Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Review: Apologies To My Censor: The High & Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

with 2 comments

It’s a rare thing indeed to read a book and find yourself identifying so readily with its content, so easily comparing its narrative to your own direct experiences, placing yourself as a direct heir to the protagonist, and so very greedily lapping up the chapters as if you’ve already lived through its pages.

But that’s what reading Apologies To My Censor was like. It is an autobiographical account by Canadian journalist Mitch Moxley of his time as a journalist in Beijing. The first half focuses on his move to Bejing, when he takes up a post as writer/editor at the China Daily, China’s oldest English-language newspaper. The second half documents his freelance adventures in China, after his China Daily contract expires.

The book covers a five year span, from 2007 to 2012. We follow Moxley from his disaffected, lonely, depressed state as a 20-something journalist not happy with his lot, in the freezing winter of Toronto, to Asia, where he briefly dabbles in freelance journalism covering Vietnam and Japan among other places, and to Beijing where he spends his time seeing out his Twenties.

304 pages. Published July, 2013. Author Mitch Moxley, 31, on random China adventures: “…experiences so beguiling and bizarre that they stay with you forever; rare moments when you are fully aware, fully present”.

This was a personally resonant book for me. Although I am somewhat younger than the author, I too decided to head to Beijing, in 2012 (while Mr. Moxley was still in the city), and found the place to be uniquely rewarding in terms of experiences and journalism.

Moxley’s time working at China Daily is richly intriguing. The daily newspaper is mainly staffed by Chinese journalists, and has to follow the murky waters of official state censorship, but Moxley, hired in a wave in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, gets a sweet deal that includes free accommodation and free plane tickets home.

In fact, his ‘work’ at the paper is minimal, he edits a few articles here and there and readily admits that most of his time is spent browsing websites, trying to work on his own freelance stories and Facebooking. He even has the balls to ask for a pay rise.

He is also keenly aware of the ‘journalism’ committed at the newspaper: “I would be like a media Batman: propagandist by day, journalist at night”. But he has enough sense not to take his role, and the moral fripperies, too seriously. His descriptions of his fellow foreign colleagues are also brazenly sharp – painting them as morally dubious cigarette and alcohol abusing veterans who’ve drifted around Asia from paper to paper.

Beijing is largely seen through the prism of partying and its run-up to the 2008 Olympics which is used as a major narrative device in the book. It was comforting to see Moxely’s inclusion of his romantic life in the book, a massive component of expat life especially in China, but sometimes neglected in other accounts. For a young man or woman, it is often an enjoyably indispensable aspect and there was much pathos in the author’s bittersweet descriptions of his dalliances with women and one “Krussian” (A Korean-Russian) who he falls into an intense relationship.

The accounts of trying to make it big, of trying to make your name as a writer and journalist were equally appreciated. When Moxley says “I wanted big stories” – he hits on the ego-driven and intense ambition of many a young gun writer, and those in Beijing nowadays. Although comparisons of noughties Beijing to 1920s Paris might be somewhat wide of the mark, it is true that Beijing does have in possession an unusual amount of unusually skilled journalists, which was noted by New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos.

He also has an ambition which I, at 24, share – namely to live abroad and to write long-form magazine articles and books. Two chapters in particular stand out in the book. They document self-taken freelance adventures, after jobs and opportunities have expired, and rest upon a risk, the purest gamble for a foreign freelance: to go somewhere without commission, to report, photograph and find a story that could, might eventually find a home.

Going to Mongolia and to southern China, his experiences working with other journalists and bringing a photographer contain instructive lessons in how to locate and package stories which you could sell to “first-tier” publications. But the book also acutely warns – a couple of his stories, although proud of them, fail to sell to the big name publications which they were obviously designed for.

But one cannot help a critical feeling after reading one too many times about how the author’s Chinese sucks and how he is failing to come up with freelance ideas, even when he spends his daily working life doing not very much work at all – you cannot help feeling that perhaps Moxley is simply a bit lazy.

He spends five years in Beijing, but only in the final months of his stay does he finally decide to properly learn Chinese. He yearns for journalistic success, and yet falls into the easy trap of partying and drinking and adventuring, but not finding equal enjoyment in the chase for pitchable ideas.

And having found myself living on 5 kuai (50 pence) sweet potatoes for dinner because I’ve been in debt, trying to save and not having parents willing to fund my life overseas, it is quite difficult to find much sympathy for Mr. Moxley who is older than I but has parents who are willing to bail him out when he is thousands of dollars in debt, after frittering them away on alcohol, travels and an indulgent lifestyle.

And yet, one cannot point out these failings too harshly, they go with the territory of trying to succeed, or more romantically, trying to fail. And if reading this book taught me one thing it is that pursuing a strongly held personal ambition is worth the hardship, the bitterness and the crushing loneliness, because the adventure of that act, the nobility of the pursuit is worth more, in the end, than the conventional arc of another, more prosaic life.

This book; brisk, hugely enjoyable, and a very minor achievement, is testament to that fact.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China […]

  2. […] will also recommend Letters to a Young Journalist, by Samuel G. Freedman, and Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, by Mitch Moxley, which is about an ambitious freelance journalist in Beijing. Both books have been […]

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