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.
Taylor’s follower count to date:
If you’ve ever attempted to either learn or teach a second language, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the importance of repetition. So, budding young students of Chinese everywhere will be delighted to know that Zhibo pushes this principle — and sometimes my sanity — to the very edge of reason. For example, there is no end to YingKe’s geographical fascination with me — whether that means asking where I’m from or where I’m currently located:
Even the American flag didn’t help stem the tide…
Yes, one of the downsides to meeting a few thousand new people a day in a country where you’re a statistical anomaly is that you’re going to end up repeating yourself a few times. I tend to handle this — as is my nature — by constantly giving different snarky answers to the same question; not just because I’m a jackass (key word: “just”), but because it seems to amuse people and keeps regular viewers from getting bored.
For most endlessly repeated questions, this is pretty easy: when asked where I’m from by every new viewer, I cycle through countries, planets, alternate dimensions, and various riffs on “the magic space inside your phone, of course!” When I need to tell people what I like to eat for the fiftieth time that hour, I explain that like most foreigners, I subsist entirely on a diet of Chinese babies, the blood of my enemies, and a proprietary smoothie blend of cauliflower and marshmallow fluff that keeps my skin nice and white.
But there’s one question I get asked all the time yet never know what to do with:
你有女朋友吗? Do you have a girlfriend?
Now first off, I find this question to be hilarious, though not nearly so hilarious as being greeted with 哇你好帅啊 (wow, you’re so handsome!) over and over and over again. I’m painfully aware of how arrogant that sounds, but just give me a second to explain myself here.
Seriously, I try my best to set the record straight!
Actually, this being our 2-month anniversary together (me and my imaginary readership, that is), let me tell you a little bit more about myself. I’m a pale, nerdy white guy who might clock in at a solid 5’9” with a pair of boots and a bit of wishful thinking. I transitioned seamlessly from a skinny un-athletic child to an overweight un-athletic teenager pretty much overnight, and I managed to get halfway through college before realizing that the gross Bieber hair-swoop wasn’t working for me. The point is, I’ve never been particularly popular with the ladies, in part no doubt owing to my usage of phrases like “popular with the ladies.”
But it turns out — who would have thought? — that losing 30-odd pounds and moving to a country where you’re a couple inches above average height rather than below it really raises your stock price. Pair that with YingKe’s utterly ridiculous filters (baby-smooth skin the color of marble, basically), and suddenly a whole lot of people want to know what my dating life is like. So everyone asks me if I have a girlfriend.
Honest answer? No. Naturally, they then they ask “why?” Again, the honest answer isn’t that interesting: because I like being single and I don’t want to be (or think I’d be any good at being) responsible for another human being’s emotional well-being. Besides, I live in a city that functions as more of a revolving door than a long-term home, especially for foreigners.
Not surprisingly, this sort of answer is generally found…lacking by my audience (at least 70% young Chinese women) on YingKe. Of course, when they ask if I have a girlfriend, what they’re really asking is whether my girlfriend — the one they assume exists — is Chinese or foreign. And I can assure you, not even a game of Russian Roulette played with six bullets is as dangerously loaded as that question. Having a conversation with ten thousand Chinese people about my relationship status quickly turns into a multi0pronged Catch-22 of sorts (a Catch-88?). I’ve illustrated the problem in the following helpful flowchart:
Of course, this conversation isn’t limited to a live-streaming audience. Anyone who’s ever lived in China has likely had uncomfortable-yet-amusing conversations about their dating life with friends, coworkers, cab drivers, etc., all of whom want to know why on earth they haven’t found a nice girl/guy and started thinking about buying a house yet. If you don’t want to date a Chinese girl, you just don’t like Chinese people. If you are dating a Chinese girl, you’re one of *those* foreigners. And if you explain that planning your marriage and future child’s school district in your early 20s just isn’t really up your alley, you get the distinct privilege of once again suddenly and selectively representing every non-Chinese person on earth (as in, “ah yes, this is just the way foreigners are”).
But to be honest, this is one area where I don’t really begrudge the Chinese their stereotypes. There are a lot of foreigners in China — particularly guys — who take definitively gross advantage of their artificially inflated status. I’ve heard the term *yellow fever* uttered enough times without irony to know that the porn industry didn’t just make it up. And yes, there are also a lot of Chinese guys who just want to hook up with foreign girls. For every Chinese girl on YingKe asking me if, you know, I happen to have a girlfriend already (hint hint wink nudge omg why would you send me that picture?!?), there’s a guy asking quite seriously if I can somehow introduce them to a foreign girl.
Pictured: what I imagine is on the other end of the phone
[sidebar: I’m kind of doubting Radii has a lot of readers in the, erm, *men’s rights movement* camp or whatever reddit and 4chan calls it these days, but just to be safe – I’m talking mostly about human males because I am one and that’s the perspective I’m more familiar with. I’m sure there’s lots of unsavory foreign women in Beijing as well if that helps forestall any angry comments]
So in the end, I’m not complaining about the constant predictable line of questioning for once. I mean, I know it looks like I’m complaining, but that’s just me being my lovably abrasive and misanthropic self. As with everything on YingKe, I’ve had far more positive interactions than negative; the vast majority of YingKe users are young and I’m finding that simply choosing my words a bit more carefully makes a big difference. If I say that I have no thoughts on the notion of getting married or having kids, everyone starts telling me how very strange and different *your foreign culture* is. But if I say that I prize freedom in my life and my parents think I’m crazy (sorry mom! I exaggerate for the greater good!), suddenly I can’t get a word in edgewise over all the agreement happening in the room.
People are people, after all – young people everywhere don’t like it when their families and society tell them what to do, and young people in China are under particularly massive pressure to partner up and start families (and go impossibly-expensive-house-hunting) as soon as possible. Some people are gonna go make babies in their 20s and some people aren’t, but I’m increasingly happy to find that no matter the topic, as long as I lead with “hey, this is just how I feel, but I’m just one dummy and you don’t have to agree,” I find myself in a (digital) room full of very friendly humans — not really something the internet has trained me to expect.
Well, except for the trolls.
A tale for another time…
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