Planning to live in China for a year and run a travel blog as a hobby, Rachel Weiss has now rounded out her sixth year in the country and has grown her passion into a full-time job, working for an English channel in the culture department of CGTN, the international division of CCTV.
Since launching her travel blog Rachel Meets China, she has expanded her reach by connecting with other international and domestic audiences through numerous media platforms.
In this one-on-one interview, Rachel dives into the pros and cons of working as a foreign KOL in China, what a day in the life of a travel blogger is like, how she has been (mis)labeled in the past and the effect this has had on her career.
What is your background, and when and why did you move to China?
I’m from the US, and I came to China in 2015, right after I graduated with a degree in PR and Communications. I came to China for the same reason I think many other twentysomethings did – I wanted to teach abroad for a year and also travel more.
I had studied abroad in Europe for three months during my time at university, and I wanted the chance to do that again but for longer. I had a few Chinese friends studying abroad at my university who shared more about life in China, and it really piqued my interest.
I became TEFL certified and was placed in Hengyang to teach at the University of South China, or Nan Hua Da Xue.
I’ve been in China for six years now, have lived in three different cities and traveled to 24 provinces. It’s the classic China expat story many of us say: “I thought I would be here for just one year.”
How did you get involved in the social media travel industry in China?
I started a travel blog called Rachel Meets China in 2015, right when I moved here, and updated my Instagram to match it.
At first it was a way to update friends and family about my life teaching and traveling in China, but it quickly became a passion and an outlet for my media skills. I wanted to document my experiences, firstly to share about the unique places and people I encountered in China, and secondly to help others to travel around China.
The idea of living and traveling in China can be intimidating, because of cultural differences and language barriers, and I hoped to make China accessible to people who had no idea about the country or had limited knowledge, like I did before I came. It was also a way to connect with other China expats and share our experiences together.
As I traveled more, I also spent time learning about social media marketing, SEO and how to grow my own travel brand. Brands and tourism companies started reaching out for collaboration opportunities. Since then, I’ve had some incredible opportunities and met many other amazing friends, content creators and organizations in China.
What does a typical day look like for you in your role at the company you work with now?
Last year I started working for China Plus, an English channel in the culture department of CGTN. I work as a video host: I host livestreams, travel documentaries and vlogs related to culture and travel in China for English speaking audiences. The aim is to help introduce and share more about Chinese culture and people to the western world.
A typical day can vary, depending on the project. When I’m traveling for a video series, the days are jam-packed: location scouting, filming, meeting new people and doing all kinds of exciting activities, like exploring a Miao village, meeting Kungfu Wushu masters or learning how to make hand-pulled Lanzhou noodles.
Sometimes I will host livestreams in between the filming as well. If I’m not traveling, I’ll do other content projects, like researching, filming and editing my own vlogs.
What is it like to work as a foreign KOL in the domestic travel industry?
There are definitely pros and cons to being a foreign KOL.
Pros: Being a foreign KOL gives me a unique position to be a bridge between China and the West, as there is a communication and culture gap. There (used to be) a big demand for local tourism groups and cities to connect with more foreign audiences.
Before the pandemic, I would help connect foreigners with trusted local tourism groups, and even just recommend my favorite restaurants, activities and sites in different cities. I enjoy sharing my personal experiences with others who want to experience China (and hopefully save them stress and challenges I faced when I first came!)
Cons: COVID, of course, has been really hard, especially for creators whose content is for other foreigners on international platforms. No new travelers are coming to China like before. But it does create an opportunity to focus more on domestic platforms and the audience currently here in China.
In some ways, I think it’s more difficult growing on foreign platforms than on Chinese platforms. If you know Chinese and can use apps like Douyin, Bilibili, Xiao HongShu and Weibo, there are bigger audiences that would most likely be even more interested and engaged.
It all depends on your content and niche, and China content creators have found different success and growth in various ways.
Many people think that working in a job that allows you opportunities to travel and experience is all sunshine and rainbows, but what challenges have you faced?
It’s true, many people think I’m on holiday, traveling all the time – I wish!
I do feel very grateful that I get to travel for work and have really cool experiences, but the reality is it’s also a job. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to create high quality and interesting content.
It involves lots of research, preparation, communication with your team and others and maintaining high energy on camera on long shoot days. Some days I may spend 12 hours in one location, so I’m not always trapezing around doing whatever I want. It can be very tiring, and I work long hours with the crew, but it’s a special kind of experience in its own way.
Also, as a content creator with my own independent brand, I’m used to planning my own trips and traveling solo. But for my job I’m with a team, and that, of course, means everything will operate differently.
I’ve learned so much about cultural communication while filming. It’s very different, and there are good sides to both. When I’m solo traveling, I rely on my tripod and gimbal to film myself, and I have lots of fun with that, whereas when I’m with a team, it’s nice to not worry about the tech side of things and get epic shots for a project that I would never be able to get on my own.
What forms of media do you mainly post content on and why?
I focus on foreign platforms for the most part: Instagram, YouTube and my website. I wanted to connect with others on international platforms to reach out to people from the US and other Western countries to help bridge Western and Eastern culture.
There is a language barrier as well – I don’t read Chinese well at all! But I’ve also been learning more about Chinese platforms. It’s a huge industry, and there are so many foreign KOLs who have successfully grown on these platforms, and it’s a way to connect with the domestic audience here.
In the past year, your Instagram account was labeled as ‘China state-controlled media.’ What are the implications of this, and how did it effect you?
When Instagram labeled my account this way, I was – and still am – very frustrated. Rachel Meets China is 100% my personal account, independently run and owned solely by me.
I’ve had this personal brand since 2015 when I first came to China, and even when I’ve moved cities and worked for other jobs, it’s always just been mine. And one day my current employer will change, but my channels will still solely be mine.
It’s very unfair and wrong that my personal accounts have been labeled this way, as it’s my brand I’ve worked hard to build on my own.
Since I started working with China Plus in January 2021, I have always been transparent about what I do, and my followers know what my job is here in China – most of my audience has followed me for years now and know my story entirely. But my job is separate from my personal channels. My account is always my voice, what I choose to post, and what I feel fits authentically with my brand and platform.
But it’s also a double standard if my personal accounts are labeled this way, but others who are affiliated with media channels – even foreign media companies abroad – are not likewise labeled on their personal channels. I believe that many individuals who work with multiple media platforms all have their own social networks, but not all are made to state the details of their current employer.
I think the implications are worrying, not just for me, but for other China expats and content creators here. We all feel how polarized media is becoming in conversations between China and the West.
It’s difficult to have a balanced perspective, and it’s a completely different media climate than when I first moved to China; you can’t be too positive about living in China or share your own experiences without people questioning it – people who don’t actually know what it’s like living in China.
Andy Boreham, who hosts the channel Andy’s Shanghai Life, recently wrote an article for Shine about this called 'Your life in Shanghai sucks, okay?!: The West's push to ban good news about China online.' I recommend reading his article about this very topic.
I’m not a China political or economic expert claiming to have answers; Rachel Meets China is a blog I created to share personal experiences about culture, people and travel.
Being an American who has lived in China for six years now, loving both countries and having people I care about in both countries, I want people to see a human perspective – what daily life is actually like, which for me is about having cultural conversations and bringing more awareness and understanding.
There are definitely challenging days when you live in a different country, and we’ve all faced those ups and downs in China, which I share about on my platforms. But I’m also not going to be unfairly negative. I think there just needs to be more balance and fairness, and I’m still appealing to have the label removed.
What is the most unique place you have visited in China so far and why?
It’s so difficult to pick one, as China has so many unique destinations and varied landscapes. I’m a huge fan of hiking mountains, like the well-known Huangshan, Zhangjiajie and Yangshuo karst mountains. I’ve also been to some really amazing unrestored sections of the Great Wall with no one around.
But some of my most memorable experiences in China have been when visiting smaller villages. I took a long solo trip around Southern China in 2019 and visited Furong, an ancient town in Hunan province with a stunning waterfall village that made me feel like I was stepping back in time to another era.
I also went to Xijiang Qianhu Miao Village, the largest gathering place of the Miao people. While there, I met a group of friendly local people from Guizhou who invited me to join an outside BBQ, drinking beers and eating food together.
From there I went to Yunnan and hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge for two days solo then went up to Shangri-la.
It’s the combination of unique locations with meeting interesting people that I really enjoy!
Where do you see the future of domestic travel going in China in the coming years?
While international travel is restricted, and will probably remain so for some time, I think that domestic travel is growing again.
As we can’t travel outside, people are looking for new destinations they haven’t been to, or new experiences they can try in this new COVID landscape.
It seems like remote destinations are seeing more interest now, like Ganzi in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. I am excited by the opportunity to continue to explore this country that I now call home.
[All images courtesy of Rachel Weiss]