COLUMBIA — Briana Marsh was riding the subway in Beijing earlier this year when a stranger tapped her on the shoulder.
"Hey," he said. "You sing really well."
She didn't know him, but she smiled and thanked him for the compliment.
This happens on occasion to Marsh, a 21-year-old University of Central Missouri senior from Columbia who studies Chinese.
For the last four years, she has been practicing Mandarin by singing covers of popular Chinese songs and posting them on YouTube. Almost immediately, they went viral in China.
With more than 4.3 million views combined of her 65 YouTube videos, Marsh averages 67,000 views per video. Her most popular, a cover of "Ai Ni (Love You)" by Chinese singer Kimberley Chen, has surpassed a half-million views.
No one could have been more surprised than Marsh.
"I remember the first video that I posted got 30,000 views right away," she said. "I was like, 'Wow, people actually pay attention to this stuff.'"
Today, her videos have millions of views on YouTube and Youku, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube and the second-largest video website in the world.
Learning the Language
Mandarin — along with Arabic, Japanese and Korean — is one of the hardest languages to learn for native English speakers, according to the Defense Language Institute.
Its 47,000 characters and four official tones make it more complex than many Western languages. While tone in English is used to express emotion or emphasis, it is used to differentiate the meaning of words with the same character in Chinese.
Marsh began teaching herself Mandarin when she was a student at Rock Bridge High School. She had loved the art of language ever since she studied German and Spanish in school, but after stumbling upon a Chinese song on YouTube, she became fascinated with Mandarin.
"I started listening to more of it and watching the TV shows, and finally I decided that I should learn this language," she said. "It wasn't like anything I'd ever learned before."
Marsh, a Chinese major at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, studied abroad in Beijing from August 2012 to July 2013.
She spent her free time communicating with language partners online in China. When she told one of them she was singing Chinese songs to master the language, he recommended she put them online and let others give her feedback.
"I was a freshman in college that year, and I had so much free time on my hands that I didn't know what to do with, so I thought I would try it," she said.
She began by keeping tabs on Chinese chart toppers that are slower in tempo. Her cover of China native Hu Xia's "Those Years," a slow acoustic song, is one of her most popular ones.
"We Americans tend to focus on the beat, but it seems that Chinese people prefer to listen to powerful lyrics and beautiful melodies," she said. "I prefer to sing slow songs, so they are right up my alley."
Her fans are only able to view her YouTube videos in Hong Kong and Taiwan because of the Golden Shield Project, colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China, an Internet censorship and surveillance project run by the Chinese government.
Knowing that YouTube wasn't the best platform for her videos, her fans in Hong Kong and Taiwan began posting them on Youku and several other Chinese video sites, unbeknownst to her.
"At first, I didn't even know that these websites existed," she said. "I would have people send messages letting me know my videos were really popular on a certain website."
Despite the YouTube block in mainland China, Marsh still has more than 10,000 subscribers on her channel, most in China.
When in Beijing
Once word spread that Marsh was in China, she was in demand.
A television station in Beijing asked her to appear on a local singing show. She walked into an open studio with no heat on a chilly December morning, where she was partnered with a Russian woman and Egyptian man.
"They asked us to pretend we were best friends, even though we'd never met," she said. "It turns out it was a competition, but we didn't know that when we were up there filming."
They sang and were ranked by Chinese judges.
"In the end, we advanced to the next round," Marsh said. "So I guess we did OK."
She said it wasn't her best experience, but it led to more exposure. A station in Taiwan asked her to perform on "Super Idol," Taiwan's version of "American Idol."
Contestants compete to win a recording contract, and the show invites foreign singers to battle against a contestant every week. She stayed in Taiwan for three days, just long enough to travel, rehearse, film the show and return home.
"I won my battle with the guy I was singing against, so I would consider it a successful adventure," she said.
Mastering the music
Music has always played a role in Marsh's life. Her father, Sam, is a drummer, and her younger sister, Kaitlyn, is a violinist. Briana grew up playing piano and saxophone, but she began focusing solely on singing as she grew older.
Her mother, Julie, wasn't shocked that she picked up Chinese, but she was surprised by the way she learned it.
"She's always gone after things that are out of the realm of popular choices," she said. "If other people were choosing it, she usually wasn't, and she always had a knack for languages."
Sam Lin, an MU student from China, praised her talent and language ability.
"Her Chinese is amazing, and she has a great accent," he said. "If you just listened to her singing, you wouldn't be able to tell that it's an American singing it. She's that good."
Marsh isn't sure what will become of this success.
She wants to finish school and find a job as a translator in America, Taiwan or China, but she knows that living far away from her family would be difficult.
"Where the best job is, that's where I'll go," she said.
Her mother said she's anxious to see where Briana lands.
"I'm excited for her, but at the same time, it's scary," Julie Marsh said. "The world's a little scary right now, especially for a young woman to go across the world with no family over there. We're just kind of waiting to see what happens."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.