Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Beijing

Do you want freedom?

with 2 comments

20160221_113820.jpg

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

A city by the sea

with 2 comments

20160611_161028.jpg

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.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 15, 2016 at 9:05 am

18th May — In Beijing

leave a comment »

20160428_115320.jpg

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?

A weekend on the wall

leave a comment »

wp-1460953392275.jpeg

I was breathing heavily. Vivid green bushes and granite rocks marked our way. The dusty track weaved up through the hill as we pounded on, making our way to the wall.

The horizons were not clear — sullied by smog. The air produced a chill that reminded spring of winter. Our party carried two tents, five sleeping bags, alcohol, water, and food.

We were three women: a Czech; two Chinese; and two men: a Brazilian and myself. We’d decided to go camping for the weekend. To take a trip outside Beijing, to leave the city behind.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 18, 2016 at 5:18 am

2015: A Year In The Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

leave a comment »

IMG_1902

2015 was strange. For me at least. It was the quickest feeling year I’ve ever experienced, when months announced their arrival with the thought: “It’s April already?!”

I arrived back in Beijing in mid-January. And I went to Burma in mid-February for 18 days. I then reentered Beijing and into March, after travel, like leaping over stepping stones instead of passing time step by step.

Burma was a delight: charming, hot, earthy, and quite magnificent. It reconfirmed for me that travel, when done, is rarely regretted. In Burma I was fortunate to meet and hang out with a fellow freelance correspondent and his crew. It was wild and reminded me of stories expats tell of Beijing twenty years ago, when parties were mostly of the house kind and simply living there was pioneering.

I envy my Burma counterpart because that southeast Asian experience seems more reminiscent of the kind of old-school correspondence conjured by the likes of Graham Greene novels. Burma is like a country wrapped in amber, suffused with a golden light, and I do hope I make it back there sooner rather than later.

The year was also one of hardship. In March, I left a job that had been my main source of income for over a year. From March onward I depended entirely on my freelancing income and the transition was not a smooth one. Financially it was difficult, but the transition was the more harder simply because the routine of commuting and office hours that my former job had given me was suddenly stripped away. I was alone.

April through to July was difficult. That’s four months. Four months where I felt, at times, a great weight of loneliness and isolation. I would go so far as to say despair, especially when there seemed to be long hours which I spent just lain on my couch, dressed in nothing save denim shorts, sweating and thinking. That’s an image for which I am thankful as I now have a mental picture of myself that I hope never to reproduce.

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. However, the freelance income from the previous year was supplementary to the income earned from my other job (the one I quit in March), which meant that, overall, this year I still earned less than what I earned the previous year.

There have been other milestones. But I do not wish to bore you, patient reader, with a list of achievements. Rather I wish to convey what being a freelance journalist abroad has meant to me.

And 2015 has felt like a transitional year. And educational, for reasons that are not so clear to me now but that I think, in retrospect, will probably guide me in the future.

Certainly, there needs to be a helluva lot more planning for 2016 if I am to make the most of my time, to make the most of what I can experience and to make the most of what I can do.

I have only realized, in the past week, that I had mislaid a small but significant resource. And that is the simple to-do list. For much of the time I have been in China, I have relied on to-do lists, dutifully scribed in my small Moleskine notebooks either in the morning or before I went to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. It provides structure to your day and a sense of purpose.

This blog continues to be a source of solace and power. By making a timeline of 2015 for myself (a previous blog entry), I could see the year all the more clearly, laid out in front of me. It’s a great tool as I can objectively examine the time I used, to see what could be learned, what themes and patterns might be picked out, and what could be improved.

And writing in this blog is always a great way to work things out for myself.

Finally, theluhai.com (I pay annually for the URL) has paid for itself many, many, times over in freelance commissions from editors, and others, who have found me via this website. If that doesn’t sway you, if you’re a freelancer, to start your own website — the lure of work and money — then I don’t know what will.

Seminal posts of 2015:

The weekend of February 13th: getting ready for Myanmar

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

I’m still broke

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

Is this goodbye Beijing?

There is much to look forward to and next year I hope to be more footloose. Being trapped in Beijing, to where I will probably return in the spring, is not good for the soul. And traveling is a great way to slow down time as it focuses you on the present. However, I will still need to base myself somewhere, and will probably need my own place to call “home”, so reconciling wanderlust and home comforts will be a defining tension, as is common for wandering writers.

Beijing itself has been the great uncaring mass it has always been. The spring was lovely, with uncommonly blue skies, summer was hot and sweaty as usual, autumn was very mild, and winter was very cold and very polluted, although this offered journalistic opportunity.

I have been traveling and basing myself in Beijing for three years now and I am tired of the place. I’d quite like to base myself somewhere else now to be honest. But what I want, as is common for all people, does not accord with what others may want. This is a reference to the nature of foreign correspondence. Editors want journalists who have a native expertise and that means Beijing, and China, and the knowledge and contacts I have accrued from being there are what makes me valuable to them.

There is a meeting I have in London in early January that is important for me and I don’t want to say too much for fear of unnerving myself. But I’ll reveal more once we get to it.

For now, happy new year. And thank you for reading.

*

The previous year’s summary

A video showing a year in my life, compressed into five minutes

November 4th — in Beijing

leave a comment »

I’m homeless.

But it’s self imposed. I moved out of my apartment and I’m currently crashing at a friend’s place. I don’t have my own accommodation in Beijing anymore.

On Friday I will be flying to Yunnan, a province in southern China. It’s a beautiful and diverse part of the country. I’ll be staying with a friend and then we’ll travel around the province a little. I am looking forward to it. I’m a big nature lover and Yunnan has plenty of it. It’s something that Beijing, being a huge urban agglomeration, lacks.

October was a much quieter month than September. Here are a couple of pieces I wrote recently. One is about China abandoning its one-child policy after 35 years — big news. The other piece is about craft beer and coffee in Beijing. The latter piece was something I enjoyed writing. It took me a night and a day to put it together, and its more descriptive style brought to mind the older form of foreign correspondence, when those living in foreign lands sent home vignettes and descriptions as well as news; trying to capture the zeitgeist of exotic locations in which the writer lived but who readers back home could only imagine.

I hope that perhaps I can do more such writing. Although capturing the zeitgeist is harder than it may initially appear.

November and December will probably be downtime for me, which makes up for a mediocre and somewhat depressing summer, a summer where I traveled nowhere and did not do many summery things.

But I took the long view and the wintry downtime is something I feel I need. I will be flying back home in December for Christmas, staying with my family in England. I bought a single ticket. Will I be coming back to Beijing? It’s likely, but the question of when will hang around for a while I think.

Love in Beijing

with 4 comments

I recently went to Spring Cameras, a photography store in Beijing which develops film, sells secondhand film cameras, film, and photo books. I hadn’t been there for a while, but I went to get a roll of film developed. I browsed a little and happened on a photo book with the title: “Love in Beijing”.

The owner of the store was talking to another person when I asked him how much the photo book cost. He asked me to ask the maker of the photo book, who was the man he had been talking to. I bought a copy of the photo book (of which only 500 were printed), and we — him, the couple who own the store, and I — subsequently went for dinner. Here are some photos from his lovely book.

IMG_3985

Caption reads: “Gezi & Xiaoge. During the year 2003-2013, they have moved 13 times among the places Chaozhu, Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Finally, they got married during the Spring Festival in 2012 after 9 years’ love. For them, the happiest time was when they were in Guangzhou. At that time, they lived underground, ate the cheapest food and watched a movie named “Saw”. However, they still believed they would have a good future. Now their daughter, Chongchong, is six months”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 27, 2015 at 8:14 am

Satisfying moments when freelancing

with one comment

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 20, 2015 at 6:12 am

Is this goodbye Beijing?

leave a comment »

Beijing and its endless streets and expanse of concrete desert, where it can take a lot of effort to arrange social affairs.

It’s coming up to three years since I arrived in Beijing — three years in which I’ve made friends and lost friends, through the simple drift of life.

In this time I’ve been broke numerous times, have had to scrape and meander. I’ve had starry nights and schemes come to fruition, and moments seldom preconceived.

But what am I doing now? Am I moving forward — is misery just going through the motions?

You might not understand the dilemma and that is fine. I shall put it plainly.

I could never have realized just how hard it is to succeed as a writer.

I could never have imagined what a crossroads sometimes life can be.

I do not want to work to earn money so I can pay the rent, so I can buy more things I do not need.

My instinct tells me I should move out of Beijing and head to some other places in China and stay with friends. Read, write, sleep. Convalesce.

Try to write more — that’s more important than anything. And yet why torture myself? I could do a job that’s enjoyable and worthwhile, and write on the side.

Many writers have had multiple lives. I feel like I should have those lives, because in the end it will make me better and more varied.

There’s no one telling you what your next move should be. There’s no path to follow or predetermined step. Always thus.

Money is and will always be an issue. When you’re younger you think –you’re sure of it in fact– that at some stage you will be wealthy and have enough money to do the things you want to do. But at some stage, it becomes clear that those riches might not become reality.

But that’s fine?

I should go somewhere awhile and figure things out.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 22, 2015 at 10:51 am

Photo gallery: what’s it like in Beijing – my immediate neighborhood

leave a comment »

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 28, 2015 at 9:33 am