BEIJING. — Raz Gal Or had traded in his usual jeans and T-shirt for something more arresting. He wore a flowing robe in deep blue while on his head was perched a tall white hat.
Instead of the fourth-year Peking University (PKU) undergraduate student that he was, he looked like someone from the pages of ancient Chinese history. And that was exactly what the 23-year-old Israeli student was aiming at. He was made up to look like Wang Yun, a bureaucrat in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), who was also known for his involvement in a coup against a tyrant.
While it was a spoof, it was also very serious on one level. It was the first in the series of vox-pop videos made by Gal Or’s startup. The episode by Foreigner Research Institute, or YChina, the shorter name by which Gal Or is now promoting his organization, got more than 10,000 thumb-ups after being posted on China’s social media Weibo on September 14.
YChina aims to connect more and more foreigners with Chinese culture and enable more and more Chinese to understand “the young generation of foreigners in China,” Gal Or told Xinhua.
Started this year, the online video startup has gathered around 4 million followers on Chinese social media networks. The videos are about expatriates’ life in China in the form of vox pops, which include random interviews with expats in China and their study of Chinese history. The average viewing rate for YChina’s videos is nearly 10 million.
A CULTURE BASED ON INNOVATION
“YChina is a platform that lets people better understand China through the eyes of the expats and foreigners living here. We represent a new generation of foreigners who have decided that our future is China,” said Gal Or, who is majoring in international relations at PKU.
The company is in Zhongguancun, a technology hub in Beijing. Currently it has 15 people, including four foreigners.
Gal Or said PKU gave him “a new perspective on a changing, innovative young China.” Many people he met at the university became entrepreneurs after graduation. One of them, Fang Yedun, who is from eastern China’s Zhejiang Province, became the co-founder of YChina.
“My role here, very early on in this university, is to take this entrepreneur spirit of the Israeli people and try to share it with the Chinese people,” he said.
Since Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed mass entrepreneurship and innovation at the 2014 Summer Davos, public creative vigor has been roused and many young people have begun to set up their own businesses.
“It seems in 2014, there [was] a massive push for innovation among young people,” Gal Or observed, saying it was incredible to see how fast China was changing. People were gaining confidence and were no longer afraid of failure. “China is trying to really build this innovation culture,” he emphasized.
In another trend, as China’s social media flourishes, a series of cyber celebrities have popped up in the past three years. Among them, comedienne Papi Jiang has had a meteoric rise to fame, thanks to her short comical videos on topics ranging from family relationships to popular social phenomena.
Gal Or decided to capitalize on this trend. “I realized that I also want to be part of this entrepreneurship … I also want to be part of creation and develop more and more cultural communication,” he said, explaining his move.
He thinks China’s innovation culture, especially among young people, can be an inspiration for foreigners as well.
“Foreigners are also involved in this … trend,” he said. “Finally, after many years of China and foreign [countries] being kind of distant with each other — and all those misunderstandings — there are finally opportunities for everyone to land in this incredible country and find his way.”
Taylor Schmalenberg is one of them. The Canadian, who works at YChina, said he came to work in China because he saw a great opportunity in the Chinese media industry.
“The technology, the people, the culture — all these things have this amazing root in ancient China, but at the same time are taking the world by storm,” he said.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Why call his company Foreigner Research Institute? Gal Or has his explanation ready. He noticed a gap between Chinese and foreigners’ understanding of each other.
Many of his Chinese friends did not know how deeply expats have fitted into Chinese society. The majority of expats in YChina’s videos speak Chinese fluently. Most of those videos touch on the pop culture of contemporary China and expats’ deep engagement in various fields.
The sensational online mobile game “King of Glory” is a case in point. The game, based on a legend with famous Chinese historical figures, has become a smash hit. Reportedly, there are 80 million players daily.
In a YChina video, Isaac Pena from Costa Rica shouts some of the pet phrases used by hard-core Chinese players while playing the game, showing his familiarity with prevailing trends.
Gal Or says he has received hundreds of thousands of positive feedback and feels the company is on track to exert influence, especially making a difference in the way foreigners think about China and vice versa.
“We want to connect more common people and let them have a voice, let them express their ideas about China, and at the same time help China express itself better with foreigners,” he said.
HARD-WON ADMISSION INTO PKU
The Gal Ors were living in Hong Kong before they came to Beijing. His father Amir Gal Or, who is also a major investor in YChina, moved business from Hong Kong to Beijing in 2012. It was then that Gal Or junior moved to the mainland after finishing high school in Hong Kong.
When he was living in Hong Kong, Gal Or said he little understood the Chinese language and culture. So after taking up residence in Beijing, he began studying Chinese language intensively, which meant four hours of one-on-one courses every day.
Gal Or said his approach was to completely immerse himself in the Chinese environment — making Chinese friends, using Chinese mobile apps, building connections in Chinese society, as well as adapting to the Chinese lifestyle.
But despite all the effort he put in preparing for the entrance examination, his bid for PKU in 2013 failed. So he switched to humanities subjects next year and studied harder. Finally, he was accepted by PKU in 2014, which he called the proudest moment of his life, with one of his biggest dreams coming true.
One of the things that surprised him on the mainland was the convenience Internet-related innovations have brought to people’s lives, like mobile payments.
“In a mobile phone you can open an entire world, that’s something you can do nowhere else … This is something I like so much about China,” he said, adding that he hoped people in other countries would have the same convenient lifestyle one day.
SHARING CHINA’S SUCCESS STORIES
Gal Or’s plan is to continue his business in China after graduation and make YChina an influential media platform for foreigners to learn about China.
“Hopefully the viewers in a few years’ time will say: ‘YChina influenced my perspective on China … It made me get a better understanding of what this unique and modern Chinese culture is.'”
In the coming years, he plans to take his team to China’s “most unique places” in the rural areas to share with the world stories of how China is lifting millions of people out of poverty over the years.
“Come and explore it! We want to give a new perspective and this is what we are here for,” he said.
Gal Or has traveled to most of the big cities in China but thinks those experiences are still not enough. He and his team are not here “only to enjoy the richness and development of big cities;” they need to know about rural China so that they can tell viewers about that part of China as well.
“Once you’ve got all these layers, then you can probably say you have a little perspective on these 1.4 billion people,” he said reflectively. – Xinhua