Now reading I Eat, You Watch

I Eat, You Watch

Dining with a friend online.

Xiaoyu worked at a cat café in a tiny town in Jiangxi. During the long stretches between customers, she watched videos on her phone, smiling to herself. “It’s this app called Meipai,” she told me semi-apologetically after I finally asked. “It’s pretty dumb, but it can be funny.”

Meipai is a Chinese microvideo platform dominated by user-submitted shorts, somewhere between Vine and YouTube in concept and community. “Can you show me some of your favorites?” I asked, expecting her to share the latest Chinese memes. Instead, she giggled in embarrassment and scrolled through a feed dominated by videos of ordinary people eating dinner.

Mukbang is a type of video that first gained popularity in Korea in which “BJs” (broadcast jockeys) live-stream themselves eating meals. To compensate for the absence of smell and taste in the remote viewing experience, BJs rely on sound and visuals to replicate the sensation of eating—the crinkling of wrappers, the crunch of fried chicken, and the appreciative chewing that follows. The top BJs, who range from stylish women in impeccable makeup to chubby teenagers, have large fan bases that send them money in appreciation, some making as much as $10,000 a month. Some viewers tune in for feats of extraordinary eating, others for vicarious gratification during diets. Most commonly, viewers and observers of the phenomenon say that streaming mukbang during mealtime alleviates the melancholy and discomfort of eating alone in a society where shared meals are the fundamental unit of social life.

While Korean mukbang is generally impressive for its high production values, Chinese mukbang is fascinating to me because of how much ordinary people seem to enjoy just watching each other. Look through the hashtag zhibochifan (#直播吃饭, “Live-streaming meals”), and you’ll find a massive list of banal videos with a surprising amount of social engagement. Some people film themselves eating fast food in pajamas in a tiny apartment, or sampling the wares at a new restaurant. Others shoot with the back camera, so that our view is not of the broadcaster but of their loved ones—their friends chattering away over late-night hot pot, their husband or wife talking about their day, sometimes even a whole family ignoring the broadcasting endeavor and eating in relative silence. These streams are a hundred thousand windows into normal lives all over the country, and strangers on the Internet are watching and leaving comments as if they were neighbors inviting themselves over for dinner.

Meipai uses a common commenting system known as dan mu (弹幕), or “bullet curtain,” originally popularized by the Japanese video platform NicoNico and evolved from Japanese shooting video games like Galaga. Time-synced comments scroll over the video itself, sometimes drowning out the original content in a wave of reactions. It creates a powerful sense of conviviality—renao (热闹) —and allows the viewers to watch each other in addition to the person broadcasting. If the broadcast itself can make viewers feel like they’re dining with a friend, the bullet curtain comments make them feel like they’re at a dinner party bubbling over with merry chatter.

For popular videos, the buzzing atmosphere can resemble that of a boy-band concert. The viewership of mukbang—and indeed online video in general—skews female in China, and so many of the top-ranked food videos on Meipai are cooking tutorials (Koreans call these “cook-bang”) streamed by attractive young men. On these videos, compliments and come-ons fly by in a thick fog, flanked by heart-eyed emoji:

“This boy will be the death of me”

“I want to try this in person ^_^ ^_^”

“Whoever marries you is so lucky, can eat well every day”

The commonplace, quieter videos offer a different type of connection. Food and regional identity are closely intertwined; videos featuring local specialties often attract people who are homesick for their favorite foods as well as their hometown accents. Other viewers perform familial concern for the broadcasters they watch, asking after their health and chiding them to not work so hard if they’re broadcasting at a late hour.

Xiaoyu is a two-hour bus ride away from her family and doesn’t have many friends in the city, so it’s often these videos that she comes home to after a long night at the café. The videos give her access to hundreds of families, thousands of friends. She told me that sometimes, late at night, she gets so hungry from watching the videos that she has to get out of bed to make a snack. The delicious food might be a mirage, but the emotional comfort these videos provide is real.