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 totally 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.
We met in Thailand when I asked you “where are you from?” and you replied “I’m from Thailand”. We agreed to meet again in Hong Kong, an island in-between us. You work in Bangkok and I work in Beijing.
We walked along the promenade of Kowloon harbour, looking at the lights that light up the sky. It’s a sight I’ve seen many times but it was the first time for you. You took photos and I was glad that you were there. That first night in Hong Kong was slow and easy, the next day we’d ride the ferry and watch the clouds reflect in the water.
The escalator is the longest outside escalator in the world. It transports you up the hill while either side are cafes and shops, bars and restaurants. Buildings are called needle buildings, tall and slender, reaching up. I look at them and marvel at their vertical structure, holding occupants whose lives I don’t know, each window a room.
We took a taxi to The Peak, which offers wide angle views of the city stretched out before us. I laugh when I hear an English friend refer to it as “the bay area” when I return to Beijing.
We stay up there, on The Peak, until the evening. The night is beautiful. We take a bus back down. Trying to remember chronologically now is not easy. Events in the memory just pop into my head. There was a cafe we stumbled into just before it started to rain. I ordered a latte. Outside the water drummed onto the streets and the cars. Inside the air conditioning made it a little too cold. It was an afternoon, just a week ago, and it’s already receding. The coffee was damn good though.
I ate a lot and felt hungrier than usual. You noticed. You were also sad sometimes and I couldn’t figure out why exactly.
On one of the days we took the metro to the island where the big Buddha sits. He was wreathed in fog looking majestic. I also took you to the Wisdom Path. I first went there nine years ago as a youth embarking on my first year abroad. I was eighteen and carried with me a copy of On the Road.
We sat and chatted one evening at the hotel. You were lying against the headboard of the bed while I sat at the desk. The TV was on. I said I liked Thailand because everything is so cheap. And you ranted (in your soft, gentle way) about how you didn’t like how foreigners said that, and you really didn’t like how your Korean boss would go to an expensive restaurant and order a lot and you had to join in and pay. “She don’t care about me, about us”, you said. I listened and smiled. I really appreciated that conversation. It pays to just listen sometimes.
I left the hotel first while you had to spend a day alone. My flight was earlier. You hugged me close and kissed me. You said “see you” and “bye bye” while I said nothing as I looked at your eyes and your head softly laid on the end of the bed. And I was gone.
It’s 28 degrees outside and hazy. Beijing’s spring is the shortest season. Soon the sweltering heat will arrive. Blue skies have been fairly common and it’s always good to see the city suddenly green.
I finished two books recently: John Updike’s Rabbit Redux and Evan Osnos’ Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.
The latter is a nonfiction title that is the most comprehensive, evocative, and insightful book on contemporary China I have read. The author was China correspondent for the New Yorker. He is widely regarded as brilliant.
His book is a page-turner, written with narrative drive, and telling the China story with great human stories. He had incredible access to some of China’s most notable and influential figures. And the story he has carved out; of rising fortune, middle class excess, and, later on, spiritual searching, manages to capture China with something approaching the greatness of a novel.
Checking out the book’s Notes on Sources I was awed by Osnos’ depth of research and reading. This guy seemed to have read everything. Was he just reading and writing all the time?
I put this question to a friend of mine, someone who has met Osnos, and who knew his Chinese assistant. My friend told me that the assistant told him that Osnos just wrote all the time, from morning to night.
And it was such a basic realization: to be outstanding, you have to work extremely hard.
It’s obvious of course. But we kid ourselves by imagining secret elixirs, fabled shortcuts, magic ingredients. It’s baloney. Only through work can accomplishment be achieved.
I haven’t been working so hard. I’ve been having a great time.
I’ve been socializing with friends, drinking and partying. We went to a music festival that was very enjoyable. I’ve been working out and tried out boxing and Muay Thai. This year so far has been a hoot.
I’ve had very little journalistic published this year.
Last week I finally finished an essay I spent two months laboring over. It’s 2000 words long. I sent it to the editor but he has not deemed to reply yet, not even to acknowledge that he’s received it. I know editors are busy people. But for a freelance it can be demoralizing and frustrating to hear such silence. All I can do is patiently wait. And hope.
Next week I am going to Hong Kong to meet up with someone. It’ll be a vacation. Someone asked not long ago how can I afford to travel so much. I didn’t know quite how to respond. Truth is I don’t really know. I do not receive parental handouts. And the money I make is not by any means a great amount. In fact it’s only around a little more than double what my rent is.
I think it may be psychological. It is true what many of those travel bloggers say, that travel actually is not as expensive as what people may imagine. And that as long as you account for accommodation and things like flight tickets travel is just like being home — you still have to eat and get around and the usual expenses but you’re just doing it somewhere else.
I think that mindset is good to have. You always have to buy things to eat and in Asia that’s usually cheap. Hostels and even hotels can also be similar to what you pay for a monthly apartment. So travel is only restricted by time and busyness, your conceptual perception of how much time you have. For a freelance, who thinks in freelance ways, it comes easily. I don’t burden myself too much though, on the frugality, while traveling. Because, what’s the point?