Last month I went to Thailand. Again.
I was in Bangkok for about a week, in total, and several days in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city and about an hour away, by plane, north of Bangkok.
Jungle and hills surround the city, which doesn’t feel like a city at all, more like an overgrown village with a temporary leasehold over the jungle.
Quite a few of my friends told me about their love for Chiang Mai. It’s a very chill, laid-back kinda place with loads of cafes and guesthouses. But, for me, it was too chill. I prefer the raw energy of Bangkok which feels alive and visceral — intense — like a lot of life has been crammed into every inch.
In Chiang Mai I happened to meet up with Brent Crane, a fellow freelancer, who was on a journey traveling overland from Cambodia, where he’d spent a year at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold features to The New Republic and Men’s Journal, making more than enough to cover his travel expenses.
I was taking it easy, reading and writing, trying to commit more fiction. In Chiang Mai I didn’t do much of the things you’re supposed to do (elephant riding, trekking, jungle zip-lining, etc). I didn’t really have the appetite to do them so I didn’t.
If you’re there though try Counting Sheeps (sic) hostel. It’s comfortable, centrally located, and very good. Say hi to Goieurh too, who taught me how to play checkers. And you really should check out the Sunday evening market in the old town.
In Bangkok, I made a new friend who I came across playing Pokemon Go. It was on the steps next to Paragon, a shopping mall in downtown.
I also spent a couple of nights for free in Sofitel Bangkok, a five-star hotel. Having written for travel publications such as Wanderlust, CNN Travel, and NineMSN, I got the deal by replying to an email from a PR company that specializes in luxury southeast Asia hotels for which I’m on the mailing list.
The suite they gave me was larger than most. It was actually by far the biggest hotel room I have ever stayed in. I was chauffeured to and from the airport in a Mercedes, which had WiFi and hot towels. I had my own personal butler and access to the VIP lounge, where there was served canapes, wine, fruit, cakes, cheese, prawn cocktails, and other beverages. There was a swimming pool and breakfast buffet with a rack of honeycomb. The bathroom had Hermes toiletries.
It was the best I’ve ever been treated — a truly luxurious and memorable experience at the Sofitel Bangkok. Did I mention the complimentary dinner at their rooftop restaurant L’Appart? It was delicious and I had great company.
Having twice stayed in five-star hotels this year, the experience is quite nice I have to say, and checking online, the expense for these hotels, in Asia, isn’t as extravagant as you may think, so it’s worth spoiling yourself sometimes. The experience really does linger long in the memory.
It was the middle of the day and very warm. Up the road from where I was staying (the Remember Inn) on the banks of Inle lake in Myanmar was a shack cafe.
The owner chef had drawn strawberry shakes on a board. They were made with small, sweet, fresh strawberries, mixed with cream. I ordered one and a lunch dish and went to sit at a table under thatched parasols that shielded the white sun. Burmese teenagers sat at other tables, flirting and passing the brightest part of the day. I read and wrote in my notebook.
The owner proprietor for whatever reason made her strawberry shake the best of its kind in Inle, perhaps in all Burma. She put lime juice into her recipe. Stirred up in the glass the strawberries, softened by the warmth in the air and some still whole, entwined with the cream and sugar, mixed with the sharp lime juice and slight bitterness to make it a superbly rich dessert drink. It was the best strawberry shake I’ve ever tasted.
It had been a long day, and I spent a part of it frantically coordinating with a news assistant based in Beijing. In the evening I stalked the corridors and hallways of a giant casino, hotel, and shopping complex called The Venetian, in search of a plug socket for my laptop so I could file a report for The Independent newspaper. I’d left my travel companion while I did this and she was understandably pissed when she eventually found me again.
But after dinner we made for a destination that offered a dream-like experience. Macau is famous for lots of things — roulette and high-rollers, tropical afternoon tea and bargain hunting, colonial architecture and sea-marooned culture. It’s also famous for Portuguese egg tarts. Finally biting into one of these was an emotional experience. It’s perhaps the closest I’ve come to perfection.
When you’re a writer abroad and traveling around Asia, and then you come home, to the family home in Sussex, England, it can be quite comforting. When I am at home I like to make a comfort dish. It’s very simple. Grab a bunch of little tomatoes (has to be the little ones) and cut them in half. Fry them in olive oil with a little salt and garlic, and toss them into a pile of tagliatelle. Tear up some proscuitto into the dish, drizzle a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil, garnish with salt and pepper and stir it all up. So simple but so good.
2016 has been a pivotal year.
In January I managed to secure a freelance contract with a PR firm. This guaranteed income stability, the single biggest contributor to freelance happiness this year, in contrast with last year where I had no such guarantee. This year I also decided to start writing a novel.
This summer has been busy. I added two jobs to the one I had with the PR firm. The others are teaching English (which I did for a month, paying for the next three months’ rent) and the other is copywriting.
Copywriting is a new occupation for me. And as a writer it always amazes me how much there is still yet to learn. As a writer of nonfiction and journalism I’d never really paid that much attention to adjectives and verbs, they came quite naturally. But in advertising and marketing every word needs to count, conveying information about the brand and the product.
It’s about trying to locate the voice of a brand and then trying to speak with the voice of that brand consistently. It’s a craft uniquely suited to novelists and screenwriters, rather than journalists I feel. It’s more about character and voice, rather than information.
What does this mean? Have I abandoned journalism for the dark arts of advertising? Have I become something I’d always forsworn was the easy, commercial position?
At the start of this year I thought I’d take a step back from journalism to concentrate on my own writing, namely fiction and essays. There are, after all, many more forms of writing. And journalism is a severely limiting form with very rigid constraints.
I will always continue practicing journalism, and I still do. I’ve got an article to work on right now in fact. But journalism seems to be dying. Well, print journalism anyway. Part of it died in a very real way this year when The Independent newspaper was shuttered in March.
The British newspaper industry appears to be in terrible decline. The Daily Telegraph is not what it once was amid colossal changes and scaling back. The Guardian is asking readers for donations. Regional and local papers announce regular falls in revenue and circulation. Across the pond even mighty names like the New York Times report troubling times as the entire industry’s business model is being made redundant.
With the addition of those jobs to my freelance portfolio success, or some measure of it, has followed. This criterion of success is making more money. Before, I was surviving only on the income generated by one job, and the meagre income of infrequent freelance gigs. I’d become used to surviving (quite well, if not lavishly), this way.
When I was catapulted into something else entirely, into greater earnings, that very change made me feel vulnerable. It made me feel anxious.
I spent some time trying to diagnose what this was.
Money is an abstract idea. It’s conceptual. And that means it has the capacity, as an idea, to control and influence you beyond its physical component. Think of it this way: money, which is really just some bits of paper or bits of metal, is almost worthless in itself. Its value comes from the value we have given it. And this value can stretch and grow in accordance with the value and meaning to which you give it yourself.
Once I realized this, I understood how to get over its control over me, at least partially. It means trying to hold onto things that really matter: spending time well, my books, going for a swim, having a joke with friends, walking in nature. It sounds corny but money should fall under your own whims and decisions, not the other way around.
I have been reading a fair amount this summer, getting through novels. I have also been writing fiction. It’s been a revelation to me.
Even as I read and write more, my adoration of it, of language, ideas, character, and story, develops still.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a recent profile I read of Eimear McBride, the Irish novelist, in which she says writing never stops being hard and painful and yet it brings her great joy. But, she adds: “happiness and joy are not the same”.
When you’re young and ambitious, keen on literary adventure, the idea of moving to a new country and becoming a writer is hugely romantic. You may not be the next Hemingway or Graham Greene, but the ghosts of those greats –- men who drank, chased women and saw their art as their masculine fixation –- leave long seductive shadows.
Beijing is not London or Tokyo, Tangier or Rome. It doesn’t have the transparent allure of LA or the colourful chaos of Mexico City. And it sure as hell ain’t Paris. It doesn’t look beautiful in the rain and the architecture lacks all grace and subtlety. Beijing is unrelenting in its grayness, and filled with poor decisions about infrastructure and basic city planning. It’s a city so mired in reality that any charm pours straight into its drains, which are too few and badly designed. Yet journalists and writers have flocked here. Why?
I was born in the southern city of Guilin in 1989. Before I was born, but after I was conceived, my father swam from China to Hong Kong. Well, almost swam there. He didn’t quite make it. He was picked up by Hong Kong water police after nine hours in the water, trying to reach the fabled British colony. If you want to read more about this family history, you can find it here. Suffice to say politics was involved in his decision to escape China. I moved to England, and met my father for the first time when I was five. At the age of twenty three, I reversed his journey and moved from Britain back to China.
For anyone who decides to move abroad, it’s impossible to fathom how much you learn, how much you experience, the amount of misery you endure, but also how much optimism sustains you.
I landed in Beijing in 2012, just as autumn began its brief spell. I had vague plans to improve my Chinese, get more bylines, explore job opportunities. The first two months were miserable and lonely. I had few friends –- I think I had one, maybe two –- no job and a small rented bedroom to live in, where I could touch both walls at the same time. I went to cafés, read the internet, sent a few emails. Sex, literature and food were the three preoccupations orbiting my imagination. Late at night I would write in my mind, dreaming up plots and fine sentences that describe but move no story, like a red ribbon bowed upon nothing.
Eventually I landed a paid internship at a listings magazine, which, in retrospect, was the perfect gig when you’re new to a city. There’s almost no pressure and it’s your job to attend events, explore new areas and meet new people. The editor there, a loud and rambunctious Mancunian, took a liking to me and gave me some breaks. The internship became a fulltime gig, albeit only marginally better paid. I supplemented my income by writing economics and education articles for a student business magazine. I didn’t make a lot of money.
There have been times when circumstances were dire. For one week in my first November, I survived on sweet potatoes bought from street sellers for breakfast, lunch and dinner while I waited for some money to hit the bank account. I roamed the streets, walking blocks sometimes, in search of the rural migrants who sold them from three-wheeled trikes, oil drums on the back turned into makeshift ovens. Sometimes I haggled over the price, then realised I shouldn’t. I picked the potato I wanted and ate all of it, the crispy caramel skin and the soft, warm flesh.
After a year, I had learned so much. Within two years, Beijing had become a second home and the start of a career. I had created a life for myself, in a city far away from home, and the knowledge of that will always redeem my pride. For anyone who decides to move abroad, it’s impossible to fathom how much you learn, how much you experience, the amount of misery you endure, but also how much optimism sustains you. How you trust that eventually everything will be alright, and in the end it generally is.
Beijing is a city full of memories that burnish your twenties into an elegant nostalgia, ready to plunder when you settle down elsewhere. When you’re dancing in some sweaty disco and the lights are green and crazy and the Chinese girls are swaying to those odd personal rhythms slightly out of sync with the music and you’ve drunk several pints of cheap Chinese beer, warm and watery, your mind inexorably drifts toward wondering how you arrived at this bizarre moment. You know it’s an illusion, but also your immediate reality. You want to write, but don’t do it enough. You want to seem well-read, but don’t have the time. You want to go everywhere, if you only had the money, but don’t want to work in some crappy job.
Your twenties fly past like a blizzard. Beijing is a vessel into which we pour our ambitions and desires. It’s a landscape where foreigners can skim the cream, make expedient connections and live out their choices free of the expectations of home. It’s a wide canvas, and adventurous souls have always come to paint their projections upon it. When later the dream sours and you’ve drunk away yet another afternoon in a Sanlitun bar, you come to realise Beijing has corrupted you. Worse still, you’ve gotten used to it, and thoughts of Dayton or Hastings or Frankfurt, or wherever you’re from, have diminished into a box that you’ve tucked away under “life back home”.
If I sound jaded after less than three years, it’s because I’ve fallen out of love with that first sense of discovery. What initially seemed novel and wondrous has become habitual and muddy at the edges. The distance between foreign and local lifestyles is cavernous. When I’m in Jing A, a popular microbrewery teeming with Americans enjoying craft beers in the sun, I can’t help but feel disillusioned. I’m not going to do anything drastic like move away, but Beijing can mar the soul. The city is straightened by huge roads and grid-like blocks, with few pockets where you can just sit and be. I have a theory that you can tell how cozy a city is by the proportion of benches to people. London has benches galore, and corners overflow with accidental pockets of respite. How many benches are there in Beijing?
Still, there have been moments of clarity. A star-pocked night, revelry in the air and the Great Wall of China lit up by lights. Sneaking into the VIP section with a couple of friends at a music festival. All the sitting in cafés. How we kid ourselves with coffee, the ritual of it mollifying the metallic glare of the laptop in front of us, while we think of what to write.
This post originally appeared on The Anthill. It was written while I was in some despondency in the summer of 2015.
Since the beginning of this year I have traveled to Spain, Thailand, Hong Kong, Chengdu, and Qingdao. Only one of those places was for work, all the others were for holidays. And I’ve done it all by earning, on average, £744 a month.
Let’s put that figure into context. In December I secured a freelance contract with a PR firm. They pay me Chinese RMB 5,000 a month guaranteed (that’s about £500). Having this stable income has been a godsend. The work is copywriting and editing, and only requires a laptop and a smartphone to do it, without office requirements.
Since January I’ve had some other freelance work come in. A significant one came in January. An Australian publication asked me to write two travel articles of 600 words each. I received £458.69 in total for the two articles. At the time I was staying with my parents in England, as I’d gone back to visit for Christmas.
The travel articles money paid for two trips: to Spain and to Thailand. Spain was cheap — flights from Easyjet or Ryanair are cheap as chips. I stayed with a friend of mine in Valenicia and enjoyed myself with copious amounts of Spanish red wine which is good and incredibly affordable.
Thailand cost a little more. But there were excellent flight deals on at the time. I could have flown straight to Beijing from London. But after checking I found that flights from London to Phuket, and from Phuket to Beijing did not cost that much more than a direct flight to Beijing. January to March are by far the best times to go to Thailand and I love the country so I booked myself another holiday.
Another big freelance payment came in June. A content marketing company asked me to go to Chengdu (a city of 10 million in south-central China, about three hours flight from Beijing). The company would pay me €200 for 350 words and agreed to cover travel expenses. This allowed me to visit Chengdu and a friend, with whom I stayed. I then went to Qingdao, a seaside city on China’s eastern seaboard, where I stayed at a friend’s for a week.
There were some smaller freelance gigs here and there, and a couple of medium-sized ones for which I haven’t been paid yet. But in the majority of cases, the freelance work found me. The two big assignments I’ve mentioned (the Aussie travel publication and the Chengdu gig) both of those assignments just landed in my inbox one day, and all I had to do was say “yes” to the job.
I’d never worked with the Aussie publication before and I guess they found me via my online presence — which is this blog you’re reading, or Twitter or LinkedIn. The content marketing company I’d worked with before and I guess they needed me again. But they also found me to begin with, not the other way around.
There are two points here: if you’re a freelancer you really, really, should have an online presence. And two: traveling is easy and not that costly. It’s only time and willingness you need.
Combining my freelance assignments with the steady RMB 5,000 from the freelance contract adds up to an average of £744 a month — my monthly earnings so far this year. And it goes further because my rent is not that high, living in Beijing, and I don’t spend on clothes and gadgets. Otherwise I go out quite a bit, and eat out regularly. It’s pretty good.
Over the past three weeks I have flown to Hong Kong, Chengdu, and Qingdao. It was for leisure and a little bit of business. Writing and traveling.
Tonight I was at my friend’s apartment playing a board game and during our game one of my friend’s flatmates repeatedly made mention of the fact that it was to be Monday the next day. The fear and the dread.
I did not share in her dread.
Monday, for me, means getting up at any time I want. Monday means setting my own goals and schedule for the coming week. Monday means not setting my day according to an arbitrary alarm telling me when I should get up, and, thank my lucky stars, no hellish commute.
The freedom I have gained is due to three circumstances. Three things that have allowed me to enjoy a bounteous sense of time and space:
- I am a writer & I work freelance.
- I live in Beijing so my money stretches further for basic things like food and socializing, and my money isn’t sucked up by sky-high renting fees.
- My skills as a writer, and the contacts I have built up, have been slowly accrued and the fact I can use these skills to their most freedom-giving advantage took me years to deploy properly.
The last point is by far the most important.
The fact I moved abroad allows me to leverage my expertise more quickly because my skills in China are more in demand than they would be back in the UK (everyone speaks and writes English in England; fewer do so in China).
That’s the basic principle of supply and demand.
This is also compounded by the fact some companies specifically will want someone who is based in that foreign country, and for me that’s China.
A little expertise in business, marketing, PR, technology, and especially any niche industry, will stand you a long way in China especially as many companies would like to gain or utilize a bit of that expertise in the world’s second largest economy.
Language skills are a definite plus. The number of native English speakers with fluent Mandarin are still very few in a country that’s a huge economy with over a billion people. You do the math about how someone who could:
1. Speak good Chinese.
2. Has a little expertise in any of the above mentioned industries.
3. And can leverage contacts and their expertise to fully utilize those abilities.
Just think how incredibly valuable that person would be.
That is how you become an in-demand person.
To be honest I have not done this very much. For someone who is trying to write a novel and become a good writer I’ve not really paid too much attention.
I think this is for a few reasons. I prioritize the fact I am living a good life where I make the choices I want to make, without outside influence, and I can fully enjoy the little things that mean the most to me.
Why would anything else be important if you’re not enjoying the life you’re living?
This blog post started as a post about freedom before it turned into a discussion about expertise, skills and leverage (standard modern day career talk) before resolving into an ending about how I might not fully care about those things.
But of course the balance of it is that you can do all of those things. But some people I know seem to be busy accruing all these credentials and symbols of their worth when the very busyness of their life means they don’t get to fully enjoy those things that they enjoy.
A recent interview I read was a calming influence on this modern day obsession with “worth”, “value”, and career chasing.
It was with Kevin Kelly, the founder of WIRED magazine (an influential tech publication), and someone who had a profound influence on the early Internet with one of the earliest online communities.
The interview with Kelly mentioned how he’d been a college dropout who spent his 20s and early 30s traveling before landing a job editing a magazine. He is now 63.
How lovely that would be. To not care so much about “building value” for yourself as a career professional but to just spend your time slowly navigating the world, deciding what’s important to you, before landing some place where you can exert truly meaningful influence.
Kevin Kelly, it has to be said, was a pioneering and self-motivated soul who pursued many projects while he traveled in his youth.
For sure the world has changed since 1984, which is the year when Kevin Kelly got that editing job. Many career advisers now for example say you should use your 20s building value and expertise as those who don’t might lose out.
But that doesn’t mean that his perspective about how you spend your 20s isn’t a perspective that like a little sprinkle of salt on the huge pasta dish that is the advice and anxiety of modern careerism, just adds a little more taste to life.
I am in Qingdao a coastal city roughly equidistant between Beijing and Shanghai on China’s eastern seaboard; population nine million.
It’s a fair city with nice weather and sea mists. My school friend from the UK lives here and I have been staying with him and his American girlfriend. He loves Qingdao with a passion. A somewhat irrational passion but we all have friends with an eccentric passion.
I’ve known him since age 11 as we went to the same secondary school. I remember us both working at a Chinese takeaway in our local town aged 17; he as a delivery boy, me as a receptionist and dishwasher. Much has changed since then.
He has studied at McGill in Canada, lived and worked in Burkina Faso (west Africa), and now resides in Qingdao from where he freelances. We are both freelancers but he is of a different kind: work focused and very busy. He speaks three languages and is working on a fourth and is doing a part-time Masters in public policy and management. He sleeps at 11pm and wakes early. He often says I should be less lazy (a little unkindly I must say).
Having lived with him for a week I can see that our lives differ a lot. Some of this is due to the differences between Beijing and Qingdao, and some of this is due to our differences in temperament. He will be successful and wealthy in the future. Of that, I am sure.
I have no regrets.
Immediately prior to Qingdao I was in Chengdu.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province about the size of France, and it’s found in southwest China.
I was in Chengdu for a corporate writing gig for a content marketing agency (the client is an elevator company).
A friend of mine lives in Chengdu having moved there from Beijing where she’d lived for six years before returning to her home province.
In Chengdu she’s started her own business, a small food company that makes and delivers salads and other healthy food. She says Chengdu is like what Beijing was five years ago. And that’s what makes it exciting.
Opportunities exist in big cities with emerging demographics, and a gold rush can ensue.
Living in China I have often thought about cities as a crucible for dreams and ambitions. And in China those dreams are fast moving and the horizons in which they play out always shifting.
It was while I was eating a bowl of noodles near my friend’s apartment in Qingdao, under tall buildings recently built, that I realized something.
China is a great country.
It’s the third biggest in the world and if you were to choose a nation to represent Earth, China may as well be it, especially with its number of people.
In 1989 — a generation ago — China’s economy was worth $344 billion.
It’s now worth over $9 trillion.
Chinese students have been going abroad to the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere in ever increasing number. Chinese smartphones take up coverage on US tech websites. Chinese companies are moving to the American south to take advantage of cheap labour.
It’s quite obvious that the achievements of this country to turn itself around with such audacity, verve, and speed, is phenomenal.
No other country on this planet can lay claim to such a heady brew of statistics, history, and enormity of change.
I feel good to have been a part of it, in my youth, and it a part of me, irrevocably expanding my imagination and horizons.