Lessons in Learning Chinese: Jesse Appell

This week we feature Jesse Appell on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series. You may recognize him from the viral video, “Laowai Style.” He’s definitely got a story to tell & tips to share as he’s blazing his own trail & leaving a footprint already in the world of Chinese language.

In his own words:

Hi Everyone! My name is Jesse Appell! I graduated from Brandeis University in May and am now in Beijing on a Fulbright Fellowship, researching Chinese comedy by learning the traditional art of Xiangsheng (相声). My goal is to learn about Chinese humor and find ways to improve intercultural communication between China and the western world through comedy and laughter. You can check out my blog about everything from TV shoots to getting haircuts in China.

How did you come up with the idea to make this video?

Originally, I got a text from a Chinese friend recommending I parody “Gangnam Style.” But I didn’t want to beat what I thought was already a dying horse unless I had something original to add to it. So while biking to class one day I thought of “Laowai Style” and the whole idea came fully formed to me at once.


Please tell us more about the lyrics. Did you write them?

I did write the lyrics! I made sure to write about things that had to do with foreigners but have it intersect with the way Chinese people lived their lives. I had an hour free during lunch the week before the shoot and sat down while eating fried dumplings writing down lyrics. After writing that first draft, a Chinese teacher of mine helped me edit for grammar.


Describe how you felt & over all experience filming this in Beijing. How long did this whole process take?

The experience of filming was something I’ll never forget. We shot the whole video between 9am and 11:30pm on one day, a Friday during China’s National Day holiday. I knew that only people having fun could make a fun video so we went all out in front of the cameraMost of my favorite parts had to do with things I didn’t even plan: the three hundred people who watched us at the Bird’s Nest, some of whom danced with us too, after a bit of persuasion; dancing with a group of elementary schoolers who happened to be passing by our shoot; finding some kids doing cosplay and convincing them to dance with us.


What’s the general feedback you have with this video from other “laowai?”

Laowai seem to be split on the video. On one hand, we’ve had a large and positive response from most people while comments on blogs like ChinaSmack and Beijing Cream have been a mix of positive and negative. I think there are a group of jaded Laowai who have been in China so long that they no longer love the country and the culture the way I still do. But the video really wasn’t meant for them—it was meant for Chinese people, who almost exclusively have loved it.


Any more videos to come?!

You bet! I’m putting together a video crew to make more this year. I’ve already got several ideas and now with the support of many people who have seen the video and asked to be involved there will certainly be more videos coming along!


Any funny bloopers during planning & filming?

Oftentimes old Chinese people would wander directly into the shot and take up half the frame, staring at us for minutes before walking off, bewildered. Also, I nearly fell into the lake at Tsinghua campus during the dance-off scene trying to do the “moon banana” dance move.

How long have you been studying Chinese? In what context? For what purpose?

I’ve studied Chinese formally for about three years including two years during college and living in China for study abroad. Now, I am studying at the IUP program at Tsinghua, hoping to get my language up to a high enough level to perform Xiangsheng. Right now, my purpose in Chinese is to be able to get onstage and perform in Chinese, knowing that if I can do that, I can do almost anything I want to do.


What mistakes do you see other language learners make? What should people NOT do when studying Chinese?

The biggest mistake that people make is not taking advantage of opportunities to engage themselves with a language on many levels. People don’t get good at a language by only reading books on one topic or only talking to one type of person; instead, the best speakers have, in my experience, been the people who say “yes” to every offer, attend conferences on subjects they have no expertise on, and speak with everyone from cab drivers to investment bankers. There’s nobody who isn’t your Chinese teacher in China.


Any favorite words or phrases? (there are loads which don’t have equivalents in English)

I’ve really enjoyed some of the phrases that I’ve learned in my oral Chinese classes, such as 穷得叮当响, which translates to “clinkety-clank poor”, describing someone who’s so poor they only have coins in their pocket that jangle around when they walk. And of course, the words that are so much better in Chinese than in English… I love being able to use the words 麻烦 and 当然。


Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes, misunderstandings, surreal moments etc.

It’s been a funny experience being in a viral video, but one which I didn’t think would go viral and so wore dark glasses and attached very little personal contact info to. When I showed up at a friend’s Halloween party, I was announced as “The Laowai Style Laowai” and was instantly swarmed by nearly everyone there.


Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?



Thanks Jesse for those tips and telling us more about the video. It definitely looked like scenes with Chinese natives dancing were planned! We’re excited for the upcoming videos.

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