When I made the decision to go to Beijing, after graduating university, it was an instinctive decision. I knew that it was a choice that would have deep and long-lasting effects. And it has. It’s been a blast.
But after three years of Beijing there will come a time when I will want to make another decision. Whether to continue doing the same thing, or to branch out and pick another fig, and experience something completely new.
But how will I know, when I come to make that decision, that the choice I make, will be the right one?
The first couple of months I spent in Beijing were miserable. Lonely. Hard. This was autumn 2012. You won’t find any posts about those months on this blog because I wasn’t blogging back then. But I do remember looking at the ceiling, in my little rented bedroom, at night, feeling quite alone, and wondering whether what I was doing made any sense.
I didn’t know back then whether the decision to go to Beijing would pay off. I had no idea. I couldn’t predict the future.
The second year was better. There was more momentum, more serendipity. By the third year though, things waned. Got a bit stale. Some of that initial motivation had worn off. And I wondered why that was.
The clue was that I finally understood what the phrase “the struggle is the reward” meant.
Those initial months in Beijing were hard, but I was struggling towards something. That struggle gave a firmer narrative to life and a meaning to the misery. The struggle itself made everything rewarding, even the hardship — especially the hardship.
There was purpose in it.
A person I admire is Casey Neistat, a filmmaker. He recalled his first years in New York City, after moving there from small-town New England:
The hardest part was the loneliness, like I didn’t really know anyone in the city when I moved here. I remember going home after work to my tiny apartment and it was like, I had no-one to hang out with, I had no-one to call, I had nothing to do. And that lasted for like, I feel like years, of that kind of loneliness.
I spent a lot of time in my head, dreaming and fantasizing about the life in this city I aspired towards.
Elsewhere, on his YouTube channel, he talks about how he lived in closets, in tiny apartments, in his early years in NYC, sharing with illegal immigrants and ex-convicts. All in the pursuit of his dream, of making it in the city.
He’s now wildly successful, with two million subscribers to his YouTube channel, a tech company he founded, and what he calls a golden age, of his present situation.
But there is a sense I feel, from him, that there is a part of him that maybe misses the young, crazy, suffering, part of his life, when he was starving, and all ahead of him was wild potential and possibility.
I am not successful, not to any degree to how Casey Neistat is successful anyway, in my own field. But I’m no longer that young kid scrapping in Beijing, hungry and desperate for bylines.
So there needs to be a re-framing, a different narrative, as I transition toward a different period in my life.
Is there a conclusion to any of this?
Not really. I’ll let you know in a year or two.
I can’t predict the future.
I have been at home, living at my parent’s house. They live in a village called Ninfield, in southeast England. It’s about half an hour’s drive from Hastings, the seaside town where I grew up. Round here it’s green fields, country homes, and little churches.
It’s been raining a lot. Daffodils bloom outside due to the warmest December in Britain on record.
I’ve not had much to do. I do some editing for a PR firm. Wrote a couple of travel articles for an Aussie website which will pay well. Sent a couple of pitches out earlier this week.
But January is usually a quiet month for freelancers. Although if I was in China, I’d have quite a bit on my plate as there’s a lot going on right now.
There is not much to do in Ninfield. It’s a village so it’s a very small place. There are no cafes and just a few shops. There are two pubs and a post office. Mostly I’ve been at home, exercising a little on a camping mat I bought, and reading the internet and watching TV.
Occasionally I go out for a walk. It’s muddy and wet and the grass is very green. I’ve enjoyed the British weather and the countryside. I went walking one day and I was taking photos on my phone of the scenery. In front of me there was a field that sloped downward toward the horizon, with a farmstead at the bottom, and horses in the field.
One approached me after I had stood there for a while taking pictures. He probably was wondering what I was doing and wanted to take a look.
I am starting to get antsy cooped up at home. Wanderlust fills me. I am kinda glad I am not in Beijing right now. I know it well enough to know that Beijing in January is a dangerous place and I’ve always tended toward a bleak and depressed mood in the city at this time of year.
On Christmas eve, my old school friends and I will usually meet at a pub and have drinks. It’s a kind of tradition. We’ll also meet up at one of our friend’s houses for a catch-up and we’ll go play football. That’s also become a tradition.
We don’t see each other very often. Sometimes just once or twice a year.
One is in the army, having returned from Afghanistan. Another works for a medical company with wife and newborn son. Another works for a water company up north. Another is well traveled and often abroad.
I find that a lot of options tend to run in my head. Projections of what I will do in the near future.
All these options are available, and making a choice means snatching one of the choices in my head and making that choice real. Sometimes it’s easier to just project the image of that choice. To bathe in the glow of the possibility that I have made that choice.
Tomorrow I go to London. And the day after I go to a national newspaper’s office to meet editors with whom I’ve corresponded but have never met.
I’m also reading a book by a Norwegian. I’ve not read him before. I came upon a passage, in which the author writes about his experience having just moved to the north of Norway, to teach at a school, while he writes, at the age of 18. And I remembered a little how I felt at that age.
“All the books I liked were basically about the same topic…Books about young men who struggled to fit into society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom…Everything they wanted I wanted too”.
- Write a Novel
Even if it takes two years, the sense of completion I’d feel would be worth it. That I started and finished a novel. More than that, I think of how much I’d learn.
I am increasingly convinced that strong storytelling is the key, whether it’s in marketing, advertising, speechwriting, blogging, journalism, or “content creation”. That a deep understanding of narrative, story, and essence is the fundamental skill needed.
I already have a “model book”, that is, a book which I’ll study chapter by chapter; analyzing line by line what’s going on, after which I’ll produce my version. It’s writing-by-numbers you might think, but by learning the infrastructure and superstructure of a novel like this I think I’ll indelibly absorb something useful.
How do you tell a story, what are the mechanics of narrative, constructing a plot, creating a character, developing a character, describing a believable person with spark and breath on a page — dialogue, mood, and tone. All this I have some sense of from the dozens of novels I’ve read but I won’t know until I do it myself.
I think I’ll be able to better tell a story, write an article, design a campaign, once I understand the bones of something as large as a novel intimately.
2. Be a more global writer
Go to South Korea. Tokyo. Bangkok. Around China. Taiwan. HK. Try to be an Asia correspondent. Join the dots. Put the pieces together. How things relate. Write and report more from more places. Have a different experience.
3. Work on one or more “big stories”
An inspiring, romantic title, a journey, an adventure, a deep study of a subject worth exploring, something inspiring.
4. Consume less
I won’t be buying more clothes, unless I genuinely need it or I really love it. I won’t spend extra and indulge in food unless I actually feel like it. Spending–buying stuff are just boring, displacement activities that don’t mean anything. So I’ll cut down on this.
5. Connect with more people
Just put more effort into meeting more people, making genuine effort, and getting to know people.
6. Go to America
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, especially checking out the national parks, the landscape and some of the cities. If anyone wants to be my guide, let me know. In general, I should do more of the things I’ve always wanted to do.
…As it applies to me currently
I don’t get to have a “normal” routine. I don’t get a decent, comfortable salary. I don’t get benefits. I don’t get to meet celebrities. I don’t get as much access. I don’t get a clear path of progression. I don’t get to move to other countries, on someone else’s dime. I don’t get to have office chitchat and work friends. Or a regular sense of togetherness. I don’t get company trips or parties. I don’t get to take part in the editorial meeting. I don’t get to report daily. Or to be in that press conference. I don’t even get free coffee.
But I do look forward to Mondays more than most people.
I do get to wake up on Monday the 4th of January and idly wonder what the day will bring…
2015 was strange. For me at least. It was the quickest feeling year I’ve ever experienced, when months announced their arrival with the thought: “It’s April already?!”
I arrived back in Beijing in mid-January. And I went to Burma in mid-February for 18 days. I then reentered Beijing and into March, after travel, like leaping over stepping stones instead of passing time step by step.
Burma was a delight: charming, hot, earthy, and quite magnificent. It reconfirmed for me that travel, when done, is rarely regretted. In Burma I was fortunate to meet and hang out with a fellow freelance correspondent and his crew. It was wild and reminded me of stories expats tell of Beijing twenty years ago, when parties were mostly of the house kind and simply living there was pioneering.
I envy my Burma counterpart because that southeast Asian experience seems more reminiscent of the kind of old-school correspondence conjured by the likes of Graham Greene novels. Burma is like a country wrapped in amber, suffused with a golden light, and I do hope I make it back there sooner rather than later.
The year was also one of hardship. In March, I left a job that had been my main source of income for over a year. From March onward I depended entirely on my freelancing income and the transition was not a smooth one. Financially it was difficult, but the transition was the more harder simply because the routine of commuting and office hours that my former job had given me was suddenly stripped away. I was alone.
April through to July was difficult. That’s four months. Four months where I felt, at times, a great weight of loneliness and isolation. I would go so far as to say despair, especially when there seemed to be long hours which I spent just lain on my couch, dressed in nothing save denim shorts, sweating and thinking. That’s an image for which I am thankful as I now have a mental picture of myself that I hope never to reproduce.
Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty.
But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing. However, the freelance income from the previous year was supplementary to the income earned from my other job (the one I quit in March), which meant that, overall, this year I still earned less than what I earned the previous year.
There have been other milestones. But I do not wish to bore you, patient reader, with a list of achievements. Rather I wish to convey what being a freelance journalist abroad has meant to me.
And 2015 has felt like a transitional year. And educational, for reasons that are not so clear to me now but that I think, in retrospect, will probably guide me in the future.
Certainly, there needs to be a helluva lot more planning for 2016 if I am to make the most of my time, to make the most of what I can experience and to make the most of what I can do.
I have only realized, in the past week, that I had mislaid a small but significant resource. And that is the simple to-do list. For much of the time I have been in China, I have relied on to-do lists, dutifully scribed in my small Moleskine notebooks either in the morning or before I went to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. It provides structure to your day and a sense of purpose.
This blog continues to be a source of solace and power. By making a timeline of 2015 for myself (a previous blog entry), I could see the year all the more clearly, laid out in front of me. It’s a great tool as I can objectively examine the time I used, to see what could be learned, what themes and patterns might be picked out, and what could be improved.
And writing in this blog is always a great way to work things out for myself.
Finally, theluhai.com (I pay annually for the URL) has paid for itself many, many, times over in freelance commissions from editors, and others, who have found me via this website. If that doesn’t sway you, if you’re a freelancer, to start your own website — the lure of work and money — then I don’t know what will.
Seminal posts of 2015:
There is much to look forward to and next year I hope to be more footloose. Being trapped in Beijing, to where I will probably return in the spring, is not good for the soul. And traveling is a great way to slow down time as it focuses you on the present. However, I will still need to base myself somewhere, and will probably need my own place to call “home”, so reconciling wanderlust and home comforts will be a defining tension, as is common for wandering writers.
Beijing itself has been the great uncaring mass it has always been. The spring was lovely, with uncommonly blue skies, summer was hot and sweaty as usual, autumn was very mild, and winter was very cold and very polluted, although this offered journalistic opportunity.
I have been traveling and basing myself in Beijing for three years now and I am tired of the place. I’d quite like to base myself somewhere else now to be honest. But what I want, as is common for all people, does not accord with what others may want. This is a reference to the nature of foreign correspondence. Editors want journalists who have a native expertise and that means Beijing, and China, and the knowledge and contacts I have accrued from being there are what makes me valuable to them.
There is a meeting I have in London in early January that is important for me and I don’t want to say too much for fear of unnerving myself. But I’ll reveal more once we get to it.
For now, happy new year. And thank you for reading.
The previous year’s summary
A video showing a year in my life, compressed into five minutes