Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘expats

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

4 Good & Bad Things about Living in Beijing

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The Bad

1. The Size of Beijing

And no, I don’t mean how big Beijing is. And Beijing is plenty big: the metropolitan area is about the same size as London, but with a population numbering a million more (12.7m). But actually, for an expat, Beijing can be surprisingly small.

The main areas where foreigners hang out in Beijing are Wudaokou, Sanlitun and Gulou. The first is a university area, where overseas students from the US, England, Korea and elsewhere hang. Sanlitun is an upmarket shopping area featuring a huge Apple store and expensive brands, as well as plenty of dives, clubs and bars. It’s very popular with expats.

Finally, Gulou is a trendy area liked by creative types, where Beijing’s traditional alleys (called ‘hutongs’ in Mandarin) are still in place. Nestled in these alleyways are cool little bars and cafes, and music venues such as the legendary Mao Livehouse and DJ-heavy Dada.

These three places are vacuums into which foreign residents of Beijing invariably get sucked. They are the go-to places, the natural recourse. But it can feel humdrum & cliche telling a taxi driver to take you to Sanlitun the Nth time.

2. Budgeting

Beijing is a pretty cheap place to live, even though it’s pricier than most the rest of China. I can eat well for less than £5 a day. Bottles of beer are less than a pound. Buses are four pence(!) a journey. Subway trips are 20p. So spending becomes automatic. Cash flows through your hands like water. You end up eating out all the time, treating yourself to snacks, going to lavish restaurants, buying clothes like it’s nothing. Beijing becomes an arena to give away your cash for stuff. It’s a ‘communist’ country by the way.

3. Taxis

This is another budgeting thing. Transport isn’t so great in Beijing despite its cheapness. Subway stations are not so numerous and bus routes can be elephantine. Taxis are the easiest and relatively inexpensive. But it all adds up and taking taxis regularly can be a significant drain on finances.

4. The DUST*

It is everywhere. In the air. On the floor. In your pocket. Up your nose. On your clothes. Smeared in your hair. Layering over your face. Inside your mouth. Invisibly on your food. It’s a mixture of sand blown in from the northern Mongol deserts, brick dust (demolition and building is rampant) and general pollution (car fumes, smoke etc). Let’s not even talk about the cancerous air pollution… *It isn’t as apocalyptic as this description may seem, but it does go everywhere.

The Good

1. The Size of Beijing

Didn’t you already say this was a bad thing? Yes I did, but things can be contradictory okay? This is China we’re talking about. Where you can buy tons of stuff but kids are schooled in Marxist theory. Beijing is small enough so it can feel like a village, where you can bump into that pretty girl who you’ve noticed but can’t ever seem to talk to again and again and again. And large enough that you can find weird, soothing, crazy, peaceful places too.

2. Access to VIPs

This ones for the journos. You can quite easily bump into local luminaries. If you’re at a popular dive, you’ll probably be glancing over various entrepreneurs, star writers and local ‘celebs’. They’re all very approachable and easy to get in touch with.

3. Availability of Information

Want to know what’s cool in Beijing? Where to go, what to do and what to eat? You are well served. There are four big expat publications here all catering to that service: The Beijinger, TimeOut, City Weekend, That’s Beijing. Not too mention countless blogs and websites. It’s all free too. Beijing’s grapevine is a generous bounty.

4. The Dating Scene

Because the foreigners here tend to be a self-selecting bunch it means you get to meet interesting, lively, thoughtful, intelligent and bold people. Because why else would you decide to come here if you weren’t crazy enough to leave your comfy life back home for this dusty, cash-sucking city? Chinese girls are a totally different story and one we can save for a possible future.

Sanlitun (circa 2008). Photo by blog author.

Sanlitun (circa 2008). Photo: Lu-Hai Liang

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm