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US man's videos foster understanding

By Xu Wei in Rizhao, Shandong | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-23 09:15
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Ryan Norman delves into rural lifestyles in Rizhao, Shandong province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Donning a worn-out military coat and peddling a dilapidated bicycle, Ryan Norman seeks to recapture the quintessential elements of traditional rural lifestyles in North China through videos documenting his experiences.

In the videos, liked by hundreds of thousands of Chinese viewers, the 40-year-old Californian immerses himself in daily life in Rizhao, Shandong province — bargaining at markets, preparing regional dishes and taking part in traditional festivals.

His fluency in Mandarin, marked by a distinctive, soothing Shandong accent, has endeared him to more than 1.5 million followers on Chinese video-sharing platforms.

Norman said his profound love for Chinese culture, his addiction to the local cuisine and the support from his followers propel him to continually push boundaries.

"I have traveled to over 50 countries, and China was just the country that fits me for my personality," he said, recounting his 18-year experience of living and working in China.

Norman's initial foray into China began in 2006, when he was a fresh graduate from the University of Southern California with a computer science degree. He did not expect he would embark on a life journey that saw him start his own business, have a wife and two sons, and eventually become a social media influencer.

His venture into China started with a job offer from a Chinese-American medical device company in Rizhao, but quickly took a turn when the company faced bankruptcy.

Norman now stood at a crossroads, a moment he described as "pivotal in his life".

"Because nobody knew what was going to happen," he said. "I couldn't speak the language, and knew nothing about China.

"I could have gone home. But I saw all the opportunities in international trade, so I decided to stay."

That decision led to the creation of his own firm, focused on importing and exporting products, marking the beginning of an international trade venture that thrives to this day.

Norman's personal life blossomed alongside his business. He met his future wife during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They married in 2010 and their sons, age 7 and 13, have further solidified his ties to China.

"For family life, I have absolutely no regrets," he said. "For business life, I have absolutely no regrets. So now in retrospect, I know for a fact, I've made the right decision."

Throughout the years, Norman has witnessed firsthand the rapid development and technological advancements that have made living in China as a foreigner increasingly easier.

He said digital payments and streamlined government services were changes that had significantly improved the quality of life and made doing business and living in China easier.

"I can say 100 percent that China is a very hospitable country toward citizens from any country," Norman said. "It doesn't matter if you're from the US or any country in the world."

His foray into the digital world was catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted his international travels and business operations. The unexpected turn of events led to a new avenue of connection and cultural exchange.

In 2022, he was encouraged by his Chinese friends to take to video-sharing platforms, including Douyin and Bilibili, to share details of his daily life in China. He hesitated.

"I was thinking I am not like an internet personality," Norman said. "I am a very shy guy. I don't like to speak a lot."

His friends were able to persuade him to "give it a go" last year, only to be surprised by the "crazy internet traffic" the videos attracted.

Norman's online content, which often focuses on traditional Chinese culture and cuisine, resonates with audiences in China and abroad.

A key purpose of his content, he said, is to offer people, especially those born in the 1970s and 1980s, a sense of nostalgia by incorporating a lot of cultural and historical elements.

It also resonated strongly with his family in the US, who follow his updates closely.

"My mom loves them all," Norman said. "Her friends were laughing like crazy. They love it because they are learning about Chinese culture."

Cooking, a hobby turned passion, allowed him to connect more deeply with the culture and people of his adopted home. Over the years he has become addicted to Chinese food, from the spicy delights of Sichuan to the unique flavors of Shandong. The rich variety of seafood in Rizhao has also offered him abundant choices in addition to his favorite — pancake roll stuffed with scallions.

As for the future, Norman sees China as his new home, a place where he has found love, success and fulfillment.

"Shandong and Rizhao is my second home," he said. "I will never leave this place."

Norman also remains strongly optimistic about China's growth potential. His conversations with executives and business owners across the country reveal a shared confidence in China's market potential and its role in the global economy.

"There's still a huge opportunity here in China," he said.

Living in China as a US citizen has given him a unique perspective on the misunderstandings that often cloud Sino-US relations, and he said he believes the two largest economies will eventually find a way to get along.

He sees his journey and online platform as opportunities to foster closer understanding between the two peoples.

"Almost half of my life has been spent in China, and the other half was spent in the US," he said. "To me, I have the responsibility to bridge that gap and bridge the miscommunication between the two countries as best as possible."

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