Popular video blogger aims to bridge gap between China and US

By Chen Qingyun (China Daily) 10:11, January 10, 2024

Jerry Kowal

There was a time when video blogger from the United States Jerry Kowal, like many others who have never visited China and have very little idea about it, only associated the country with pandas, chopsticks and kung fu stars.

However, a three-week trip as an exchange student in 2010 proved to be an eye-opener. Impressed by the cuisine, culture and people, Kowal went on to pursue studies in Chinese culture, driven by a genuine desire to gain a deeper understanding of China, and followed it up with a number of visits to the country.

Today, Kowal is an influencer with over 20 million followers on social media platforms. People from around the world follow him to learn about culture and life in China as well as in the US.

Kowal said that back in 2017, when he started making videos, the original intention was to show Chinese people what life was like in the US.

"I think a lot of people in China have misconceptions about the US. I had hoped my videos would clear those up," he said. "For example, a lot of my friends would go to study in the US thinking it all looked like New York, but then they would arrive in a rural university town and life would be quite different."

He then began to share what he experienced and witnessed in China, recording his life as a foreigner in the country and turning the camera toward ordinary Chinese people, highlighting the differences between US and Chinese cuisines, cultures and customs.

So far he has made hundreds of videos focusing on cultures, food and travels in China. He has tasted super spicy local cuisines, traveled through the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, tried new Chinese high-tech products, and compared infrastructure construction in China and the US.

"I can trace back my interest in China to the fact that we are vastly different cultures. I find it quite interesting to understand the cultural nuances," he said. "However, I have to admit the longer I stay here the more I realize that I have a lot to learn. I adamantly believe from an American's standpoint that it's next to impossible to have an in-depth understanding of China without being here."

Media, whether in China or the US, can only play a limited role in helping people truly and comprehensively understand a country or a culture, he said, adding that one really has to spend a significant amount of time immersing oneself in China to understand it.

He said that in the US, politicians adopt an extremely negative stance on China, which he blames on electoral compulsions.

"It's just a convenient talking point. Any hint of nuance or wanting to establish a better friendship with China from a politician in the US would immediately be taunted and rebuked by the public and the media. Furthermore, a lot of the China 'experts' on US TV haven't been here in years," Kowal said.

Ning Xiaoxue, a 25-year-old employee at a private company in Shanghai, follows him on social media. She discovered his videos while browsing through Bilibili, a video-sharing platform.

Kowal's portrayal of his experiences of living in China fascinates her.

"I appreciate Kowal's genuine and objective approach as he immerses himself in the local lifestyle and offers insightful commentary based on his encounters, rather than resorting to exaggerated praise without thinking," Ning said.

She cites the example of a video that Kowal made while spending a working day at a courier station in Shanghai. That is how he discovered that China has a highly efficient logistic system and the last-mile delivery services have made lives much easier for consumers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kowal wasn't able to make his usual videos. Staying in New York at that time, he recorded short videos about life amid the pandemic, in which he conducted interviews on the streets, visited hospitals, and also discussed the causes of the outbreak in the US. He compared the US situation with China's stricter COVID-19 response measures, commenting that the latter was a much more effective strategy.

However, his videos have caused some heartburn in certain sections of the Western media, which have accused him of being part of "Chinese propaganda, basically trying to help the government make its own points".

"I really just filmed what I saw with my own eyes, I try as best as possible to stay objective, whether about my country or China," he said. "And I really stand by the point that if the US adopted some of China's COVID control measures, more Americans would be alive."

Recently, he faced accusations in a report that he believed "is potentially both biased and exhibits questionable research standards".

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a lengthy research report on Nov 24 accusing Kowal of echoing China's official statements, citing his videos about COVID-19.

Kowal said he was not even contacted for the research. He was stigmatized and that smear continues to spread online, as the report was then cited by certain Western media outlets, and that unfounded accusations against him have been repeated again and again, Kowal added.

Ironically, he found that the policy institute was funded by the Global Engagement Center of the US Department of State and he believes the report has either been directly or indirectly funded by the US State Department. In an open letter to the State Department on Dec 6, he urged it to stop using US money to fund an organization to attack a US citizen.

"A senior US foreign service officer once said to me in person that I have made a contribution toward people-to-people exchanges between China and the US, and now a US government-funded think tank attacks me," he said. "That is ridiculous."

He is also considering launching lawsuits against those who have maligned him.

He Yun, an associate professor at the School of Public Policy of Hunan University, said that over the past few years, the US has regarded China as a strategic competitor and has stepped up efforts to contain China. The US government, coordinating with research centers and media outlets, has created a chilly environment and discouraged those who view China objectively or are friendly with China from speaking freely.

"Even some cultural and tourism influencers have been politicized and stigmatized, which is very unfair to them and not conducive to the development of bilateral relations and people-to-people exchanges," she said.

Kowal said that people who are really informed about China and the US usually have a more balanced view of both countries.

"Some people think a country could be either inherently evil or inherently good. I don't think it's that simple. I think it's imperative that more Americans come to China even if it's just for a 10-day trip," he said.

Liu Jianqiao in Beijing and Zheng Zheng in Shanghai contributed to this story.

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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