Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Finding buoyancy as a freelancer

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I have been very busy. In the past week or so I’ve had up to five commissions. They all have different deadlines and I’ve prioritised them according to their various timelines. Initially, there was a panicky sense that I’d taken on too much, but that feeling has subsided. I knew things would have to change in my schedule and, surely enough, I adapted.

One commission is from BBC Future Planet; another from BBC Worklife. Two are from a new client — Business Insider — the UK version. And lastly, one commission is an unusual case. I’d been working on an article commissioned by a British online publication. I reported and wrote the article. After much patient waiting they eventually decided they had “no space” to run it. (I happen to think it is because the tone of my piece does not fit in with the tone of their publication.) However, they agreed to pay a kill fee and what’s more the kill fee would be the same amount they commissioned for. Additionally, they said they’d be fine with me selling the piece on. I put out a call for my article on Twitter and a journalist friend of mine suggested a contact of hers. I emailed this contact and sent him my piece. He kindly agreed to take it on. And so, I will be paid double for this piece. Everything worked out. Hurrah!

I am not usually this busy. But I have come to enjoy it. Weekends now genuinely feel like a relief rather than just another void in time and space. I get that “Friday feeling” a lot of full-timers talk about (also known as “Fri-yay”).

About that new client. That was also via Twitter. I followed this writer. He followed back. What ensued was a mutual appreciation society, over DM. He then mentioned that he had been recently appointed an editor at Business Insider so if I had any article ideas please send them. I did. And the rest is history. Again, if you are a freelance journalist, and you are not on Twitter actively looking for opportunities then you might consider it.

I am still in Japan, living in a hostel. I do not speak Japanese (although I’ve been commissioned for two articles about Japan-related topics, and have already had one published) so I do feel a language barrier living in this country. I now know what it must feel like for non-Chinese-speaking foreigners living in China. I’ve come to feel a greater sympathy for those monolinguists who lived in Beijing alongside me but could not communicate with the locals. Although I am sure a few of them spoke a European language, Chinese is altogether different to learn.

I, being of Chinese heritage, was able to pick it up, again, with relative ease. But being in Japan I have not made much effort to learn Japanese. I will begin to rectify this and do some study.

Sometimes I do wish I had been stranded somewhere like coastal Thailand and I would’ve been free to swim in the ocean, enjoying the bounties of nature. But being in Japan has had definite upsides, not least in the work I’ve gained.

Right now, work is going well. Socially, life-wise, things could be a little better. But I do not think mine is a unique case in this regard. But, overall, I am grateful for my position. And recognise that I should embrace the luxuries that I have, and not dwell on the things that could be. I am not entitled to everything. And working hard should be its own reward.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 30, 2020 at 4:10 am

Now is the time to be pitching

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I, horse riding in northeast China, two summers ago

If there is one piece of advice I would’ve given to my 20-something self, when I had started freelancing full-time, it would be to pitch more.

Pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch some more. Pitch. Pitch again. Re-pitch. Pitch.

Right now, although it’s a hard time for many media publications, editors are still crying out for fresh content.

They’re hungry, in fact, for new voices. Over the past week, I’ve seen dozens of call-outs for pitches, on Twitter, from editors at a smorgasbord of titles.

Journalism is as popular as ever, if not more so. More of the world is literate than ever before; Internet penetration continues to increase; and people are reading articles in the millions and millions.

So write the pieces you want to read; write the stories that only you can. Channel your energy and creativity into well-crafted pitches that will be greenlit. (Remember to negotiate for higher fees! You don’t want to sell yourself or other freelancers short.)

This week all I’ve been doing is pitching or re-pitching or refining pitches. I feel burned-out, in fact, from all the pitching. I’m waiting for the cows to come home.

Try to make each pitch well-crafted, interesting or original, and, crucially, well suited to the editor you’re pitching, the section s/he runs, and the publication. Don’t pitch a sex toy feature to the food section of a children’s magazine.

If you want tips and advice on how to pitch there is an abundance of material on the ‘net. Also on this blog — just use this tag: pitching.

Good luck. Any questions or comments, please write a comment on this post or email me.

Also, if you find these posts enjoyable, edifying or entertaining, why not support this blog? I’ve been creating content for this blog for several years and now it would be great if you could show your support. Please send appreciation to paypal.me/LuHaiLiang89 

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Those Beijing streets in 2013, when I first started blogging. 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 11, 2020 at 7:02 am

Posted in Features, Journalism advice

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Five Years As A Full-Time Freelance Journalist

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It’s been over five years since I went full-time freelance, with many tales of woe and wonder accrued, and it was in Beijing, that city of crushing concrete and flickering dreams, where I, an ambitious migrant, learned the ways of this marginal life.

I wanted to draw attention to some of my most memorable and notable articles I worked on over that duration. It has been a journey of near financial ruin, some wonderful highs, truly terrible lows, and an endless procession of images that are so dense and numerous that they don’t stand out easily in my mind, something I consider somewhat of a curse.

Freelance journalism is no kind of career and I do not advise you, dear reader, to enter this occupation. It is badly paid, demands much of you, and the glory of it is a bright mirror made of silver ghosts. They will haunt you, those glories, because they are so elusive and whispering. If you want to do something truly fulfilling, be a doctor, a teacher, a nurse, a public servant without vice and ambition.

(I’m serious about this. If you deeply care about social issues get into public policy, activism or just become seriously rich while pledging part of your income to charity. If you really want to make a difference don’t sit on the fence like a journalist — get into politics. If you want to be truly creative, start writing fiction. If you like celebrity, start TikTok-ing.)

Don’t follow in my footsteps. Don’t get sucked into this vortex of monetary oblivion. Live a wholesome life with regular hours, great benefits, and free coffee. Build up your days with a succession of normal events and normal milestones, properly celebrated and fondly reminisced. If, however, you do decide to plunge in here’s what you might expect.

The time I went to North Korea as an undercover journalist

Aljazeera, Is North Korea on your tourism bucket list?

Although this happened in 2014, I wanted to highlight it because it remains one of the boldest things I’ve done. I decided I wanted to go to North Korea. In a lane off a small street, in downtown Beijing, there exists the offices of the oldest established North Korea tour operator, founded by a Briton no less. In that building is where I laid out my idea, to their general manager, about what I wanted to do, and where we negotiated how I would proceed. Tourism was a growing phenomenon and I thought I would write about it.

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The Kims and I, in Pyongyang.

What better way than to “smuggle” myself onto a tour? The investment was high. The tour cost a lot of money, more than I had ever spent. It was eight days, traveling all around North Korea, all inclusive. But I had told zero editors I was going there. Didn’t know who I would pitch the story to afterwards.

While I was there I took a copious amount of notes, which lie in a Moleskine in a drawer in England, and hundreds of photos and dozens of videos. I used a Canon S120, a digital compact camera, and an Olympus Mju-II, a film camera I’d picked up in Beijing. Those Canon S120 photos would eventually be sold to various publications and helped to recoup the money I’d sunk and more.

In hindsight, I could’ve negotiated for more money for the first feature that came out of that trip. I was young and did not realise how much the story was worth. I should’ve asked for more. But back then, $450 for a feature and $450 for a photo gallery seemed a lot to me. It was worth more than that though. Sigh. But, like I said, I eventually recouped my money, plus more, and magazines such as Marie Claire would pay well for the photos. Also, I went to North Korea. As a journalist. So, I’ll always have that.

The time I told everyone that I got a 2:2 degree in journalism 

The Guardian, Feeling depressed about your 2:2 degree? Get over it, employers have

I read multimedia journalism at Bournemouth University, earning a B.A. In the UK, a bachelors usually takes three years and you get a final grade for your degree. A First is the highest award and quite hard to get. Most people get a 2:1 and it’s respectable. What most students do not want to get is a 2:2, known colloquially as a “Desmond” (after Desmond Tutu). But that’s what I got.

I always found it ironic though that I was telling everyone I got a 2:2 in journalism, in The Guardian, a publication most student journalists would kill to get a byline in. C’est la vie.

The time I failed at being a travelling journalist in Burma

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Watching the sunrise getting messed up by balloons in Bagan, Burma.

CNN Travel, Myanmar monks feel the pressure of tourism

In the winter of 2015, I attempted an experiment at traveling while also doing journalism. It was a precursor to what I do now, which is basically travel the world writing articles. But I was not good at it then. (I am still not sure if I am good at it now.) And I spent three weeks in Myanmar travelling, and mostly failing at finding stories except this one travel story I wrote. But it remains one of my favourite published pieces.

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Ups and downs: the rollercoaster of freelance journalism

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I would not advise anyone, currently, to consider going into journalism. It has been a tumultuous time for the industry. Over the past couple of weeks, job cuts have been announced at VICE, Quartz, Conde Nast, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Vox Media, LA Times, The Economist, among others.

The printed word, as a business, is in a very precarious position as ad spend, the events arm, and other money-making parts of this industry, have been decimated owing to effects from covid-19.

Yet, more than ever before, people are reading and clicking through. Many media titles have reported increases in traffic. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reap benefits from the content created by news media, making their platforms go-to places for potential sources of information, yet the media do not reap the financial rewards. Facebook and Google suck up the vast majority of worldwide ad spend (in the billions of dollars), while journalism — which plays an important civic role, especially local newspapers — continues its downward trend.

On a personal level, as a freelancer, my fortunes have rollercoastered. If my finances remain fairly stable (although still low) the feeling of freelancing in this current predicament has been fraught and stressful.

Some days, I feel despondent at the entire process of coming up with ideas, researching, crafting a well-written and precise pitch, waiting for editor replies (some of which never come). It is a lot of investment, plus mental labour, for relatively little return. And yet, job cuts and furloughs are not confined to the journalism industry. Whole swathes of the economy are in trouble. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, theatres, retailers, are just a few examples of businesses facing a black hole. Tourism and all the people who rely on it are facing existential crisis.

To be a freelancer, at this time, is to feel simultaneously insecure, and yet, in some way, also stable and liberated. Because I am still working and able to work, as long as I continue toiling and pitching to those editors still with the budget to commission and pay. I am somewhat protected. So maybe do try going into freelance journalism — just know that you’ll likely be competing with the hundreds of journalists who have just been laid off.

And it is remarkable how just one commission, with a new publication, and on a subject close to my heart, can energise and renew my faith in this lark. Freelance journalism is mostly dining on greased up junk food, paying out little nutritional value, but occasionally you get to savour a gloriously fulfilling meal with plenty of vegetables (you’re not an adult if you don’t like vegetables).

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View from the rooftop of my hostel in Fukuoka.

But my finances remain on the edge. I realise now, in hindsight, I committed a couple of cardinal errors in the first three months of this year. In February I was in Thailand and I spent too much money, and earned far too little. I should have been more prudent. Now, in Japan, I am enduring on break-even income, budgeting hard, and working hard. I guess mistakes are made, and lessons will be learned. Had the pandemic not have occurred, I would have been in a cheaper country by now, yet having to remain in one place for so long (I have been living in the same hostel since March 13) has done wonders for my productivity and output.

So I will continue toiling until such time something changes.

My writing life 

I have been interviewing many people this week for a story I’ve been working on. It’s a feature about British Chinese, a minority group to which I belong. In October 2013, the New Statesman published this story: ‘Where exactly are my British Chinese role models?‘ To this day, it remains the article from which I have received the most email. Although I remain somewhat cynical about journalism, sometimes it really does have an effect on people, and the emails I received from that story are evidence. Hopefully, this new article will have a similar effect.

Recent bylines:

BBC Worklife — Life after lockdown: How China went back to work

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 23, 2020 at 7:48 am

Retreating into smaller comforts

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In the month of February, I spent too much money, and made it worse by not doing any work. I spent a full 30 days in Thailand (I arrived in January) and ate, drank, and indulged. It was enjoyable. But now, in April, I am paying the cost. I’m stuck in Japan, living in a hostel, and as I write this I am in arrears.

So, I’ve drastically reduced spending and have been budgeting hard. I’ve been spending £25 or less per day, including my accommodation costs, which is not bad for Japan. I’ve also enjoyed these quieter days and I have enjoyed working more. Every day I’ve been pitching more and working hard on commissions. I need to earn that cash and the side effect has been a leaning-in to the work, which I’ve embraced, gotten into a routine, and enjoyed the process.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching a lot of Netflix and listening to music. I am reading less, but writing more, which is how it should be. Consuming less of other people’s words and creating more of my own. I’ve been working on an essay, a piece of short fiction, a couple of commissioned news features. It’s weird because I am averaging a huge six or seven hours of screentime per day. But it’s because my iPad Mini — one of my best purchases ever — is my entertainment centre as well as a capable computer. In fact, sometimes I prefer working on my iPad (using it with a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard) over my laptop, although for serious writing and editing the laptop still reigns supreme.

My days look like this: getting up around noon, coffee, laptop. Work until around 4pm, eat brunch. Have dinner around 8 or 9pm. Yes, it’s not very healthy. But it has felt good, if sometimes stressful. I’ve been getting by on one or two meals a day. I’ve lost weight. But I feel more focused than I have for some time. It feels like I’m trimming off the fat and regaining focus.

These quieter days, with less busyness, have inspired a quietness within me too. What were we all so busy for anyway? I mean, really. What was it all for? Consumerism encourages you to spend beyond your means, to buy things you don’t need. During these pandemic times, do you really need that Gucci bag, that expensive watch, the latest gadget? The people who have the most have the most to lose. But there is a joy in appreciating the things that cannot be so easily bought. Having a Zoom pub quiz with some of my oldest friends, over three different time zones. Daily calls with K. Enjoying the fact I have writing as my job, passion, and money maker.

We have been spoiled. As an expat in Beijing, I would eat out all the time. Partly out of necessity (I did not cook often and eating out is cheap in China) and partly for enjoyment. Socialising with friends on the weekend and we’d go to restaurants and bars. Our parents would not have dreamed of such luxury, especially on such a frequent basis. What I miss though are not the luxuries. One of the memories I’ve been feasting on is when I was in Chiang Mai, in February, walking alone around a square filled with tables, people, and the conviviality of early evening. I wandered around looking for something to eat and found a stall and ordered off of their limited but specialised menu. It was northern Thai cuisine and I ordered a dish of liver with rice. It arrived after a while, while I checked out everyone, people watching. The liver was tender, the spicing delicious, and the rice gave the soft background the dish needed. It didn’t cost the earth, but my memory lingers over that dish (my mouth is watering as I write this!) — it is not just the food, but the feeling of pure freedom that accrues in retrospect. The freedom was the ultimate luxury. The memory of it a moveable feast.

Lately, I’ve survived on sweet potatoes (nourishing, nutritious, feel-good food) and I have been cooking more. Egg-fried rice, cup noodles, these cheap fairy cakes that offer great calorie-to-yen value. But I also cooked fish. Splashed on pineapple. And lately, I have bought beef. I season the beef well, heat the pan with a generous amount of oil. I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl. I place the beef into the hot oil, to sizzle the outside on both sides, and then put the beef into the eggs. I make sure the beef is properly drenched in the egg, covered with its yellowy goodness, then finish off the beef in the pan, and put the eggs in with them, and scramble those eggs with the beef. I serve my steak and eggs, and reader, it tastes fantastic. Simple, pleasurable, joyful. Each mouthful a world of savouriness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 26, 2020 at 4:56 pm

The Wandering Freelance Journalist In A Pandemic: Stuck in Japan and Staying Productive

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Hi reader,

I write you from a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan. I have been here a few weeks. Same hostel, same city. Fukuoka is in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan’s five main islands.

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Since I arrived, I have seen borders close and citizens in cities around the world stuck indoors. We are living through a pandemic, which is defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease. Pubs and schools are closed in the United Kingdom, something that seemed unthinkable. Wuhan, the origin point of the virus, a city of 10 million, was placed under strict lockdown. America and Germany saw infections balloon. France, Italy and Spain have borne the brunt of fatalities. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, whom I interviewed 10 years ago when he was mayor of London, is in intensive care.

And me? How has it affected my freelance career; my wandering life?

I am fortunate that Japan has a relatively low number of cases. Although a state of emergency has been declared by PM Shinzo Abe, the government here is unable to enforce strict lockdowns due to civil rights abuses during World War Two, and protection of such rights was enshrined in the post-war constitution. Museums, art galleries, schools are closed, but many shops and restaurants remain open here in Fukuoka.

Freelance copywriting work from China has dried up, as many agencies have been affected by clients scaling back their budgets. Many journalism publications, meanwhile, have been under huge pressure to keep up with Coronavirus-related content.

I was supposed to have left Japan, flying from Fukuoka’s airport, on March 23 but my flight was cancelled (still waiting on that refund, Air Asia!). I am glad it was cancelled anyway as my next destination was Kuala Lumpur but the Malay government is not accepting foreign entrants at this time.

I have friends who are currently stuck in Tokyo. After being forced to delay their return to Beijing, where they live, they took refuge in Singapore but had to leave due to finishing visas, but as soon as they left the Singaporean government closed their borders. Now they’re in limbo, with their stuff scattered across two countries. My family in England meanwhile are all at home: with shops and schools closed.

A novelist friend of mine has had her book marketing tour cancelled. Many of my acquaintances and journalist colleagues describe hellish working conditions, as they bury themselves in a deluge of coronavirus reports, or their commissions have all but dried up. A fellow wandering journalist, who had lined up reporting assignments all over India got stuck in Goa, India, but took a hail-mary flight back to London via Rome. Travel journalists, meanwhile, seem the most severely affected. Thankfully no one I know has been terribly affected by the virus, health-wise (touch wood).

Japan

So this is my first time in Japan. I lived in Beijing for six years, but funnily enough I never made it to the Land of the Rising Sun. I always thought it was too expensive, and my suspicions have been confirmed. Truthfully though, Fukuoka at least is not awful in terms of costs. Accommodation and food prices are not as cheap as I’d like but it’s certainly not as costly as, say, the UK.

Everything here is neat, tidy, extremely safe and well organised. But honestly I am not one of these people who are obsessed with Japan, some of whom I have met in my hostel. I’ve never been a Japanophile although it’s always interesting to visit a new country and I was genuinely curious about what this east Asian country would be like. I always find it interesting to compare/contrast China with its historical rivals.

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An island in Japan. (All photos copyright: LHL 2020) 

But Japan doesn’t reach into my soul like places in other parts of Asia do. The symbols and motifs of Nepal; the distinctive light of Burma; the colours of Thailand; and the sultry food of Malaysia and Singapore all sing to me. The “exotic” aspects of southeast Asia speak to my heart.

However, highlights so far have been going to a random restaurant and having my opinion of tempura completely changed. Consuming a superlative bowl of ramen (which cost £7). Visiting an island and meeting an interesting Australian guy and his wife. Seeing the Sakura bloom — I really didn’t expect them to be as splendid as they are.

I know I should visit Kyoto and Nara, and I will at some point, but I think I prefer to save my money for future travels. Tokyo is also on my wish-list but the museums and art galleries there are closed. Getting around Japan is expensive.

My writing life 

While I have been in Fukuoka, I have filed one article, a feature for BBC Worklife. I finished it during an evening in my hostel, while an Australian guy chatted to me about heeding his government’s call for Aussies to return home, and the next day it was published. That article, I’ve been told, has received over 300,000 clicks.

Recent bylines:

How Viruses Spread in Offices – BBC Worklife

How Covid-19 led to a nationwide work-from-home experiment – BBC Worklife

I’ve started work on an essay for which I was contractually commissioned by a literary journal. It has a very long lead-in time (deadline is months away) so I am enjoying this, and Iimg_2936 am excited to write this essay as it marks a first for me.

This week I will work hard on pitching. I worked out I am living on around £25 per day, so I need to file a certain amount of articles per month to keep this show on the road. And I hope the roads will open up soon.

I have seen many writers and freelancers complain of being unable to work and be productive while this pandemic is in swing, but I have found it a clarifying force. I cannot control borders and government ministers and the movement of viruses so I don’t think about them. But I can control my routine. I can control my schedule. I am lucky that I am still able to go outside and wander the parks so I make the most of that. I have a friend here in Fukuoka so we hang out.

Still, I waste a lot of time watching Netflix and bouncing around the various social media. But one doesn’t need to be too hard on oneself. A few days I just spent lounging: reading and Netflix-ing. Watching Snowpiercer and re-watching The Godfather; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Finishing a novel, All That Man Is by David Szalay. Downloading a game, Forgotton Anne (that’s not a typo), on to my iPad. Sometimes you just gotta settle into a simpler rhythm and enjoy the things you have.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 7, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Life Before Work

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Do you remember the time when you were a student? I don’t mean a university student. I mean A-levels — for Americans, it would be high school. Or even earlier, when you were a pupil. Or do you remember when you’d just finished all that, when you had a bit of work, but was waiting around for the next big stage of life?

I remember lying crossways on a leather chair I had in my bedroom, my legs hanging over one side, and in this position, propped against the other side, I’d read Bill Bryson’s travel books. I’d spend what felt like hours in this position, happily entranced by Bryson’s pleasantly amusing narratives.

Or else I’d listen to music on my bed, lying there trapped between my Sennheiser headphones, getting high on the drums of John Bonham or the wild solos of Hendrix.

The iPhone had yet to be released and there were no phone notifications to take you away from these things. If you wanted to check in on Facebook you had to open up your computer and log on to see what people might have posted on your Wall.

Reading those books on my leather chair was an undisturbed experience. It felt like there was so much time. That time was irrelevant really. Because it was endless.

*

As a professional writer and journalist my work involves lots of reading. Research. Finding people. Tracking them down. Getting in touch. Interviewing. And writing it all up, sometimes late into the evening.

It resembles actually the work we did at university. It resembles homework.

Because school isn’t just about creating better, more rounded, cleverer human beings. It is also, actually, about preparing a generation of young people for the demands and rigours of work. It steadily introduces more and more work into your life: at school, we might write a two-page essay; A-levels, it’s three to four pages; university, 10,000 words.

By then, we’re used to it. We’ve gotten used to the fact life must be equivalent to work. School says to us we cannot always play. We must work.

*

Work can sometimes feel like play. If you are lucky enough.

I am lucky in that I like my job. I like working (although, obviously, not all of the time).

Right now, literally millions of people are working under different circumstances. For office workers, it means working from home.

Working from home. It’s what we did as kids, doing our homework at home. Afterwards, we might turn on our PlayStation. Or log on to MSN Messenger. And we’d relax. We would play. Our thoughts did not focus on the work we had just done. That was behind us.

It’s something we did, but we didn’t do it thinking that the homework was us. That the History essay we had to finish was who you were. That finishing up maths equations defined your identity.

But when you’re an adult, your work becomes you. You are a marketing expert. You are an accountant. You are a legal professional. You are a journalist.

We feel like it never leaves us behind. It’s attached to you, even when you are on holiday. Even when you are picking up rocks on a largely sandy beach, it never quite leaves you. Because you know, deep down, you will have to get back to work eventually.

*

But what if you could return to that state? The one of play. But not just play. That feeling that now is forever and forever is now. Getting lost in a book, feeling like there’s nothing else needed to be done.

It’s about time really. Maybe we’ve forgotten, in the endless stream of connectivity and notifications, that time is not in service to that. Social media has trained us — like school did for work — that we should always be “connected”.

But maybe we can use the time to be properly connected: to our closest people, to our community. And also just get lost in solitude. Or to play. Or to just look out the window and think that time should not be spent in thinking that we need to be using it for something.

Because time

Actually

is endless

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 27, 2020 at 5:28 am

February: freelancing woes (and salvation); Bangkok & Taipei; and my hunger for some time off

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cafe in bangkok

This year February is longer than usual. And the leap day falls on a Saturday. Will you do something special with this twenty-ninth day?

It’s been a while since I wrote you, reader. And last time we met I was in Chiang Mai chafing at the idyllic nature of it all. After Chiang Mai I went to Bangkok and I simultaneously missed Chiang Mai, its luscious nature, and felt glad to be away from it. Such are our contradictory natures. 

I arrived in Chiang Mai on the 22nd January and I left Thailand, via Bangkok, on the 21st February. I spent 30 days in Thailand, unexpectedly extending my stay by several days.

I write you from a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan. It is the same hostel I stayed in for over a month last year. Next Monday I leave and travel back to the Philippines. I won’t explain all my comings and goings to you, but just know that traveling is sometimes based on whims and it is perilous to ignore those whims.

A week ago or so I had a bit of a crisis. Basically I was having a meltdown because I had spent too much money in Thailand and I had no work booked in. The pitches I had managed to send off in the past month had all been rejected and I even had had one commission cut off. The money going out was not being replaced by money coming in. This is not sustainable.

I even thought about quitting journalism and just finding some stable and safe job. Then I hustled. I pitched. I worked. I have mostly stayed in or around my hostel, venturing out only to buy food, to go running and swimming. Salvation came via a commission that wasn’t even my pitch. It was from an editor who I contacted via Twitter last August while I was in Singapore, and with whom I arranged a coffee-meet. Since then I have kept in touch with this editor, pitching her on occasion, and finally I have received paid work. I have received more work, copywriting, via my network too. In Chinese this is known as guanxi — a term that goes beyond the western-equivalent word: networking. To develop good guanxi is key to a good life.

So I will have money coming in again, which is good. Money is always good.

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a park in taipei

I also feel like I need to settle down somewhere for a while and work on literary writing. That is really important to me. To find some space and move away from the commercial writing (journalism) and to seek the solace and joy of working on my own stuff. I am still not sure where this place will be. I’ll let you know…

I’ve been a journalist for over seven years and a full-time freelancer for five. Maybe it is natural that my thoughts turn to some kind of career break. It would be great to hear from another journalist, or anyone, who has taken a break of this kind, and what they learned from the experience, or even maybe transitioned to doing something completely else. I always enjoy hearing other people’s stories. 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 29, 2020 at 5:57 am

Chiang Mai, productivity, and the need for fixity

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I have been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks. We have entered February and I have begun to feel the need, urgent and rising, to start getting my nose to the grindstone.

January was taken by time spent in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. And it was a wonderful month.

The time I’ve spent in Chiang Mai, so far, has been good. I have succumbed to all the sensations this country, and city, is so well-equipped to provide. But I remember now why I didn’t quite gel with this place in the first place (I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016). It’s to do with the blissfully chilled-out vibe; the sultry heat; the jungle air. This place pulses with a certain energy, like a powerful narcotic, that makes it extremely difficult — for me at least — to be productive.

It really does feel like straining against a strong drug, or a seductive spell, that has slipped over me, and I need to fight and make enormous effort in order to break free of this enchantment. As a freelancer, and a traveling one, I need to work and to slip back into productive schedules otherwise I can kiss this lifestyle goodbye.

Different people gravitate towards different energies. Some people fall in love with Chiang Mai: attracted to its wonderful combination of nature, cafes, traveller, hippie/Thai qualities. Although many people have remarked that my own personality would be a good fit for this place (I generally seem laidback, easy-going, and even, perhaps, lazy) it is a misjudgement. I find myself leaning more towards grittier, dirtier places with dynamism to spare. There are limits. Manila, capital of the Philippines, probably has too much grit than I can take.

But Beijing, where I was based for six years, was gritty and dirty, until it was cleaned up in the past few years. Most travellers are not very fond of Bangkok, preferring natural Chiang Mai or the lazy paradise islands of the south, but I like Bangkok and its superior energy, the pace, the grittiness of its daily life.

Chiang Mai has wreaked havoc on my productivity and I find myself wanting to leave this place.

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Last year, when I travelled to five different places over four months, my most productive time was spent in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a good reason for this. I was living in a hostel, which I ended up staying in for over a month. The hostel allowed residents to be quite self-sufficient and I quickly found local landmarks. I fell into a routine. Oolong tea to wake up with, brewed in the common area at my hostel. Go out for a sweet potato bought from the nearby convenience store for breakfast. Walk around for a bit. Return to the hostel to work, or else head to a nearby café to work. Lunch at a local cafeteria which was cheap as chips. Have a bubble tea in the afternoon. Nap. Or swim at the local gym. Evening, head to the night market for dinner. Night-time: work in the kitchen of my hostel, which was quiet and low-ceilinged, and which was conducive to long bouts of writing.

The month I spent in Singapore was also fairly productive; ditto for the half-month I spent in Seoul. But Taipei was king of a productive me.

I find myself in want of this kind of schedule now. I will continue to travel, but I am aware that I may need to make some kind of big change. To find a spot to settle in, in order so I can work and achieve the goals that are important to me. I cannot stay in Chiang Mai. This place destroys my sense of achieving goals. But today, I am faring better, as I write this blog post. But having a fixity — a fixed place; a stable routine — is something I will need to find again. But where shall I go? What city shall I call my temporary home? This is the other question that haunts me. Recommendations welcome.

My writing life

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Surfing in Salvacion

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We stepped through the sandy dirt leaving flooded footprints, amid rain-soaked palm trees, our bare feet leading us to the beach. I carried the piece of carved polystyrene foam, heavier than I expected, the shape long and sinuous and coloured a baby blue.

It was 6am in the morning. The night before I’d slept with my companions on the second floor of a bamboo hut; preparing makeshift beds on the hard wooden floor; the mosquito net suspended above us endowing an instant cosiness.

The palm jungle lent the air a distinct energy as an endless supply of rain lashed down. The air was warm but gradually shed its heat and humidity as the sky lightened.

So we trudged toward the sand and the surging waves of early morning’s high tide. Kinkin, the local surfer, guided us into the water. The sea was a steely kind of grey; having substantial character and mood. It was overcast and windy. The rain pattered down on our bodies, our boards, and the waves.

Surf to the right, said Kinkin, pointing out a row of mangroves to the left-hand side that one would not want to be entangled. The waves cut across to the right. It was something I’d not really noticed before: that waves have changing characters and shift so much. And sometimes there is a freak wave, or more, that cuts against the grain, taking the opposite course to its previously breaking siblings. Kinkin would tell me which direction to go, always pointing out the danger of going too far left, which the channels would draw us to.

The rain, the elements, the slight cold, and the heat of paddling. The effort of paying attention to standing up and holding position, keeping the knees bent, riding the wave. Wiping out. Doing it again. My chest chafing against the board. Riding a sweet one, getting it right. The sea surging with the moon-energy of high tide, collecting the fresh water of rain and me smelling it all, breathing in this opportunity.

img_1432One of my favourite books is Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan, a memoir of his life as a surfer, teacher and journalist — growing up in Hawaii, traveling the world looking for waves, getting political in South Africa, becoming a writer and eventually a correspondent for The New Yorker.

In Barbarian Days there are many words spent discussing water, the ocean, reefs, and endless description — technical, idiomatic, and poetic — of waves and their nature. But it never gets boring. His achievement is to sustain a supreme kind of elegance throughout the hundreds of pages. Reading his memoir was a gateway into a poetry of nature and an impassioned life and I would include some quotations except my copy of the book is thousands of miles away.

It is that kind of achievement to which I aspire. But, lately, I’ve been a little blocked. Not just blocked in writing — actually, I can still write, just the motivation has been a little lacking. But, more troubling, it’s my reading that has suffered.

Ask any dedicated writer and they will tell you that reading is just as important as the act of writing. But for whatever reason I’ve found my ability to read is not as strong as before; my motivation to get stuck into a book is at its lowest ebb for as long as I can remember.

Meanwhile, my subconscious and its store of creativity feels shallower than before, and so I have been convalescing: doing yoga, surfing, swimming, and the physical, natural things our bodies require in order for us to be fully human. The mind-store will replenish. That is just a matter of time. Maybe I have simply read too much and need to write more in order to rebalance the scales. Meanwhile, activities like surfing allow the mind to relax.

We surfed for a couple of hours. Afterward we rode the pickup back to town, the rain still going, the countryside rice paddies getting their necessary deluge. The local girls in the pickup who’d kindly adopted me (the solo traveller) were in high spirits, laughing and bantering, teaching their friend from Manila, the manager of the hostel where I was staying, the local Visayan language. I felt grateful to be among them, glowing from that morning’s rain-soaked surf.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

January 19, 2020 at 4:28 am