Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Beijing

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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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

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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What I learned from five months of freelancing and travel

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This year, I left England in April, and I travelled for five months. I stayed in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks where I slept on a friend’s couch. I left for Taiwan where I stayed for almost two months, in a hostel, in a student district of Taipei. Next, I flew to Beijing, for an assignment, where I dwelled two weeks at a friend’s apartment.

After that I went to South Korea for half a month, stayed in a hostel. Finally I went to Singapore, where I stayed for just over a month, in hostels and a friend’s apartment. Overall, I travelled to five different places.

  • Hong Kong/last two weeks of April — I wrote a feature (Dynamic Yield) for a newspaper based in the UAE and an interview feature (Hao Wu documentary) for a UK magazine.
  • Taiwan/May & June — I started writing a big feature (Money) for the BBC, and wrote a nonfiction book proposal. I completed two more features (coffee culture in China & virtual banks) for the UAE newspaper.
  • Beijing/July — I worked on an assignment for a US college magazine. And finished off the big BBC feature (which has still not been published, although I have been paid.) I also successfully pitched a feature idea (videogames) to the UAE newspaper.
  • South Korea/July — I successfully pitched an article idea (migration for work/life) for a UK website. I also went to Gwangju for the 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships, and caught up with a friend. I met someone who gave me the seed of an idea for another article.
  • Singapore/August — I met up with a BBC editor; pitched a significant number of unsuccessful article ideas; and successfully pitched the idea (feminism) that originated in South Korea to a HK-based web publication. And pitched another big feature (Time) to the BBC.

I came back to England on 6th September. It’s nice to be back, enjoying the late summer sun and the beginnings of autumn. I am fortunate that I have a family home where I can stay when I am back. It is probably the basis of my ability to travel in the way I do; so I recognise that I have this fortunate foundation.

The biggest lesson I gained from the five months of freelancing was that geography and timeline doesn’t draw as tight a connection to successful pitches and feature ideas as I thought. That time and geography are pretty flexible for a freelance feature writer.

For example, I can pitch an idea in Beijing, start writing it in South Korea, write more of it in Singapore, and finish the article and file it in England. Similarly, I can get the germ of an idea while in South Korea, pitch it while I happen to be in Singapore, and research and interview sources in England.

This is a useful lesson that I will put into effect on future freelance forays. Here are some other things I learned:

  • It always takes time to adapt. It wasn’t until halfway through my time in Taiwan that I finally became comfortable with my nomadic freelance schedule. I came to embrace it.
  • It’s important to remember what you’ve achieved on a daily basis (ticking off or writing down the things completed that day). This gives you a sense of progress and stops ennui.
  • Twitter remains a valuable resource for generating article ideas and making professional contacts. But too much of it is a real downer.
  • It’s a good idea to meet editors in real life. Just for a quick coffee. The physical meet-up remains a powerful networking tool.
  • Accommodation prices in first-tier developed cities are exorbitant.
  • Never be afraid to renegotiate fees or ask for more money.
  • A little bit of praise can go a long way.
  • I have a tendency to tarry so I need to get better at scheduling.
  • South Korea has a lot of Dunkin Donuts and it is hella good.

There is probably more stuff but I can’t remember all of them. I will now probably stay at home for a bit. But already, after two weeks at home, I can feel myself starting to get restless. Soon enough I will be on the road again. To write, to connect, to experience. Onward.

While I was in Beijing

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I have a friend who is incredibly organised, has an adorable dog, likes baking, and possesses a property portfolio. We met while working for the same creative agency in Beijing; she had a fulltime job as an account director, and I was a copywriter on a temporary contract.

We kept a low-level friendship on social media, although we became friendlier as we commented on each other’s posts. She is several years older than me and is happily settled with husband and career.

While I was in Beijing, for work, in early July, we arranged a swimming meet-up. I am a keen swimmer and I had seen that she was learning to swim front crawl. She invited me to join her at her gym, on a Sunday morning, during her swim lesson. I looked forward to this more than I could say.

After the swim, and while my friend got changed, I snapped this photo of the sunlight filtering through the gym from the large windows.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 5, 2019 at 11:43 am

Update: 8th May – in Taiwan

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I am currently living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Taiwan is a sweet potato-shaped island in the South China Sea that is a de-facto independent nation, but is not officially recognised as such by many countries.

It has a complicated relationship with mainland China. But unlike its large neighbour, it is a developed democracy, and the home to Foxconn, the company that makes Apple’s iPhones.

It is barely bigger than Hainan island, which is a Chinese holiday resort island, and is home to 23 million people who use traditional Chinese characters (rather than the Simplified version used on the mainland).

Before I arrived in Taiwan, I was living on a friend’s couch in Wanchai, Hong Kong. There I stayed for two weeks. I went to Sonar music festival. My friend had a house party and I went to some seedy expat bars with her Russian roommate.

Hong Kong is a marvel of engineering and 7.5 million people live in a compact area, and yet it all manages to work. But the city is an expensive one and I couldn’t afford to tarry.

So I find myself in Taiwan. It’s a place I first visited 11 years ago, in 2008, when I stayed for six weeks. Back then, I found it a nice place, but a little dull, as it lacks nightlife and bars.

It still doesn’t have the kind of nightlife that Beijing does so well.

From 2014 to 2016, Beijing’s bar, club, and cafe culture peaked. And discussing with a friend the other day, we realised that Beijing might have been the best party place in Asia.

No other place rivalled Beijing, during those years. The combination of cheapness, the expat to locals ratio, the diversity of bars, and the undeniable sense that this was an exciting time to be. The Gulou area of Beijing had a scene. And it was great.

Nowhere else had that. Seoul is more pricey and caters more to the locals. Southeast Asia can be sleazy and caters more to backpackers. Beijing was up-and-coming, and the scene was buzzing, before it got abruptly shutdown from late 2016 onward.

The local authorities started bricking up bars and denying licenses to a host of restaurants, cafes and bars that had sprung up. In the space of a few months, a scene that was beloved by the bohemian Beijing crowd was quickly squashed out of existence.

It still exists, but is a shadow of what it used to be.

Taipei, Taiwan, is a nice place, no doubt about it. It is comfortable, affordable, and orderly. But it lacks the grit, the pure excitement of what Beijing had during its brief golden years.

But that is okay, I am quite enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of Taipei, for now.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 8, 2019 at 4:58 am

How to Become a Freelance Journalist in China

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This is a brief guide to the posts on this blog. I arrived in China in the autumn of 2012, and had just graduated a journalism degree. I learned the ropes of freelance journalism when I moved to Beijing.

This blog started in the autumn of 2013 after I had begun to freelance more professionally. The posts from previous years were written while I was still learning, but I hope that they may be of use to you.

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How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China? 

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Being a Freelance Journalist in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property.

6 Things I Learned about the Freelance Journalism Market While I Was In China

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Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty. But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing.

A Year in the Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Part One: Freelance Journalists on their First Ever (Paid) Commissions

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Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable.

5 Things To Do Upon Arriving in a New Country as a Freelance Journalist

There are many more posts about freelancing, and the experience of freelancing in China. Please have a browse of this site if you are interested.

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.

Do you want freedom?

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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:

  1. I am a writer & I work freelance.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 19, 2016 at 5:07 pm