Photo courtesy of The Wonton Don / Barstool Sports
Photo courtesy of The Wonton Don / Barstool Sports / Photographer: Alex GreenbergDonnie crossing the Adriatic Sea from Venice, Italy to Croatia's Istrian Peninsula

Meet 'The Wonton Don,' the US creator behind a new Balkans travel series

Time Out Croatia chats with 'The Wonton Don' about paving a unique path in media, travelling the world, getting to know the Balkans in his latest show, and more

Written by
Lara Rasin
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'The Wonton Don,' also known as 'Donnie,' is a fan-favourite media personality in the United States, known for his current role as foreign correspondent with industry titan Barstool Sports. A US-based digital media company, Barstool Sports covers sports- and pop culture-related topics through a characteristically irreverent and comedic lens. Every day, Barstool's fans (who number in the millions) are entertained by myriad blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other online content - the majority of which are focused on the United States.

But Barstool went a bit more international when Donnie started working for the company in 2016. At the time, Donnie was living and making content in China, establishing a name for himself as a vlogger. Thousands tuned in to his entertaining YouTube videos, which presented his droll antics (from working various odd jobs to playing in - and being on the winning team of - the Chinese version of the Super Bowl) while showcasing Chinese culture along the way. From the beginning, he's provided viewers with a unique mix of laughter and learning, which keeps them engaged video after video.

Since joining Barstool, Donnie has expanded his content well beyond China. His journies have taken him across five continents, and he's put out popular travel shows on (among other places) Zimbabwe, Tajikistan, Colombia, and most recently - the Balkans.

Photo courtesy of The Wonton Don / Barstool Sports / Photographer: Alex Greenberg
Photo courtesy of The Wonton Don / Barstool Sports / Photographer: Alex GreenbergDonnie having "one of the coolest dining experiences" of his life, a truffle-doused meal following a truffle hunt in Istria

So far, ten videos have been released in the new Balkans series, dubbed "Barstool Abroad: The Balkans." The episodes aired to date highlight Donnie making his way through Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Viewers can see him truffle hunting in Istria, attending the infamous Belgrade Derby, farming mussels in Montenegro, taking in a live handball match, riskily jumping off the Mostar Bridge, hitting a techno festival in Dubrovnik... And much more.

Each video features fascinating glimpses into local cultures, a little bit of history, and a lot of flippant fun. 

To fans' delight, Donnie has promised at least three more videos in the series, to be published after the New Year. In the remaining episodes, he says viewers can expect to see a traditional grape harvest (known as a berba) in Slavonski Brod, an interview with Bosnian band Dubioza Kolektiv in Sarajevo, a peek into some of Zagreb's one-of-a-kind museums, and a few other surprises. Don't miss the new episodes once they're released on Donnie's YouTube channel - where you can also catch up on the previous ones while you wait. Don't miss this series - Donnie called his trip to the Balkans "the most enjoyable travel experience of my life" for good reason!

In the meantime, get to know the man behind the black sunglasses (a Wonton Don trademark). Read on for our interview with Donnie in which we talk about how he paved his path in the media world, what it's like travelling the world for a living, and how he enjoyed his time in the Balkans.

Meet Donnie

Could you give our readers the Wonton Don 101? What's your story and how did you develop your brand over the years?

Right after college, a friend convinced me to move to China. I found it such an interesting place and started to make content with my friend just for fun. I was trying to do not-your-usual China content, because a lot of the world thinks of it as this big, scary country. My goal was to show more of the humorous aspects of living there.

I was putting out a video a week, maybe every two weeks, just trying to get myself in the weirdest situations as possible. Barstool Sports shared a few of those videos. At the time, I was teaching English as my main source of income, through private tutoring, but I was also organizing events and making these videos on the side.

When Barstool started to expand, I finally convinced them to bring me on to make content for them abroad. It was mainly just in China at first. Now, my job is to report on the world in general for Barstool, which I think is nice because their audience was very US-centered before. At first, I was like Will this crowd of people even enjoy learning about the rest of the world and seeing cool cultural videos? But, the feedback has been great and I think people appreciate something unique.

I have a lot of fans who have never left the US before, and they love vicariously learning about the world through me. In the videos, I try to showcase different cultures in a way that almost everyone can appreciate. Whether it's someone who already knows a lot about a culture themselves, or someone who knows zero. I'm trying to do it in a way that most people can relate to it. 

Where have you lived so far? What about travelled - you've hit almost all the continents, right?

I grew up in the US, in Massachusetts on the South Shore, and went to college right outside of Boston. During college I went abroad to Botswana. I was there for about four months, so I don't know if that counts as living there... After that I lived in Hangzhou, China for a year and then Shanghai for almost eight years. Then I was in New York City for a while, and now I live in Venice, Italy. 

The continents I haven't visited are Oceania and Antarctica, but I've been everywhere else. Everyone always asks me how many countries I've traveled to and I actually don't know the exact number! I probably should.

Who is your content intended for?

Really anyone who's curious about the world.

Right now, my audience tends to be 25- to 35-year-olds, and it's a bit more male. In a lot of the videos I'm drinking, so it's somewhat mature content. Although that's something no one should do while traveling - you should not get blackout drunk... But I do at least have a beer in a lot of the videos, and I think it attracts a younger crowd that still likes to party. So I guess my audience is people who like to party and do cool shit.

But the content can be for anyone all over the world. I'm getting more fans in Europe right now, for example. It's awesome when a fan reaches out and says Hey, I'm from this part of the world, you should come and do some videos on my home country. That's been happening more and more, I've recently gotten people reaching out from Brazil, Pakistan, Sweden... Hopefully I can take them up on it sometime.

Who inspires you and why?

When I first started making videos, I was almost trying to do Sacha Baron Cohen-esque types of comedy, where he's dealing with real people in real-life situations, but he's the one turning it into comedy and sort of playing a character. That was the motivation when I first started to make comedic videos.

In terms of the travel stuff, obviously Anthony Bourdain.

There's also David Choe, who used to work for VICE. He did a series called Thumbs Up! where he would hitchhike across the country, for example from Alaska to Tijuana. He also did a video where he just picked up and went to the Congo to search for this dinosaur that the locals were saying still exists.

So, David Choe inspires me in that he's really willing to get far off the beaten path and go into something without a set plan. Just figuring it out on the way. The mindset of, put yourself in these crazy, extreme situations and everything else will fall into place. 

What would your theme song be?

I used to do a cooking show called GOONED UP where I would make a new type of crab rangoon every episode. The theme song for that, I found it on YouTube, was literally called "Chinese hiphop beat 6," and people loved that beat. Half the comments on all the episodes would be like Oh my god, I love the music. So in a way that Chinese hip-hop beat sort of became my theme.

As for whose lyrics resonate with me the most, I would probably say the rapper and chef Action Bronson, whose family is actually from the Balkans, from Albania. He raps about a lot of foreign, exotic stuff, as well as a lot of foreign, exotic food. He'll always reference the most random geographical locations around the world. So pretty much any of his songs could work, too.

Or, my own song, Dragonfly Sinner (Salmon Sunset) - find it on Spotify. 

Which fictional character is most like you/do you relate to the most?

There's one character that comes to mind but he's real. His name is Don the Beachcomber and he basically brought Tiki culture to the US. He traveled around the South Pacific, and then came back to the Los Angeles area, and opened up a restaurant called Don the Beachcomber. He even legally changed his name to Donn Beach. His restaurant chain was successful and he ended up retiring to a houseboat somewhere in the South Pacific.

How do you deal with haters?

I would say haters are the hardest to deal with when you first start out because you're not as confident with what you're making and you're not getting as many comments. So say you're only getting ten comments and one out of those ten is negative - that's going to really bother you. You might even ask yourself Should I even be doing this? You're just not used to it.

Now, my feedback is predominantly positive and the negative stuff is just a small minority. So, it's pretty easy to ignore, which is what I try to do. I try not to spend all day reading the comments because then it can go both ways. If they're all positive, your head can get too big and you can stop trying. Or, you can start to feed into the negativity. 

I've gotten very lucky. My fans have been extremely supportive. But I do know some people who have gone months with getting a bunch of negative feedback... For me, if I was dwelling on that, yeah, it would probably get in my head and really start to bother me. Luckily I don't have to deal with that. But I would say always the best move is to just ignore them.

If you weren't a foreign correspondent you'd be…

My major in college was actually biology. I couldn't really see myself working full-time as a scientist these days, although I did work in a lab once in college.

Maybe I'd start a chain of crab rangoon restaurants.

Or, I'd still be doing a bunch of odd jobs in China. Before I was hired by Barstool, I was doing a handful of random different jobs.

On travelling – and sharing it with the world

Is there something you've made public that you wish you hadn't? Any regrets?

If I ever had to find another job I would probably have to take down a few videos. 

Luckily, I got the job with Barstool, so there are no videos I've had to take down.

There are a few, like the first ones I was making in China, that could make me cringe a little now. They're not that bad, but that's when I was just trying to test the limits of how many things I could get away with in China.

I was flabbergasted when I first arrived because if you just acted like you were supposed to be somewhere or you were allowed to do something, no one would really bother you. There was a restaurant in China called Boston Donuts and Coffee for example. One day, I just showed up and went in the back of the restaurant and started working there. Everyone was confused but no one made me leave.

I wouldn't want to take anything down, but there are probably a few things I wouldn't do these days just out of respect.

What's great, and what's not-so-great, about being Barstool's foreign correspondent?

The obvious pro is that you get to see the world for work. I want to show people cool things they can do if they visit the country themselves, so most of the time I'm doing really fun activities. I pretty much enjoy every place I go to. I can list a bunch of countries I'd love to travel to, but I can't list a bunch of countries I would hate to travel to. All the discomfort of travel, that doesn't really bother me.

What can be tough is that now, whenever I travel, I feel obligated to work and make content. So if I vacation, it's usually just going home to Massachusetts. That's where I feel like I can take a break. If I'm on the road, I feel the need to be creating something.

I also do the majority of my video editing. So if I film, say, in the Balkans for two weeks, I know it's going to be a month plus of really long days, sitting in a room alone, going through all the footage, and putting the videos together. That can be tiring, and it can get a little lonely doing all that on your own.

What's one of the craziest things that's happened to you during your travels?

The craziest thing I've been able to witness was probably the sport of buzkashi in Tajikistan. It's also called headless goat polo.

There are 100 people on horseback, all fighting for a headless goat, which they then have to carry into the endzone. It's the national sport of a lot of Central Asia.

That was my biggest fish out of water moment, because I think I was the only Westerner there and it was just wild to see. It felt like being back in the times of the Mongols.

As someone who has lived in a few quite different places, where in the world do you feel most at home?

I would probably say the South Shore, Massachusetts. A lot of my friends from high school still live in the area and I'm still close with them.

It's comforting knowing that you can live and travel wherever in the world, but when you come home not too much has changed, which I actually enjoy. Maybe if I had stayed there permanently I'd be getting sick of it, but now whenever I come home it's a nice change of pace.

Is it difficult to balance the comedy aspect of your job with staying respectful toward the local people and cultures you visit? Do you worry about cancel culture at all?

I'm not too scared. I feel like given my company, the spotlight usually isn't on me.

Also what I try to follow is, when you're traveling to a foreign country, don't treat the locals like you're interacting with an alien species. They're just people. If you treat them the same way you would treat people back in your home country, you usually don't run into problems.

I'll have some people reach out to me and say This thing you said in a video isn't true and I'll answer Oh, sorry, I didn't know. A lot of the places I travel to, I don't claim to be an expert on. I'm kind of just learning as I go and most people understand that. I don't purposefully try to spread lies about a place or anything like that.

A piece of advice you'd give to aspiring travel vloggers?

I would say don't just try to copy travel vlogs you see online. Make them uniquely yours.

And also, learn to film and edit yourself so you can still be putting out content if you don't have any help.

There must be some pressure to consistently put out fresh, funny, new content. What do you do when you have a creative block?

When I first started working for Barstool, I was still living in China. The audience then knew close to zero about China, so there were always new videos I could do. There was always something cool, or crazy, or unique happening around me that I could film and put out in a short video. So I was never really running out of content ideas then.

Now when I get a creative block, I'll just travel somewhere new. Because with traveling, the content comes to you. Even if you don't have everything planned out in terms of exactly what you'll be doing in the country you're visiting, the act of traveling itself can turn into content.

What has motivated you to continue making travel content for over a decade?

The world is just so big.

I'll read something fascinating about a specific country almost every day and hope that one day I'll be able to film a video on it or do a mini-documentary on it [writer's note: a number of Donnie's videos are on the more serious, documentary side. One example is the mini-documentary he released about a homeless community living below the Las Vegas strip].

I think the world is an endlessly fascinating place and that's what motivates me to keep on exploring.

Do you ever get culture shock? How do you deal with it?

Not anymore really.

When I first moved to China, it was a lot, because I spoke zero Chinese. Just doing simple things like trying to get from one place to another was really tough. Now I do speak survival Chinese, I wouldn't say I'm fluent, but if you dropped me in China I'd be able to navigate.

During the buzkashi match in Tajikistan I definitely experienced some culture shock as well. Even just showing up to this giant field of horses, the surroundings were so exotic to me.

There was also a little culture shock when I was in Colombia. I went to the most densely populated island in the world there. The island is almost the size of one New York City block. That was during COVID so I wasn't used to being in crowds, I was the only foreigner on the island, and it was just wild. It was packed with people playing soccer, drinking, partying, fishing, working... I was definitely overwhelmed at first. All that activity in a small place was a lot to take in.

In Hong Kong too, there's a place called Chungking Mansions and it's almost like a small town in a giant building. I think I got lost in there for like four hours trying to find my hotel room. 

Those are a few places where I've thought, I've never seen anything like this, what am I doing here? But now I love those places because they're some of the most memorable spots I've been to.

But I've never experienced the shock in a negative light or to the point where I think, Oh my god, I can't handle this. Now when I arrive somewhere and it's so unique, I just get really excited and think This is going to be an awesome place to document. So it's not as much culture shock, as it is culture excitement I'd say.

What are some destinations you haven't been yet that you'd like to visit?

I would like to go to India, and I may actually be going soon to do a series there. Like I said, I don't get a lot of culture shock anymore, but I feel like all the chaos, the sights, the sounds, the smells of India make it one place where I could still experience culture shock. It seems to be a lot on the senses and also just seems like a fascinating country. 

Then, Peru. I love the history of the Incas and have read a lot about it so I think that would be really interesting.

On Croatia and Donnie's new Balkans series

What was the most rewarding part about making this series in particular?

Making this series has forced me to learn the history of the Balkans. I knew there were some wars there when I was growing up, and I knew that World War I had started due to the assassination in Sarajevo, but I didn't know the details at all. If you had asked me to name all the former Yugoslavian countries, I wouldn't have been able to do even do that. Now from making the videos and traveling around, I do feel like I've gained a basic understanding of the history.

It's also been rewarding because I've already had some locals who are from the Balkans reach out and tell me how much they're appreciating the videos. And that always means a lot. You never want to go somewhere and everyone's saying Why did you say this, why did you make us look like that... So that's been great.

I was worried about talking about the past situation and the political situation, and there obviously are people having debates in the comments. But I tried to keep it to a really basic overview so no one could say Oh that's completely wrong. I haven't gotten a bunch of negative feedback on that which is good.

Then, just all the beautiful scenery I got to see along the way.

Photo courtesy of The Wonton Don / Barstool Sports / Photographer: Alex Greenberg
Photo courtesy of The Wonton Don / Barstool Sports / Photographer: Alex GreenbergDonnie on a truffle hunt in Istria, featuring four-legged truffle expert "Brum"

The most challenging part about making this series?

We [Donnie and his team; videographer Alex Greenberg and production assistant Tommy Lee] didn't really plan any days to just chill. We ended up getting one day to hang out in Split at the end, but most of the trip it was just go, go, go. 

I think we were in five different countries in the span of four days at one point.

We also had water polo practice [with Vaterpolski klub Jug, an Olympic water polo team from Dubrovnik] and jumped off the Mostar Bridge in the same day. And the previous night, we were at a music festival in Dubrovnik. So I went from a music festival in Dubrovnik until 4 AM in the morning, then sleeping until 9 AM, to a water polo practice in Dubrovnik, and then driving to Mostar and jumping off the bridge around 3:30 PM. After Mostar we had to keep driving, and the next morning we were harvesting grapes back in Croatia in Slavonski Brod - video coming soon.

So it being jam-packed was challenging. I felt like I could've done a full month there.

But it was never to the point where I was like Damn, this sucks - I was having fun the whole time. We just didn't have a lot of time to decompress in between filming things.

What are your favourite episodes of the series so far?

Probably the Belgrade nightlife one, and the one in Kosovo and Albania when I saw the George W. Bush statue and the Bill Clinton statue. It was pretty fascinating to learn about that. And also jumping off the Mostar Bridge.

Where in the Balkans do you wish you had had more time/where would you like to return?

I wish I had more time in Albania because that's the Balkan country that's probably the most different from the West. I was only there for one day in total. So there was definitely a lot more to explore.

A place I really want to go back to is the Croatian coast in general, and the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. We had one day in Split and Hvar at the end, and I want to go back there for a full week at least because it was insanely beautiful.

The Balkans are a place to...

A place to party.

A place to soak in stunning scenery, from the coastlines to inland. Even when I was driving through Bosnia for example, there were cool mountains and fields. The rivers, as well. I found the Sava River beautiful.

And a place to soak up rich history.

So, it's a place for history buffs, partiers, as well as people who just want to take it easy and enjoy some beautiful scenery. 

Something every visitor to the Balkans should try is...

Ćevapi and rakija!

We had ćevapi so many times over there, but I never got sick of it. It tastes better than it looks.

As for the rakija, I wouldn't say it tastes good but it's a fun time.

Something every visitor to the Balkans should avoid is...

I wouldn't fall off any couches in a Serbian club... I wouldn't piss off any bouncers in Serbia in general.

The best lodging you stayed at in the Balkans is…

The splav houses in Belgrade. Like I said in the video, there are a lot of lake houses in the US but I hadn't seen river houses. Apparently they do exist on the Northern Mississippi River, though.

But we stayed on a splav in Belgrade. It was pretty cheap, and it was awesome to be able to wake up every morning and jump directly into the river.

The best meal you had in the Balkans is…

Freshly roasted pig that I had at the wine festival in Slavonia, which viewers will see in an upcoming video.

That was awesome - we got to pick it up, see how they make it, chop it up with them... And it was so good.

Can you offer any travel tips for people thinking about visiting the Balkans?

I'd say road trip, because it's a perfect place in the world to rent a car and see four or more different countries in a short period of time. I didn't find the driving too crazy, except for in Albania. There, the roads get a little hairy.

But it was super easy to visit one country, drive a few hours, and be in another. With a car you can really see a lot!

-

For more, find Donnie on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Barstool, and TikTok.

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