Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘japan

The wandering writer’s life – part 756

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In the late summer of 2012, I was excited and nervous about my upcoming move to Beijing. I had a flight booked for September and I was looking forward to it with trepidation & eagerness. Moving overseas felt like a major threshold, and a threshold that – until it was crossed – remained beyond direct knowledge.

At night, in my parent’s house over that summer, I had vague dreams about how my time in Beijing would unfold. But I had no real insight into the minutiae of this unfolding until I had made the journey into that great beyond.

If these sentences sound vaguely death-like, then moving to Beijing did capture a death of some kind. The passing of an old life and journeying to a new one. New beginnings, and all that. But I never would’ve countenanced that the experience of living in Beijing would be like dying over and over again.

Living in a too-small apartment was like dying. Surviving on too little income was like dying. Feeling lonely and anxious was like dying. Dreaming of succeeding and clutching tight to my ambition was, definitely, like dying. Because once I made it to the other side — moving to a bigger apartment; making more money; gaining a friendship circle; achieving some of my goals — all propelled me to a feeling I had heretofore not known: an utter aliveness.

This journey is so much about migration. How we all migrate: whether it’s from a small village to a big city (from Boscastle to Bristol, let’s say); or from a small town to the capital of China. It is a rite of passage so fundamental that it is wondrous to me that not more people take the opportunity to make such a journey.

Because to remain still, whether metaphorically or literally, is to be in stasis. Moving is the key. And it doesn’t always have to be forwards. Life may seem linear, but there are cul-de-sacs, weird ass wiggly bits, and looping circles. It doesn’t matter.

It’s now been about 18 months since I left Beijing. Since that time I’ve spent eight months at home in England, and about 10 months on the road. Looking ahead, once I’ve finally figured out what the next stage is, I have the feeling that I will come to see this time as a transition period. That this wandering writer’s life I’ve got going on feels like a meandering path, and doesn’t seem in itself like a definite life-stage, is curious. And I won’t draw any conclusions for now.

What is interesting is that I’ve gotten quite good at it. I have now been in Japan since March and I have not only survived but prospered. I’ve done pretty well at landing commissions to do with my host country (and Japan seems like a veritable bounty in terms of story ideas) but I also see how I can improve my freelancing processes. And all this is underpinned by the fact I’ve had to stay put for several months.

Two roads clearly diverged. (Because pandemic.) I was only supposed to stay in Fukuoka for 10 days before flying out to Kuala Lumpur, where I would’ve stayed for a week or two, before flying to Bali. Covid-19 put paid to all that and Japan has been my home since.

And so the meandering path has deposited me here and all I can see are circles ahead and not straightforward roads. But this is how, perhaps, I wanted it to be – secretly, wishfully – all those moons ago.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 5, 2020 at 7:52 am

The sushi chef

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I’ve been in Japan since March but I haven’t eaten sushi, at a restaurant, ’til this past week.

A friend and I went to a sushi restaurant. We ordered our selection. They brought the sushi carefully arranged on the plate. And each plate looked immaculate, as if it was art. I tried a variety, from their menu. For my second plate I ordered the salmon again. I put it in my mouth and chewed it slowly. The texture was like cream yet meaty; a careful savouriness engulfed my mouth, and the rice gave it a floury pillow. It was an intense enjoyment.

We drank green tea then shochu. We talked about the delicious food we’d eaten in times past. Around us were Japanese couples, friends, and work colleagues enjoying themselves. It was a wonderful evening.

As we got up to leave, my friend went to use the bathroom, and I stopped to look at the sushi chefs. They were held in the middle of the restaurant separated by glass from the diners. I looked at them and felt some complex emotions. I realised it was envy. I envied them.

But why?

I guess it was the simplicity of their job.

I have heard that it takes some time to become a sushi chef and it can take years of training. I am sure great manual skill is involved. But some of it sounds like sushi-chef propaganda. It is, after all, just cutting strips of fish and collecting rice together neatly. But I envied the physical aspect of their job. And its focus.

Journalism can be very tiring. I once heard that burnout most often occurs when you most care about the work. And these weeks have been busier and more exhausting than usual. I am not reaching burnout, but I am looking forward to a little holiday.

However, the yearning for a different kind of job remains. I’ve had this desire — medium-strength, like sake, or tabasco — buried for a few years. It as if the heart wants to live something else for a while. Like a hunter might want to switch things up the next season by being a fisherman; or the spear-fisher wants to try foraging for a while. It is not unnatural.

I looked at the sushi chefs and wondered for a moment what it would be like to switch places. Then we left and the moment passed. The desire won’t go away.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 17, 2020 at 8:07 am

Finding buoyancy as a freelancer

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I have been very busy. In the past week or so I’ve had up to five commissions. They all have different deadlines and I’ve prioritised them according to their various timelines. Initially, there was a panicky sense that I’d taken on too much, but that feeling has subsided. I knew things would have to change in my schedule and, surely enough, I adapted.

One commission is from BBC Future Planet; another from BBC Worklife. Two are from a new client — Business Insider — the UK version. And lastly, one commission is an unusual case. I’d been working on an article commissioned by a British online publication. I reported and wrote the article. After much patient waiting they eventually decided they had “no space” to run it. (I happen to think it is because the tone of my piece does not fit in with the tone of their publication.) However, they agreed to pay a kill fee and what’s more the kill fee would be the same amount they commissioned for. Additionally, they said they’d be fine with me selling the piece on. I put out a call for my article on Twitter and a journalist friend of mine suggested a contact of hers. I emailed this contact and sent him my piece. He kindly agreed to take it on. And so, I will be paid double for this piece. Everything worked out. Hurrah!

I am not usually this busy. But I have come to enjoy it. Weekends now genuinely feel like a relief rather than just another void in time and space. I get that “Friday feeling” a lot of full-timers talk about (also known as “Fri-yay”).

About that new client. That was also via Twitter. I followed this writer. He followed back. What ensued was a mutual appreciation society, over DM. He then mentioned that he had been recently appointed an editor at Business Insider so if I had any article ideas please send them. I did. And the rest is history. Again, if you are a freelance journalist, and you are not on Twitter actively looking for opportunities then you might consider it.

I am still in Japan, living in a hostel. I do not speak Japanese (although I’ve been commissioned for two articles about Japan-related topics, and have already had one published) so I do feel a language barrier living in this country. I now know what it must feel like for non-Chinese-speaking foreigners living in China. I’ve come to feel a greater sympathy for those monolinguists who lived in Beijing alongside me but could not communicate with the locals. Although I am sure a few of them spoke a European language, Chinese is altogether different to learn.

I, being of Chinese heritage, was able to pick it up, again, with relative ease. But being in Japan I have not made much effort to learn Japanese. I will begin to rectify this and do some study.

Sometimes I do wish I had been stranded somewhere like coastal Thailand and I would’ve been free to swim in the ocean, enjoying the bounties of nature. But being in Japan has had definite upsides, not least in the work I’ve gained.

Right now, work is going well. Socially, life-wise, things could be a little better. But I do not think mine is a unique case in this regard. But, overall, I am grateful for my position. And recognise that I should embrace the luxuries that I have, and not dwell on the things that could be. I am not entitled to everything. And working hard should be its own reward.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 30, 2020 at 4:10 am

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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Ups and downs: the rollercoaster of freelance journalism

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I would not advise anyone, currently, to consider going into journalism. It has been a tumultuous time for the industry. Over the past couple of weeks, job cuts have been announced at VICE, Quartz, Conde Nast, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Vox Media, LA Times, The Economist, among others.

The printed word, as a business, is in a very precarious position as ad spend, the events arm, and other money-making parts of this industry, have been decimated owing to effects from covid-19.

Yet, more than ever before, people are reading and clicking through. Many media titles have reported increases in traffic. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reap benefits from the content created by news media, making their platforms go-to places for potential sources of information, yet the media do not reap the financial rewards. Facebook and Google suck up the vast majority of worldwide ad spend (in the billions of dollars), while journalism — which plays an important civic role, especially local newspapers — continues its downward trend.

On a personal level, as a freelancer, my fortunes have rollercoastered. If my finances remain fairly stable (although still low) the feeling of freelancing in this current predicament has been fraught and stressful.

Some days, I feel despondent at the entire process of coming up with ideas, researching, crafting a well-written and precise pitch, waiting for editor replies (some of which never come). It is a lot of investment, plus mental labour, for relatively little return. And yet, job cuts and furloughs are not confined to the journalism industry. Whole swathes of the economy are in trouble. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, theatres, retailers, are just a few examples of businesses facing a black hole. Tourism and all the people who rely on it are facing existential crisis.

To be a freelancer, at this time, is to feel simultaneously insecure, and yet, in some way, also stable and liberated. Because I am still working and able to work, as long as I continue toiling and pitching to those editors still with the budget to commission and pay. I am somewhat protected. So maybe do try going into freelance journalism — just know that you’ll likely be competing with the hundreds of journalists who have just been laid off.

And it is remarkable how just one commission, with a new publication, and on a subject close to my heart, can energise and renew my faith in this lark. Freelance journalism is mostly dining on greased up junk food, paying out little nutritional value, but occasionally you get to savour a gloriously fulfilling meal with plenty of vegetables (you’re not an adult if you don’t like vegetables).

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View from the rooftop of my hostel in Fukuoka.

But my finances remain on the edge. I realise now, in hindsight, I committed a couple of cardinal errors in the first three months of this year. In February I was in Thailand and I spent too much money, and earned far too little. I should have been more prudent. Now, in Japan, I am enduring on break-even income, budgeting hard, and working hard. I guess mistakes are made, and lessons will be learned. Had the pandemic not have occurred, I would have been in a cheaper country by now, yet having to remain in one place for so long (I have been living in the same hostel since March 13) has done wonders for my productivity and output.

So I will continue toiling until such time something changes.

My writing life 

I have been interviewing many people this week for a story I’ve been working on. It’s a feature about British Chinese, a minority group to which I belong. In October 2013, the New Statesman published this story: ‘Where exactly are my British Chinese role models?‘ To this day, it remains the article from which I have received the most email. Although I remain somewhat cynical about journalism, sometimes it really does have an effect on people, and the emails I received from that story are evidence. Hopefully, this new article will have a similar effect.

Recent bylines:

BBC Worklife — Life after lockdown: How China went back to work

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 23, 2020 at 7:48 am

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

The Wandering Freelance Journalist In A Pandemic: Stuck in Japan and Staying Productive

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Hi reader,

I write you from a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan. I have been here a few weeks. Same hostel, same city. Fukuoka is in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan’s five main islands.

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Since I arrived, I have seen borders close and citizens in cities around the world stuck indoors. We are living through a pandemic, which is defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease. Pubs and schools are closed in the United Kingdom, something that seemed unthinkable. Wuhan, the origin point of the virus, a city of 10 million, was placed under strict lockdown. America and Germany saw infections balloon. France, Italy and Spain have borne the brunt of fatalities. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, whom I interviewed 10 years ago when he was mayor of London, is in intensive care.

And me? How has it affected my freelance career; my wandering life?

I am fortunate that Japan has a relatively low number of cases. Although a state of emergency has been declared by PM Shinzo Abe, the government here is unable to enforce strict lockdowns due to civil rights abuses during World War Two, and protection of such rights was enshrined in the post-war constitution. Museums, art galleries, schools are closed, but many shops and restaurants remain open here in Fukuoka.

Freelance copywriting work from China has dried up, as many agencies have been affected by clients scaling back their budgets. Many journalism publications, meanwhile, have been under huge pressure to keep up with Coronavirus-related content.

I was supposed to have left Japan, flying from Fukuoka’s airport, on March 23 but my flight was cancelled (still waiting on that refund, Air Asia!). I am glad it was cancelled anyway as my next destination was Kuala Lumpur but the Malay government is not accepting foreign entrants at this time.

I have friends who are currently stuck in Tokyo. After being forced to delay their return to Beijing, where they live, they took refuge in Singapore but had to leave due to finishing visas, but as soon as they left the Singaporean government closed their borders. Now they’re in limbo, with their stuff scattered across two countries. My family in England meanwhile are all at home: with shops and schools closed.

A novelist friend of mine has had her book marketing tour cancelled. Many of my acquaintances and journalist colleagues describe hellish working conditions, as they bury themselves in a deluge of coronavirus reports, or their commissions have all but dried up. A fellow wandering journalist, who had lined up reporting assignments all over India got stuck in Goa, India, but took a hail-mary flight back to London via Rome. Travel journalists, meanwhile, seem the most severely affected. Thankfully no one I know has been terribly affected by the virus, health-wise (touch wood).

Japan

So this is my first time in Japan. I lived in Beijing for six years, but funnily enough I never made it to the Land of the Rising Sun. I always thought it was too expensive, and my suspicions have been confirmed. Truthfully though, Fukuoka at least is not awful in terms of costs. Accommodation and food prices are not as cheap as I’d like but it’s certainly not as costly as, say, the UK.

Everything here is neat, tidy, extremely safe and well organised. But honestly I am not one of these people who are obsessed with Japan, some of whom I have met in my hostel. I’ve never been a Japanophile although it’s always interesting to visit a new country and I was genuinely curious about what this east Asian country would be like. I always find it interesting to compare/contrast China with its historical rivals.

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An island in Japan. (All photos copyright: LHL 2020) 

But Japan doesn’t reach into my soul like places in other parts of Asia do. The symbols and motifs of Nepal; the distinctive light of Burma; the colours of Thailand; and the sultry food of Malaysia and Singapore all sing to me. The “exotic” aspects of southeast Asia speak to my heart.

However, highlights so far have been going to a random restaurant and having my opinion of tempura completely changed. Consuming a superlative bowl of ramen (which cost £7). Visiting an island and meeting an interesting Australian guy and his wife. Seeing the Sakura bloom — I really didn’t expect them to be as splendid as they are.

I know I should visit Kyoto and Nara, and I will at some point, but I think I prefer to save my money for future travels. Tokyo is also on my wish-list but the museums and art galleries there are closed. Getting around Japan is expensive.

My writing life 

While I have been in Fukuoka, I have filed one article, a feature for BBC Worklife. I finished it during an evening in my hostel, while an Australian guy chatted to me about heeding his government’s call for Aussies to return home, and the next day it was published. That article, I’ve been told, has received over 300,000 clicks.

Recent bylines:

How Viruses Spread in Offices – BBC Worklife

How Covid-19 led to a nationwide work-from-home experiment – BBC Worklife

I’ve started work on an essay for which I was contractually commissioned by a literary journal. It has a very long lead-in time (deadline is months away) so I am enjoying this, and Iimg_2936 am excited to write this essay as it marks a first for me.

This week I will work hard on pitching. I worked out I am living on around £25 per day, so I need to file a certain amount of articles per month to keep this show on the road. And I hope the roads will open up soon.

I have seen many writers and freelancers complain of being unable to work and be productive while this pandemic is in swing, but I have found it a clarifying force. I cannot control borders and government ministers and the movement of viruses so I don’t think about them. But I can control my routine. I can control my schedule. I am lucky that I am still able to go outside and wander the parks so I make the most of that. I have a friend here in Fukuoka so we hang out.

Still, I waste a lot of time watching Netflix and bouncing around the various social media. But one doesn’t need to be too hard on oneself. A few days I just spent lounging: reading and Netflix-ing. Watching Snowpiercer and re-watching The Godfather; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Finishing a novel, All That Man Is by David Szalay. Downloading a game, Forgotton Anne (that’s not a typo), on to my iPad. Sometimes you just gotta settle into a simpler rhythm and enjoy the things you have.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 7, 2020 at 1:46 pm