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2018-06-28 14:30:56 Voices

Beginning in late 2016, people passing through Wudaokou — a Beijing neighborhood popular among the city’s foreign population thanks to its proximity to nearby universities — might have noticed a young man strolling around the area, trying to talk to his fellow foreigners on-camera. Though the dark-haired expat is often politely but firmly rejected by those he is attempting to interview, he deftly edits the footage he gets into five-minute video clips that often go viral on social media apps and streaming platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat, and Bilibili.

The young man conducting the interviews is Raz Galor — also known by his Chinese name, Gao Yousi. A 23-year-old Israeli, Galor received his bachelor’s degree from Peking University. In 2016, Galor founded a startup with Chinese classmate Fang Yedun, and they now run one of the most popular social media accounts that depicts the daily lives of foreigners in China and has 2.28 million followers on Twitter-like Weibo. The startup’s Chinese name translates to “The Crooked Nuts Research Institute,” and is a pun on the Chinese word for “foreigner,” which — when said in a foreign accent — can sound like “crooked nut.” This malapropism has become a popular and amusing — if gently and friendly teasing — way of referring to foreigners among Chinese.

Galor and many of the other so-called crooked nuts that appear in his videos have surprised Chinese people — not just in terms of their diversity, but also in how steeped they seem to be in the local culture. Many of these crooked nuts speak near-native Chinese, with some having even mastered one or more of the country’s various dialects. They get around town on shared bikes, buy things through online shopping site Taobao, order takeout through Chinese apps, watch Chinese television dramas, and keep up with their favorite Chinese stars.

Together, they reflect the ways in which a new generation of China-based foreigners is skillfully using new media to showcase their daily lives. A (stereo)typical foreign-made video about China might focus on subjects such as tourism or food. The presentation of such videos tend toward orientalism, with China and its people treated as the Other for viewers to either marvel, ridicule, or both. The foreigners appearing in these videos are often little more than sightseers — flitting along the periphery of Chinese life, taking quick, surface-level snapshots, and then leaving. Crooked Nuts videos, on the other hand, are able to showcase more interesting aspects of Chinese life — in part due to how integrated its stars have become into Chinese society.

One of the account’s most popular videos from 2017 is titled, “Ever since these crooked nuts became obsessed with Chinese TV dramas.” The segment opens with a reenactment of a well-known scene from the 2017 drama, “In the Name of the People.” In the scene the video references, a corrupt official is taken to his illegally owned suburban villa to confront his crimes. The clip’s parody of the original’s over-the-top acting proved particularly appealing to Chinese audiences, and the video has since received over 11,000 comments and been shared over 31,000 times.

The clip also includes a section in which Galor interviews foreigners about the Chinese TV shows they have watched. Few Chinese would be surprised to hear classic titles such as “Three Kingdoms.” However, interviewees were also effusive in their praise for shows such as costume fantasy drama “Eternal Love,” period piece on palace intrigue “Empresses in the Palace,” and contemporary urban drama “Ode to Joy.”

Galor and many of the other so-called crooked nuts that appear in his videos have surprised Chinese people — not just in terms of their diversity, but also in how steeped they seem to be in the local culture.

Yet it is the depth of their engagement with such Chinese drama that sets these crooked nuts apart from other foreigners. Their passion for these shows can be seen from how one interview subject talks about the chemistry between two main characters from “In the Name of the People,” or how another uses fluent Chinese to explain how she became a fan of the actor Hu Ge after seeing him in the popular period drama “Nirvana in Fire.”

In addition to their street interviews, in 2017 the Crooked Nuts team launched another series in which foreigners try their hands at a number of common Chinese jobs. One well-received episode involved Galor spending a day working as a takeout delivery driver in Beijing. Last year, as the calendar approached November 11 — China’s version of Black Friday — the Crooked Nuts team traveled to the eastern e-commerce hub of Yiwu to conduct product research, and even launched their own Taobao shop to participate in what is now the world’s largest shopping day. Other segments have centered on Galor and his team working as subway staff attendants, railway conductors, and movers.

Building on the success of their first two series, the Crooked Nuts team has also released several round-table discussions on trending topics, including the #MeToo movement. One of the series’ most telling and self-reflective episodes focuses on so-called foreign trash, with three foreigners from different backgrounds and different China experiences offering a historical overview of foreign activities in China over the past few decades. The consensus they reach — that foreigners can no longer skate by purely by being foreign — demonstrates the depth of their understanding of changing Chinese attitudes towards foreigners.

The Crooked Nuts group is by no means alone in its attempts to document the lives of foreigners. Quite a few other young foreigners have made similar videos in other major cities around the country. In Shanghai, a German man named Thomas — who goes by the Chinese handle Ah Fu, meaning good fortune — has gained millions of followers on both Weibo and WeChat by producing videos documenting his daily life and relationship with his Chinese in-laws. A former student at Shanghai’s Fudan University, his funniest and most compelling segments tend to reflect on the linguistic and cultural differences between China and Germany.

Thomas Derksen poses for a photo in Shanghai, June 22, 2017. VCG

Thomas Derksen poses for a photo in Shanghai, June 22, 2017. VCG

An amusing and representative example is the time when he — under the impression that Chinese New Year was China’s version of Christmas — brought a small Christmas tree with him during the holiday to his in-laws’ house when he met them for the first time. Upon later being told that it would have been more appropriate to give his father-in-law “two packs of Zhonghuas” as gifts — a luxury cigarette brand — Ah Fu mistakenly thought that people were talking about Zhonghua brand toothpaste. Episodes such as this one, which offer a humorous window into Ah Fu’s family life, are popular among his followers.

Taken collectively, the viral fame achieved by such crooked nuts demonstrates how a new generation of foreigners is presenting and defining their lives in China.

Three decades ago, young Canadian Mark Henry Rowswell — better known by his Chinese name, Da Shan — became an overnight sensation in China when he performed xiangsheng, a traditional Chinese two-person comedy skit, for the CCTV network’s New Year’s Eve Gala. Fluent in Chinese, for many years Da Shan was one of the most famous foreign personalities in Chinese media. But thanks to the advent of new media, there are now all kinds of outlets and video sharing platforms available to other foreigners looking to showcase their lives and experiences.

Their works are not without critics, however. Some netizens have accused foreign viral video stars of pandering to their Chinese audiences. And as one anonymous writer on the online question-and-answer platform Zhihu noted, “Just because you can use internet slang doesn’t mean you have integrated into Chinese culture.”

Ten years ago, the Taiwan-based girl group S.H.E. released the hit song “Zhongguo hua” — or “Chinese Language.” The song proudly proclaimed the rising popularity of Chinese language and culture around the world. Last year, a group of crooked nuts released a “Zhongguo hua” of their own. Pronounced the same way as the S.H.E. song, the title literally translates to “Becoming Chinese," and parodies some of the common tropes associated with life as a foreigner in China. From speaking Chinese in videos to “Becoming Chinese,” a new generation of foreigners is attracting Chinese fans by developing even more meaningful connections to the country.

Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O'Donnell.

(Header image: Raz Galor (in black) tries chicken feet, a traditional Chinese delicacy, at an event in Beijing, July 13, 2017. Charlie Jones/IC)