coaster, where I’m spending enough time and energy on zhibo without yet having the sufficiently-life-changing results necessary to justify those expenditures to the more cynical part of my brain.
I’m aware that Chinese live streaming isn’t exactly the most relatable thing in the world; thankfully (for readers, at least), my concern with wasting time on zhibo has become a tidy little metaphor for my broader existential dread at the idea that I’m wasting my young adult life screwing around in China.
For all the ways in which I’m loving life here — and for all the times I tell myself that going back to America with near-fluent Chinese and a good amount of work/life experience in Beijing can’t be a bad thing — it’s hard to start my fourth year halfway across the world without some horror at the idea that I’m squandering my youth. I go on Facebook and see friends who are going to grad school, getting married, moving up in their serious adult jobs; and sometimes it’s hard to avoid feeling like I’ve made a terrible mistake.
I took a selfie whilst contemplating
Having recently turned 25, it’s all too easy to get it into my head that I’ve officially wasted my early 20s and have left it too late to really be successful in life. After all, what do I really have to show for my time here? A resume full of a bit of this and bit of that, some vacation photos, and a set of lungs full of the finest smog on the planet. Despite career advances and a reasonably comfy life, I’m pretty deeply connected to the ESL industry here — and that doesn’t have an obvious transition point back to the *real* world.
What the hell will I do when I go home? Tell people I’m good at entertaining the Chinese? Brag about how well I know the Beijing subway system? What if I get stuck here because it never feels like the right moment to leave? Good god, am I an expat now? Was I so scared of the real world when I graduated that I’ve essentially spent another four years avoiding it? What the hell have I done?
These are my 2am *screaming wordlessly into the void* thoughts.
But of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the existential crisis. Had I gone from college to a 9-5 office job in DC, I’d spend my void-screaming time worrying about missing out on adventure and new experiences and being on the fast-track to a boring and predictable life. I’d be with the friends I miss, but wouldn’t have made any of the friends I love in Beijing. I’d be breathing cleaner air but eating more junk food — the tap water would be safe, but wandering around sketchy alleys at 3am (a truly magical experience in Beijing) wouldn’t be. I’d have certain political freedoms I give up to live in China, but I’d have to talk about Donald “You Did WHAT While I Was Gone?!?” Trump on a daily basis. Yin and Yang, as it were.
close enough, I suppose
I suppose since no one can ever know if the path they’re on is the *right* one, the best alternative is to judge the way we spend our time by how it shapes us on a day-to-day basis. And by that metric, my time spent on zhibo (and more broadly, living in China) passes with flying colors. Putting myself in front of thousands of people every day forces me to work on presenting the best version of myself. I constantly consider what I look and sound like; if my clothes look bad, people tell me. If I seem to have gained weight, I am informed. If my skin has imperfections, you’d best believe I hear about it.
thankfully, the bar is set a bit differently over here
And it’s not just superficial bullshit, either. I’ve been a terrible snooze-button-hitter my whole life, but streaming at 7am is a reasonably competition-free time to get on the top of YingKe’s homepage, so these days I tend to be up at 6. People want to hear music and love when hosts sing and play the piano, so for the first time in basically ever, I’m actually practicing on a regular basis. I’ve learned dozens of new Chinese idioms essentially for the purpose of sounding less like a f@#king idiot when blathering in Chinese — something no amount of college homework and testing could convince me to put in the time for.
Does it reflect poorly on me that it takes an audience of 50,000 to convince me to get my shit together? Probably. Am I a narcissist? Unquestionably. But results are results and I’m not gonna look a gift horse (or virtual Ferrari) in the mouth.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to propose a new measurement of whether a given pursuit is worth your time. I call it the “Hangover Test.”
Those who know me well — or have ever met me — are probably aware that I enjoy knocking back a few on a Friday night. Or a Wednesday night. Or a Tuesday morning brunch. Shut up — it’s 5pm somewhere. But unfortunately, my years of hearty imbibing have not rendered me any less susceptible to hangovers. Once I cross a certain threshold, the next day is usually pretty much lost to me in terms of productivity. Continuing the existential crisis theme, those of you past your college years are no doubt familiar with the horror that comes with realizing you’ve wasted a day because you just *had* to do that last round of tequila shots.
All Things in Moderation: Easier Said Than Done
So, last Friday morning I woke up feeling like death and looking even worse. But instead of my usual process of figuring out what food-poisoning-based excuses I needed to send to clear my schedule for a day of misery, I had a uniquely focused thought: Good god, I look like shit and I need to be presentable and streaming in 45 minutes.
Laugh all you want, but it worked. I did a bunch of miserable sweat-inducing exercise, took a long icy shower, drank some coffee, put on some over-compensatingly formal clothes, and sat down for my morning stream. Then I went to a meeting that without question I would have otherwise canceled. Doing zhibo gave me a win in the morning that all the exercise goals and podcasts and big book-reading plans never could.
So, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say I’m probably not the only 25-year-old in the world with some serious doubts about whether their life is on the right track. Here’s the advice that you didn’t ask for and I’m not qualified to give: if what you’re doing with your time springs you out of bed in the morning and motivates you to improve yourself in other ways, it’s probably worth doing.
Even if it’s objectively fucking stupid.