Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

2016: in review

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For me here are the most significant aspects of 2016:

  • Traveled a lot
  • Made money from writing & editing that wasn’t journalism
  • Started writing fiction

This was the year I took a step back from freelance journalism. I have written many more articles this year for promotional materials and content marketing than for journalism. I managed to publish a few journalism pieces; for The Guardian, NineMSN (two commissions), and Kotaku. I had one essay in consideration by the biggest name in western newspapers but it was finally turned down (I have since pitched it successfully to another publication).

I read around ten novels and a few other books, as well as re-reading some novels — an activity I highly recommend for writers. I wrote a few short stories.

It was a good year. I know it has also been a tumultuous year — I’ll never forget the shock I felt after seeing the conclusion of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum. And my astonishment and incredulity that that guy Donald Trump became President-elect of the most powerful country in the world.

But again, this year, 2016, has been good to me, especially in contrast with 2015 where I had several months of financial and psychological hardship.

I traveled quite a bit — I went to Valencia, Thailand (Phuket; Ao Nang), Hunan (Zhangjiajie; Tianmenshan; Changsha; my gran’s village), Chengdu, Qingdao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Thailand again (Bangkok; Chiang Mai), and Shanghai again.

Freelancing went well this year, and I made enough money to put some away. Not a lot but having some savings really does soothe the mind.

In terms of life in Beijing I have felt more comfortable than any other time in the years I have spent in this city. Next year I think I may be bolder and more adventurous, and look to newer experiences. I am hoping to make more of my freedom next year.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 31, 2016 at 8:36 am

On Distraction, WeChat, and the endless staring at screens

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On any given day my waking hours might be colonized by the time spent staring at screens. During the working week I might spend hours, in accumulation, looking at a computer screen (my Lenovo Ideapad S210 Touch laptop) or staring down at a mobile screen (my LG G3 smartphone).

It has reached a point where the habit is so routine that I wonder whether my mind is now corroded in its capacity to dwell undistractedly.

You probably know what I’m talking about.

Being a freelance writer I have perhaps more freedom than most to spend time staring. And throughout the day I’ll have my phone close to me, sometimes pausing to look at it, to see whether its tiny beacon of light is shining.

Notifications have become gratification, even when there are none…

WeChat is the app I spend the longest time with. It’s China’s version of WhatsApp, but far superior in its functions and utility. It acts as social portal and work-related messaging platform. It’s a gateway and hub for my personal and professional life.

Facebook is a reflexive distraction, where I’ll pay attention to unimportant and not really very interesting items uploaded by friends and “friends”.

I do feel more distracted.

And work doesn’t help. I don’t spend a day outside doing wholesome, outdoorsy things to compensate. My work also involves staring at screens: it might be writing emails, articles, or researching. I do use pen and paper. But a laptop is required for the business end of completing work and sending it off to clients to make a living.

And then I’ll stare at screens some more in off-work hours.

The reasons are varied for my reliance on screens: work/technology, life in a big city, geography, a freelance life, etc. And there doesn’t seem to be much I can do to be rid of the reliance. What would I do instead of staring at screens? I live in a large, highly urbanized city; I cannot go to the woods or the mountains or the sea. I could instead do more productive things like learning a language, painting, etc. Yes I could be more productive and use my time more usefully. Couldn’t we all?

I am aware of the screen and attention and distraction problem, even as companies like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube et al are increasing their sophistication in hooking and retaining my attention.

For a freelancer like me, when daily life is not structured according to the commute, office, lunch, standard working hours, what can I do?

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 9, 2016 at 6:41 am

It took me four years before I started making good money from freelance writing. Could I apply this to other fields?

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A painting (based on ancient cave art) I did last week. It’s not great, but what if I kept practicing? Wouldn’t professionalism eventually be an option?

I’ve been freelancing since the autumn/winter months of 2012. Back then I’d recently moved to Beijing and was interning at a listings magazine called The Beijinger. And in order to supplement my meagre income I started pitching to UK publications.

I’d learned how to pitch and the rules of how to do freelance journalism while I was still a student on my journalism B.A., so I knew the fundamentals. But doing it while I was a student was like a game.

Doing it for real, in order to try and make money, as a professional freelance journalist, was something I learned how to do as a necessity.

For several years the majority of my income came from the full time jobs I had; freelance journalism was what I did on the side, both as a very satisfying sideline (with longer term career prospects) and extra income stream.

Last year I turned fully freelance, and it was tough, but since the start of 2016 it has become a viable and comfortable means of living.

It took me four years before I reached this state of affairs. I now control my time, am earning a comfortable income, and have many opportunities for travel, leisure, and socializing, while at the same time indulging in my interests and thinking of other ways to develop.

One of these interests is painting, and I attended a painting class very recently in Beijing. I discovered how much I enjoyed it and that I displayed a natural knack for it. And I’ve been thinking to myself, “What if I kept at this for four or five years?”.

What if I started learning how to draw, then how to paint, and steadily kept at it. Wouldn’t it, at some stage, reach a level where it could be professional?

At this point, two dissenting voices will come to light. They will come from family and friends and will go something like this…”He goes to one painting class and now he thinks he can be a professional artist!” Or it will be something like this…”You think it’s too easy, so easy to do it, but you don’t know how hard it is”.

That voice, which comes from a place of doubt, and short-term thinking, is one you do not need to listen to, especially at the beginning. If you are a person who shows discipline, dedication, obsession, adaptability, and a huge appetite for learning and, perhaps more importantly, an appetite for self-learning (and how to do that), then you need to simply disregard that voice.

The second dissenting voice, and this one is more serious, is the voice that says your motivation is wrong. This voice is one I respect much more. What it’s saying is that you shouldn’t automatically think you can just be a professional and think it’s so easy to make money from being an artist or writer or photographer. This voice says you’ve got it backwards. You need to first appreciate the process, before you can enjoy the outcome.

That’s a voice with serious authority. Too much have I seen other writers or journalists, aspiring to make a living from it, not dedicating serious commitment to actually getting better at it. I write, and edit, for a living, and I write for a hobby and in my spare time. Because I love it. And I try to constantly improve. So forgive me if I’m a little skeptical about the aspirations of amateurs.

This is exactly what a professional painter could say to me, with my little dream as an amateur of someday making money from painting. The only way you could disprove that skepticism is by putting in the time. By putting in about seven years or so into learning the craft. Why seven years? Well, I took four years learning the freelance game, but I spent three years previously learning more on my journalism degree. So there’s seven years of experience (not including earlier, perhaps foundational experiences before that) that has led up to this point.

However, I think there’s nothing wrong to have that dream of making money from an art or craft, as long as you respect the process of getting there, and the time and effort needed. For me, that thought is the little fire powering some of that motivation. The motivation of learning how to paint or write. What serious writer doesn’t harbour dreams — along with critical acclaim and crowd adulation — of, if not stupendous riches, at least very comfortable earnings from the work they produce?

If I want to become a professional painter, then I’ll need to commit. See you in about seven years then.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 20, 2016 at 4:51 am

Freelancing is lonely — that’s fine, just try to lay down roots wherever you can.

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The life of a freelance writer is categorized by loneliness, but this loneliness pervades all life, to varying degrees. And this depends on how much you feel it in the company of others, and how much you feel it in the company of yourself.

Traveling and staying in various places in Asia solo; waiting at the airport solo; checking into a hotel and staying there solo; eating at a restaurant solo; residing in a cafe solo, is something I’ve done many times. Note that I don’t use the word “alone”. Because I don’t often feel alone when I am traveling.

I often feel free and relaxed, rarely troubled, fixated on the present and the immediate future (“where shall I go to eat now?”). It’s just one of those things you learn about yourself, and that I only really accepted very recently, when I was in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

You realize that perhaps not needing company is okay.

There have been times in Beijing — my early days — when I was quite alone. It was tough, but not awful.

Sitting now, on my couch, typing this on my laptop that’s propped up on a desk chair, and looking out at my balcony — filled with the bright but cold light of November in Beijing — I feel fine. Healthy. Relaxed. Money is okay. There are things I want, but very little I need. My thoughts always bend to the future (the curse of an overactive mind), but I try to remain in the present and to enjoy it and to appreciate it.

Bangkok & Chiang Mai

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Last month I went to Thailand, for the second time this year.

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 it and it 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 place with lots 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 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 more of my novel. 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 in Sofitel Bangkok, a five-star hotel. Having written for travel publications such as Wanderlust, CNN Travel, and NineMSN, I got a deal.

The suite they gave me was grand and lovely. It was 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 wine, canapes, fruit, cakes, cheese, prawn cocktails, and other beverages. There was a cool 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 dinner on their rooftop restaurant L’Appart? It was elegant French fare — delicious scallops — and I had great company.

Having twice stayed in five-star hotels this year, the experience is rather agreeable 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.

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Moving Onward

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 1, 2016 at 9:52 am

The literary dream of Beijing

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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.

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This post originally appeared on The Anthill. It was written while I was in some despondency in the summer of 2015.