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OUTSIDE INSIGHT

Jerry Kowal, a popular American vlogger on Chinese social media, uses videos to document the Covid-19 outbreak in the US and help bridge cultural gaps. But as more Chinese-speaking foreigners cash in on the format with fawning praise for China, fatigued viewers may soon begin switching off

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

Kowal talks about the pressure New York’s medical workers have endured during the pandemic in a video uploaded to Bilibili on April 1, 2020

Old Kowal is smiling a lot less recently,” is a common bullet comment on his videos uploaded to Bilibili, one of China’s largest video-sharing platforms.  

As the Covid-19 outbreak worsened in the US, Jerry Kowal’s fans noticed the normally bright-eyed vlogger’s expression had grown rather stern.  

After posting his first video on Chinese social media in September 2017, the now 29-year-old Chinese-speaking New Yorker is one of the most popular foreign content creators on Chinese social media. Last year his channel “I am Jerry Kowal” was listed among the Top 100 Creators on Bilibili. He has 4.92 million followers on the platform while his videos, 382 so far, have 480 million views.  

Kowal’s influence has grown even more in recent months as he follows the Covid-19 outbreak in China and the US. Since January 31, Kowal has made 14 videos on the outbreak, each getting an average 3.5 million views on Bilibili. His channel provides a window for young Chinese to the current situation in the US. On April 2, Kowal livestreamed his visit to the field hospital in Central Park, which was broadcast on State-backed China Central Television (CCTV).  

In recent years, more foreign content creators are finding fame on Chinese social media. They use a similar formula - posting funny videos about food, travel and their daily lives, mostly while speaking Chinese.  

While Chinese-speaking foreigners are still a novelty for most, changing public opinions and attitudes on Chinese social media are additional challenges for foreign content creators.  

Vlogging the Outbreak
Cindy Huang is Kowal’s Chinese friend and creative partner. Every day, the two follow the latest news on the epidemic, speeches from US President Donald Trump, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and experts, and read in-depth news reports and academic papers.  

Huang said their videos often start in brainstorming sessions with Kowal. “I’m like a reporter who is constantly asking him questions. During our conversations, the idea for a new video would gradually emerge,” Huang told NewsChina.  

In the video “Why Did the Virus Break Out in the US” posted on March 21, Kowal argued it was a lack of massive testing, strict quarantine policy and social distancing.  

Over the past three months, Kowal has increasingly received questions from Chinese netizens about the outbreak in the US.  

Many followers asked Kowal about the President’s row with New York State Governor Cuomo, where Trump told the state to buy ventilators themselves instead of gathering medical resources from across the country to support New York. Kowal posted a video on April 5 that explains the relationship between the federal and state governments, which is drastically different from the power structure in China.  

“Different provinces in China are more like siblings in a family while states in the US are more like neighbors in an apartment building. The federal government is like property management and Trump is the superintendent,” Kowal said in the video.  

He further compared the outbreak to handling a water leak in an apartment. Some tenants complain to the superintendent, while others knock on their neighbor’s door. “We argued and argued until we reached a consensus about what we should do,” Kowal said.  

Some netizens accused Kowal of indulging Chinese viewers withschadenfreude about the US. But many defended him, saying his views are fairly objective.  

Kowal also aims to dispel other misunderstandings about US issues that draw attention on Chinese social media.  

Chinese netizens asked why US farmers dumped their milk and culled pigs instead of giving them to the poor, accusing them of being selfish capitalists trying to control dairy prices. 

In a video posted on April 25, Kowal explains the pandemic disrupted the food supply chain. Facing declining demand as schools, restaurants and other food service providers are mandated to close, dairy farmers are left with no choice but to dump their milk. Similarly, livestock farmers culled their animals because the pandemic had forced meat processing plants and slaughterhouses to close.  

“As consuming unpasteurized raw milk and unprocessed meat can cause health problems, we can’t give them directly to people,” Kowal said.  

The video has over 3.25 million views, 24,000 bullet comments and 19,817 messages. Many viewers thanked him for helping them understand the genuine reasons behind the phenomenon.  

“Kowal is speaking for his own country and addressing rumors for his own country. Shouldn’t we stop to think about why we once believed in these rumors?” commented Bilibili user “This is Hardcore.”  

Finding Fans
Kowal was born in 1991 to a Jewish family in New York. He studied international business in college, during which he spent one year learning Chinese in Taiwan. After graduation, he traveled around the world before working in his family’s business.  

Kowal said he became a vlogger on Chinese social media by chance. “Cindy and I have been friends for years. We often discuss lots of topics about America and China. We’ve found that there’s so much erroneous information about America on Chinese websites. Both of us hoped to make some videos to show an actual picture of America,” Kowal told NewsChina.  

Like many other foreign content creators, Kowal started with food. In his first video in September 2017, Kowal makes fun of Americanized Chinese food. In his series of food videos, Kowal tries different red chilis. His catchphrase is “This isn’t spicy.” 

What sets Kowal apart is how he explores cultural differences between the US and China, from dating and tipping to shopping and health.  

“Younger followers like to watch funny and food-related content, while the older ones prefer more serious social topics,” Huang said.  

Kowal also made a series of videos that address questions about American society from his Chinese viewers.  

In his video “Are Americans really wasteful?” Kowal opens trash cans outside a Walmart in New York to see what people throw away. He was surprised to find some were stuffed with unspoiled food like bread, pizza and chicken. “Initally I didn’t think we were wasteful. But after I researched some statistics, I realize that we are,” he said in the video.  

As his popularity grew, Kowal and Huang were approached by a content creator agency, which is known in the business as a multi-channel network (MCN) firm. 

Other Bilibili creators shared with them their takes on signing with an MCN: while the company would provide financial support, help promote their videos and develop an audience, creators must work commercials into their videos and are restricted in the subjects they can cover. 
  
“You want to do topics you find meaningful, but the company could spike it because they think it’s not interesting enough or too sensitive, not safe,” Kowal told NewsChina.  

Both Kowal and Huang passed on MCN organization and remain free agents. They’ve since expanded, recruiting another Chinese member to handle contacts and promotion.  

“The reason I make videos is just because I enjoy doing it. I remember one day one of my followers recognized me on the street and said, ‘Jerry, I enjoy watching your videos so much.’ Wow, it thrilled me to hear that. Also, I’m so happy that people can learn something new from my content,” Kowal said. “Being a vlogger makes me muchmore open-minded, and that is important. It can help you start a new life or even a new career,” he said. 

Staff at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York City respond to a crowd applauding their efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, April 22, 2020

Sincere or Shameless 
Focused on in-depth videos about cultural differences, Kowal combs social and economic news every day for polarizing topics to explore. But for many other Chinese-speaking foreign vloggers, praising China can mean big business.  

Recently, a novel genre has become popular on short-video platform TikTok called “Foreigners Praising China.”  

One divisive example is Russian vlogger “Vlad” (Vladislav Kokolevsky). In one of his videos, Vlad exclaims with ebullience: “I love China because I feel so safe in China. Subways here are just like airports and they have security checks. I love China because everything here is so advanced. I can order a cab by phone and scan a QR code to make purchases. Everything I love is all in China. I will settle in China immediately and become a real Chinese!” The video has over 3 million likes.  

Some foreign vloggers purport well-worn conspiracy theories as fact. One posted a video saying the World Trade Center terrorist attacks were an inside job by the US government. It infuriated Kowal. “I was in New York at the time. So many people died!” 

But as more foreign internet celebrities cash in, Chinese viewers are becoming increasingly jaded. Many criticize them for lack of sincerity and objectivity and deliberately flattering Chinese viewers purely to profit.  

Despite his massive following on TikTok, others on Bilibili and Zhihu, China’s largest Q&A website, have accused Vlad of being insincere and patronizing. Many netizens call him “a shameless ass-kisser” and satirize his catchphrase “I Love China” as his magic money-making mantra. 

But sometimes gauging the complex attitudes on Chinese social media can be like navigating a minefield for foreign content creators. One misstep or unchecked opinion can trigger accusations of racism, bias or disrespect for China, particularly when it comes to politics and history.  

In 2018, a popular British vlogger “Fulingfang” (William August) was accused of racism over remarks made on the First Opium War (1840-1842).  

In 2019, “Xinshidandan,” a popular vlog channel run by two French people living in China, suffered the same fate for using dance song “Booty Swing” by Parov Stelar as the background music for their videos. The song samples vocals from the 1939 song “Oriental Swing” by Lil Hardin Armstrong, (wife of jazz legend Louis Armstrong), whose lyrics refer to China as “the land of Fu Manchu.”  

Kowal receives more compliments than complaints, with followers calling him “sincere,” “unbiased” and “balanced.”  

“Kowal is one of the few creators I think harbor true intentions to increase mutual understandings between people in China and in the US,” wrote Zhihu user “Dipper Pines,” a comment that gained more than 20,000 likes. “In one video, he visits a Detroit neighborhood. If he followed the regular formula, he might use Detroit to show how safe Chinese cities are. But he didn’t do that. He just wanted to show us an accurate picture of Detroit. His attitudes, shown in his videos, are impartial and balanced, neither overbearing nor flattering.”  

“From [Kowal’s] videos I can truly understand the differences in US and Chinese cultures. He is like a friend sharing knowledge and ideas with you, instead of catering to you or making you laugh but leaving you with nothing,” another Zhihu user “Hou Sailai” commented. 

“I think misunderstanding stems from how we originally learn about other countries. In the US, we learn about China mainly through movies or other media. A lot of these movies are about the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and many are fantasy movies. Americans know little about the modern China. I want to inform Americans that China is way different from what we think. The same goes for Chinese,” Kowal told NewsChina. 

“I think I’ve learned not only about China but also the US. I’ve learned a lot about China and how people think about China, and through doing videos I’ve also learned a lot of about myself, my country and my culture,” he said.

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