If you really want to master a language, you should not ignore the spectacular culture associated with it. If you are interested in Chinese and the Chinese culture, you should have a look at Off The Great Wall. Two Chinese-looking young hosts talk there all about China—the past and the present. Carmen and Dan know both Chinese and Western views. They do the show more in a Western way that people would understand. They pretend and act out many typical Chinese scenes and try to explain. They also comment on the latest events and share their opinions in a very entertaining way. No matter how they comment, at least they open a new sight for you to look at China and Chinese. Off the Great Wall will guide you into the Chinese world.
CJ: Do you mind introducing yourself to our readers so that we can know you better?
Carmen: My name is Carmen, and I do a YouTube Channel called Off the Great Wall. Right now, I’m in New York, Manhattan. Actually, I didn’t really want to be a host, but before doing this, I was a producer of indie programs. I was asked to do some sort of program that talks about the social happenings of China and things like that, and so I had the idea of doing this. I tried to find a host and I found Dan. So, Dan is the guy, but we didn’t find any females. So, I said,: “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.” Gradually, I got used to it and, actually, I’m not that bad, so I continued doing it.
In the beginning of the show, we were actually looking at what’s viral in China. And then we would basically talk about it. Dan is more like an Asian that is more Americanized than I am, so he would ask me things in a more Western way. He wouldn’t understand the Chinese—that sort of thinking. And then we realized that we should probably target people like Dan, who don’t know much about Chinese culture, and educate them in a way that they would accept, because we were talking from a point of view that people wouldn’t really understand. So, I think that’s how it kind of evolved. And, obviously, it has to be entertaining, as well, because young people nowadays, their attention span is so short. If it’s not entertaining, if it’s like a lecture, nobody is going to watch.
CJ: I found that there are various types of your videos. Which one is more popular?
Carmen: Well, we have a skit every single week. So, the skit is basically like a comedic looking at some of the cultural things that overseas Chinese and overseas Americans go through. We do educational videos, which we call RMV, because we couldn’t come up with a name, so we call them Random Miscellaneous Videos. Whatever random educational stuff that we can think of, we put it in. So, that one is usually me or Dan speaking in front of the camera, telling the audience about something. I think the most popular one is definitely the Chinese Family Tree. That one basically launched us from when we only had a few. And now we have the idea—because I experience it myself—of: “Oh, my aunts are called different, you know, from my dad’s side and from my mom’s side.” That’s really interesting because, in Western cultures, that never happens. It’s just aunt. And some Westerners just call them by their first name. Let’s draw this out and let’s just put it up, and that was very accepted. It went very viral, and I think that is the most popular video that we have, and a lot of people were introduced to us through that video.
Merging the East and the West
CJ: You often comment on some social and cultural issues. What is your perspective? Do you make those videos with your Westerner view or Chinese view?
Carmen: I don’t think of it really as a Westerner view or Chinese view. I think of it as my view, basically. For some of them, I can’t make up stuff because these are the facts. And if I wanted to put a view on it, I would say, at the end, “I think this. What do you guys think?” But the facts are the facts. It’s not something I make up. Our goal is really to show the cultural essence of China. They sometimes feel some of the things that we talk about are negative, but it’s not because we want to put a negative image on China. I just feel like, if these things do exist, then we should bring them out into the open and raise awareness and discuss it. Or else, how do you improve if you only talk about the good stuff and not the bad stuff? So, that’s just something we want to present to people. I feel like I’m in a unique position that I can experience both because I can actually understand Chinese and read Chinese. I can go online and see what people think. And I can also see and understand what the Westerners think. So, I don’t really put it in a Western view or Chinese view. I just think I do it through my view and I just connect the two together.
CJ: So, it’s not just for satisfying the curiosity of Westerners.
Carmen: No. Actually, that’s not even something that we think about when we brainstorm. We just think about what we think is entertaining and interesting, because a lot of the things that we do, I actually didn’t know myself until I went in to do the research and I thought: “Wow, this is definitely something I want to share with the audience.” There’s just so much to learn about China. It’s basically unlimited resources and materials to talk about, and China has a really deep history and culture. 5000 years of civilization. And I feel like we really, really need to treasure this because, a lot of the things we see today are a lot of good reflections of Chinese culture. I, myself, am actually interested in that. It’s not something we just pulled out.
Advantages and Challenges of Off the Great Wall
CJ: What are the biggest challenges you faced as hosts about China?
Carmen: Well, since besides being the host, I’m also the producer of the show, I think the biggest challenge is being able to constantly produce high quality videos so frequently and really learning the tools of the trade. Even though I don’t think we’re that popular because, compared to other YouTube Channels, we’re only in the tens of thousands—right now we’re only at 47 thousand—our goal is much, much higher than that. We want to reach a lot more people. So, we’ve only been around for a little bit over a year and YouTube has been around since 2006. So, there’s still a lot to learn. There’re still a lot of people we want to reach. I think, coming out with new stuff all the time, that’s interesting. That’s pretty difficult. And to understand the YouTube space is also a big challenge, because there’s just so much to learn there.
CJ: What is the best part of the job?
Carmen: The best part is really when we get the reactions and comments, because I remember when we had a couple thousand subscribers. And there was a lady who adopted some Chinese girls that messaged us. And, basically, they didn’t have a lot of Chinese people around. And the girls, because they’re a Western family, don’t like being Chinese. They always question: “Oh, why is my skin this color? Why are my eyes so small?” And so, they don’t want to be Chinese. And she said that, after seeing our videos, the little girls decided, “Oh, maybe it’s not so bad being a Chinese person. It’s pretty cool to be Chinese.” So, after seeing that message, we thought we’re really making a difference. Young people are feeling more connected to their roots and they don’t feel ashamed to be Chinese, because they’re watching our videos. And actually, that was the comment that really pushed us forward. And obviously, besides that, we also like the fact that Westerners are being educated about Chinese culture and they are so interested in our culture, as well. So, that’s something cool, as well.
How to learn Mandarin Chinese?
CJ: Are you also learning Mandarin now?
Carmen: I’m a Cantonese person. That’s the first language I learned. So, my Mandarin probably has some Cantonese accent in it but, actually, I’m surprised how many people are surprised that I know both languages. I’m not really formally learning it. I’m not taking classes or anything, but I’m always learning online, watching shows or videos, and reading, so I’m always self-learning, and I like to find out the stories behind words and the characters. And, actually, I didn’t speak it very well before because I was mainly surrounded by Westerners and Cantonese people. So, now that I have started doing this, I’ve made a lot more Mandarin-speaking friends. My Mandarin improved a lot more when I started to talk to them.
CJ: Now a lot of Chinese learners are following you. Do you think your videos could help Chinese learning?
Carmen: Well, the thing is, I’m not a teacher that can teach you the pronunciation and the characters, or whatever. I don’t want to teach them just the language. I want to teach them the culture and how it’s used in real life, because a lot of these teaching Chinese channels are just teaching the words and not really how it’s applied in real life. And I think, in our videos, you can see how it’s applied in real life because we act it out in real life situations. I think, in that way, they will benefit. Because I don’t have the best Mandarin accent, it’s not the best to learn Chinese from me, but to understand how it’s used in the cultural context, in that way they’ll learn a lot.
CJ: Do you have any tips for the learners if they’re learning from your production?
Carmen: Chinese is not something you learn overnight. You just need to enjoy it. And the thing is that you shouldn’t learn it just from textbooks or lectures. You should also learn it from day-to-day life, like TV shows, websites, and videos, and interacting with friends. That would definitely help a lot. And to me, that’s more useful because if I look at the characters, I can see the story behind it and I will remember it better. But if I just see the English words, I don’t know what it means. The meaning behind the word is very important to me.
CJ: What do you want to say to our DigMandarin readers?
Carmen: A lot of people are afraid to learn Chinese, because they’re scared of how hard it is, because they see the characters. Or even if they see the family tree, they say, “Oh, wow, I don’t want to do it anymore.” But you know, learning itself is a lifelong journey. Even Chinese people don’t know all the characters. So, this is something that everyone is learning throughout their entire lives, and there’s always new things coming up. Everyone is learning. So, it’s not something you can learn overnight, and there’re always interesting stories and tales behind every single character. So, enjoy what you’re doing and don’t see it as this huge wall of difficulty. Just actually love it and enjoy it. Then you will find learning is easy, because you won’t think it’s difficult. You’ll just think it’s fun.