Mike Chen talks food, YouTube and traveling the world


Ally Hansen | Staff Photographer

YouTuber Mike Chen spoke at the Pitt Asian Student Alliance’s event “ASA Presents: Mike Chen” on Tuesday evening.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Contributing Editor

The last time Mike Chen was in Pittsburgh, he was almost recruited into a cult at Steel City Comic Con.

“I was being recruited into [NVXIUM] while I was here for that comic con by Luke Skywalker’s aunt. I am not kidding you one bit,” Chen said.

Luckily, he did not fall victim to NVXIUM — a pyramid scheme that recently made headlines when its founder was convicted of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor — making his second visit to Pittsburgh Tuesday night possible. This time, he stood on stage in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room, speaking to about 120 college students about his life as a world-traveling, life-loving and food-eating YouTuber with 6.4 million subscribers across his eight channels.

The Pitt Asian Student Alliance was responsible for bringing in Chen, a Chinese-American YouTuber specializing in food and travel vlogging known best for his channel, strictlydumpling. Strictlydumpling follows Chen’s journeys to different countries around the world and his explorations of the food scene in each respective place. From Taiwanese 7-Elevens to all-you-can-eat Brazilian steak barbecue in New York, name a place and he’s been to it, name a food and he’s tried it.

The lecture began with Chen speaking about his life before YouTube fame. He spent his childhood living in various small, predominantly white towns throughout the Midwest. He had never thought about straying away from the comfortable bubble of his Midwestern existence.

“I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in my little town, get married and have kids. I didn’t want to go anywhere and was comfortable where I was,” Chen said.

Little by little, this “simple life” plan changed. After graduating with a degree in accounting from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, he moved to New York City to work for a nonprofit. According to Chen, about a month after he started working there, he received a special assignment in South Africa, another giant step outside of his comfort zone.

Upon arriving, he felt very out of place, but not for long.

“On day one I’m thinking, ‘Man, what am I doing here? I’m not used to this,’” Chen said. “On day two I got a nice meal at the Holiday Inn I was staying at, then went out and explored Johannesburg and met some of the most amazing people.”

While eating a safari steak sampler halfway through his trip, he realized how much he actually enjoyed traveling, exploring and, of course, trying new foods.

“It never occurred to me while I was in college and studying accounting that seeing the world was so great and that I could break through my comfort zone, go to places I never wanted to go to before and loving it. That was when I first realized I wanted to get out there and see the world because it’s not at all what you hear about from other people,” he said.

Following Chen’s lecture was a Q&A portion co-hosted by Albert Tanjaya, vice president of External Affairs for ASA, and Josh Lee, a junior biological sciences and economics major and vice president of Internal Affairs for ASA.

The co-hosts began this portion of the evening by asking what motivated Chen to start uploading videos to YouTube.

“I started out doing Chinese traditional cultural content on YouTube [about six years ago on a channel called Off the Great Wall], so I wasn’t always doing this. Then one day I thought, ‘I really want to eat and have people watch me.’ Is that weird?” he said with a laugh. “Then it just worked out and I was able to make a living off of it.”

Chen then spoke about how he picks which place he wants to go next. Unlike his former comfort zone-dwelling self, he is very spontaneous when it comes to travel.

“I usually don’t know where I’m going until two weeks before I leave,” Chen said. “Is that how normal people do it?”

Audience members were invited to submit questions to Chen via Instagram and then called upon if their question was chosen. One audience member asked, “Which do you prefer, ramen or pho?” to which Chen replied, “Who do you love more, mom or dad?” which caused the assembly room to erupt in laughter.

Lee got a kick out of this response, as well as Chen’s demeanor throughout the whole event.

“Mike Chen was a phenomenal guest speaker. Not only did he tell his life experience through his career, but he also brought a telling story of his development that was relatable to the audience. His presentation was real and encapsulated the passion and joy he has in sharing his life,” Lee said.

Sophomore linguistics major Maggie Ayers was also in attendance Tuesday night. Ayers had no knowledge of Chen or his work prior to the event, but still managed to have a good time.

“I think [Chen] has a large presence and was able to keep the attention of the crowd during the lecture. I liked how he cracked jokes with the audience as well,” she said. “I enjoyed listening to him discuss his past travels to different places that left a significant impact on his life, as I personally believe that traveling can broaden how people see the world.”