Among the saturation of bite-sized content and instant gratification, the genre of video essays soars through.  A rising favorite of the Gen Z population, the genre’s popularity beats allegations of the generation’s “short-attention-span-pandemic” while perfectly encapsulating their critical curiosities and digital nativity. Unlike traditional essay writing where quotes are the only reference, video essays allow for references to different digital media— coupled with a sprinkle of humor, unique editing techniques, and a niche-yet-intriguing topic — you find yourself with a new art form. 

True to Gen Z’s chronically online nature, much of the video essays’ topics are centered around this generation’s native language — pop culture. From the latest trends to a famous event, a smaller piece of content is used to expand on deeper educational discourse.

In this Creative Spotlight, EnVi sat down with YouTube video essayist aini and chatted over Zoom about how ponderings of her Australian-Chinese identity eventually grew into videos that garnered more than a million views. 

East AND West 

 Annie Ji’s YouTube journey started from taking a Chinese Arts course in university.“The course introduced the idea of soft power — and that just connected so many dots in my brain,” said Ji. While other East Asian cultures garnered heavy online attention and appreciation such as cultural exports of K-pop and anime, Ji described how her love for Chinese culture was overlooked. After months of research and  “forced TED talks” to her friends, Ji’s friend gifted her a mic for YouTube — “and the rest is history.”

For Ji, starting a YouTube channel was an almost natural progression of her passions that stemmed from the cultural dysmorphia she experienced as an Australian born Chinese.

“We have such a unique identity, but it’s also very lonely at the same time,” said Ji. She describes a “huge gap” between ABCs and their parents when it comes to cultural understanding, as well as growing up in a predominantly Caucasian community as one of the few Asians. The intersection she finds herself at led to her seeking to create a space for Asian people all around the world.

“It was really just something I was deeply passionate about, and that really resonated with people.” Though her soft power video sat at zero views in the very beginning, a viral TikTok, posted in relation to it, soon shifted virality over to the original. Her first video, “China has a Soft Power Deficiency,” now sits at 1.5 million views. 

“My passions in East Asian and Chinese culture, and in bridging cultural gaps and starting Eastern conversations in the Western sphere,” explained Ji on what drives her video topics.

@aini0970 Beauty is an important trait in east asian male ideals, largely due to the ✨female gaze✨😌 Have you noticed this and what do we think? #eastasia #masculinity #china #korea #japan ♬ original sound – aini

An ever flowing Conversation 

Growing up with anime, K-pop, and Chinese culture in a predominantly caucasian community, it was easy for Ji to spot the stark differences between the East and West when others could not. Ji takes hold of those moments where she feels “split and stranded” between the two worlds, and turns them into inspirations behind more videos.

Ji endearingly describes her research process as a time where she fangirls through papers. 

“When I get behind the research that I am doing, I know I can share this with enthusiasm and present it in a more digestible way for my viewers.” With enough research, Ji then begins to weave them into a coherent narrative with multiple perspectives.

“I just love entertaining different sides of an argument. It’s never black or white, but instead so many shades of gray,” suggested Ji. She describes how even before aini, she would debate different topics in a group chat with her friends. “It’s important to analyze with empathy — even if you don’t relate to the perspective, there’s always a reason for it.” 

The conversation isn’t just limited to the video frame. In aini’s comment sections, the discourse flows on with her viewers, in turn, sparking Ji’s own inspirations for her next videos. From research to screen to comments — the ecosystem is complete. 

“In a way, it feels like my role in my channel is to start conversations,” explained Ji. She measures her findings against the criteria of if “meaningful thought” can be sparked, and ensures to back them up with research. “I can present you with the facts, but I also want to hear what people have to say and what they took away.” 

What’s Next?

With her first video being an instant hit, Ji was soon flooded with questions for a second video. 

While she had months to prepare for her first, Ji knew she would not have the same luxury for future releases. The media landscape is constantly evolving and Ji felt the need to “strike while the iron is still hot.” Under the weight of all the expectations, Ji stayed true to her visions and passions — which is what led to her success in the first place. Now producing hit after hit, Ji reflects on how she navigated the algorithm. 

“What ultimately blew up my ‘soft power’ video was that people shared it. When your audience thinks it’s something worth telling other people about and it’s meaningful to them, the algorithm will catch on.”

This quickly dispelled her fear of “starting too late” and the oversaturated landscape with “big teams and players.” As of now, Ji is a full-time YouTuber and looks to continue the focus of her channel around video essays. 

“In the moment, I still hope to stay true to the identity as I’ve formed as aini, but maybe someday I could make a second channel that’s more lighthearted.”

Ji also teased her upcoming video on the topic of bullying in East Asia and cited it as one of her favorite videos to produce. “I think it will really challenge a lot of people’s dominant perceptions of it,” she added. Another one of her recent favorites was a video on East Asia’s obsession with luxury brands, but she “will always have a soft spot for the ‘soft power’ video, because that’s where it began.” 

For Ji who always felt an innate sense of purpose to leave a mark on the world, her YouTube career is like a dream come true.

“Filming and scripting, making bad jokes on camera — I have so much fun and it fills me with so much purpose. I just want to say thank you to my viewers, and I’ll work hard to continue to spark Eastern conversations in a Western space.” 

Whether it’s getting ready for the day or curling up for a chill night in, check out any of aini videos here for a guaranteed good time! If you’re short on time, follow aini on TikTok and Instagram

Interested in a more fictional twist of intersectionality? Check out this article on author Karen Bao and her newest book, Pangu’s shadow!