Credit: Instagram/meermu

Ever been called a banana or labelled jiak kentang? Well, TikToker Jessica Chan has a decidedly cooler term for those of us who aren’t the best at our mother tongue — #byelingual.

Rather than being ashamed of her ‘broken’ Mandarin, Jessica’s made it the focus of her TikToks, amassing over 191,000 followers to date.

In fact, one of her skits, where she plays a #byelingual pilot struggling to make an inflight announcement, has even been recreated by TikTokers around the world in an impressive array of languages, from Hindi to Tagalog.

Confidence is key

Her viral fame was purely accidental, the 25-year-old Singapore-based Canadian tells us over a Zoom call.

“Even my handle (jimmy12345_jim) is just a spam name. Because my real name is so common,” she laughs. “Seventy thousand followers later, I realised it’s too late to change.”

She tells us in her trademark mix of slightly shaky Mandarin and perfect English: “I’m not the first one whose han yu shui ping (standard of Mandarin) is this bad, but I think I’m the first one who decided to embrace it with so much confidence.”

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From her struggles at greeting her relatives during Chinese New Year to communicating with a Mandarin-speaking date, her content is loosely inspired by her actual life. “I’m not an actress. I’m just exaggerating my daily life scenarios.”

And yes, her Mandarin really is bu hao (not good), as Jessica says.

When she moved to Singapore when she was around nine or ten, she attended international schools with other “Asians who were basically foreigners on the inside”, up until she enrolled in Lasalle College of the Arts, she explains.

Even though she’s been attending a language school for the past couple of years, she jokes that she’s still “Chinese tone deaf”.

Dealing with naysayers, haters and crazy fans

While she’s accepted it as part of who she is, there are some who take umbrage at her content and accuse her of being a “disgrace” and “normalising bad Chinese”.

“Or they call me a banana, but I’m like, ‘Okay, I already know this,'” Jessica tells us nonchalantly.

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She pays the haters no heed, explaining that all she’s trying to do is spread entertainment and joy.

“You should just carry the words of your friends and your family and what they think of you to be more important than the words of all these online strangers and user5372981672, you know?”

Another side effect of viral fame is the flood of DMs she receives, Jessica reveals. There are the sweet messages of encouragement, which she tries her utmost best to respond to, the “straight up simps”, which she tends to ignore, and then there are the creepers.

“There was this one really crazy fan who fully believed he was in a serious relationship with me even though I never acknowledged any of his posts,” she says. “He would even call me the future mother of his kids.”

The entire thing was funny at first, but quickly got scary. Fortunately the creeper situation is “all good now”, she adds, crediting her friends for looking out for her.

From creating oil paintings to 15-second videos

For all its pros and cons, she’s embraced her online fame and is currently planning on pursuing a career in the media or creative industry, Jessica tells us.

But what her followers might not know is that she’s actually a trained contemporary artist.

Besides crafting bite-sized videos on TikTok, the fine arts graduate’s other passion is creating oil paintings that explore “the relative nature of binaries, and how the world in this day and age has become arguably closer and more accessible than ever”.

While she hasn’t been painting recently due to time constraints — it takes her one to two weeks to finish an art piece — some of her older works are still being sold online.

Admitting that her two interests are practically from different worlds, she shares candidly that she was initially “very torn” over choosing between TikTok and her art career.

“One is slow. It’s a fine arts painting. And the other one is very fast, like, every second matters in a 15-second video.”

But just as she chose to follow her heart and study fine arts back then, she says TikTok feels like the way to go for now.

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“Everything online seems like the right thing to do right now. I also believe that it’s not that I will have to give up one but eventually, my two passions will merge in the long run,” she explains, citing the recent prominence of non-fungible tokens (NFT) as an indication that things are changing in the art industry as well. 

And then, there’s the relationship she’s built with her TikTok followers, many of them teenage girls.

“They would just share with me about their life, or they would just tell me that they just need to talk to a stranger.

“You can go from comedy to something personal and real. So that’s something that my paintings could never do.”

This article was first published in AsiaOne.