One Expat’s Scandalous Behavior, Riled Much Of The Foreign Community, But In An Exclusive Interview With HERE! Zach Etkind Sets Things Straight About His Alter Ego…
Donnie Mahoney, infamous protagonist of video series Donnie Does has had, perhaps, the most entertaining and controversial expat career in recent memory. Always angling to cause a scene, he gate crashed a Manny Pacquio fight in Macau, making it into the ring, which gave him considerable street-cred and put his invention, the Suisey (a suit and a jersey) on the map. In the classroom he taught children about the only female player in the NFL, Eli Manning, and made sure that if they ever made it to Fenway Park they would be able to chant, “Yankees suck” along with the locals. From drunken bike wrecks and countless run-ins with the police, to the Cinderella story of going from a lifetime ban at the Shark Tank stadium in Shanghai to becoming a foreign liaison for the Shanghai Sharks, Zach “Stu” Etkind propelled himself from obscurity to become one of the most recognized expats in China. But his famous YouTube series has drawn its fair share of criticism too, detractors thinking his behavior was offensive, and it gave the anti-foreigner squad plenty of fodder, while providing oversensitive expat apologists ample opportunity to express outrage. For many Donnie was the ultimate foreign douchebag, the asshole of assholes, but for others he was a well acted, nuanced comedy creation, scoring more than a few satirical points.
For many Donnie was the ultimate foreign douchebag, the asshole of assholes, but for others he was a well acted, nuanced comedy creation, scoring more than a few satirical points.
Bad behavior for laughs has long elicited praise and ire, but every polarizing figure has their own side of the story. After the completion of his farewell rap video, “Shang the Hai”, Etkind ended the Donnie series and then sat down for an exclusive interview with HERE! to discuss the creation of his character Donnie, his impact on the foreign community, and China as a whole. Large swathes of the foreign community have never been able to quite get their head around the fact that Donnie might actually be a fictional character, and when asked about the genesis of Donnie, Etkind put any misplaced notions firmly to bed, “Donnie was a character I made-up with some friends in high school. Growing up in Massachusetts we knew a lot of people like Donnie. With people like Donnie, one of their defining characteristics is that they would never see the point of leaving Massachusetts,” he said. Adding “I thought it would be hilarious to put this character in the middle of China and see what happens. There are a lot of things that you are able to do in China that you wouldn’t be able to do in other parts of the world. I thought it would be a great backdrop for the character – with the character being so absurd, and aspects of China being so absurd as well.”
For many that watched his series, it looked like Donnie was sneering at the country, making jokes at its expense, that he couldn’t care less about the culture, but after speaking with Etkind for just a few minutes it becomes clear that he shares a deep love for the nation, “One thing that shines through when you watch the videos is that Chinese people are pretty friendly and have a sense of humor. There are a lot of people in the US and in other parts of the world that are scared of China, but I think after watching the videos people will say that China looks like a lot of fun and the people look really cool,” he says. Adding, “The most common question I get asked is, ‘Why weren’t you put in jail?’ People think that if you make one small mistake or do something wrong they will lock you in a jail cell for thirty years, and maybe that could be true if you’re Chinese, but as a foreigner that’s obviously not the case. The Chinese are really reasonable people.”
For those who find the videos disrespectful towards China and the Chinese, Etkind repeatedly states that the focus of his satire lies elsewhere. When asked about the backlash, Etkind points out that criticism came from a small group of foreigners who didn’t particularly understand his work, “Obviously you will get some people complaining about the series, ‘Oh you’re taking advantage of China. You’re being disrespectful to Chinese people.’ But To be honest I haven’t gotten a lot of complaints from Chinese people, most of the criticism comes from foreigners who don’t appreciate what I’m doing. Sure, the style of humor is a little weird to the Chinese, and if you don’t understand English you might not see what I’m trying to do, which is parodying the people that Donnie represents,” he says. Adding, “The point of the video is not to make fun of China, but it may expose some questionable aspects of Chinese culture in an entertaining and absurd way. The point is to make fun of Donnie, not China. I would say that my fan base is mainly expats, but there are Chinese fans who really seem to appreciate the videos.”
To be honest I haven’t gotten a lot of complaints from Chinese people, most of the criticism comes from foreigners who don’t appreciate what I’m doing
In the past he has received messages from Chinese fans telling him to take the character even further, suggesting that racially charged comments might grab a wider audience. Etkind dismisses this, “The thing about the videos that I am the most proud of is that Donnie treats everyone exactly the same; if he was in the US, China, or Europe, he’s going to be acting the same exact way. I think it creates a cool dynamic to see how Chinese people react to that.”
Beyond comedy Donnie Does brings some real issues in contemporary China to the forefront. One of his videos comically exposes the reality of profits being placed over quality in Chinese schools and training centers. Under qualified teachers are sent into classrooms solely because they are white every single day in China. This is not saying that kindergarten students all over the country are singing “The Beers on the Bus”, or learning the sentence, “I’m wicked high,” but a lack of background checks means that almost any Caucasian can be put in front of a large group of children regardless of credentials. Other videos score equally potent points, be they Donnie’s visit to a Shanghai ‘Marriage Market’ or his television appearance on a Chinese dating show. Amongst all the cheap laughs, plenty of thought provoking questions are asked.
Etkind is now focusing on his clothing invention the Suisey, a profitable bi-product of his Donnie fame. Leaving Shanghai for the States was a business decision, “If there was any way I could be running this from Shanghai, I would. I’m not done with China,” he says.
With his parting words, Etkind offers advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps, “A good rule in China is to never ask for permission, only ask for forgiveness. If you never ask for permission you will find that you are pretty much able to do most things.” But, beware, engaging in similar behavior outside China is less forgiving. Etkind was recently thrown in cuffs and charged with trespassing after sneaking into the ACC Championship game and attempting to walk on field with the band. It seems what Donnie does in China, doesn’t necessarily work in the states. Don’t try this at home.