Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘life in Beijing

18th May — In Beijing

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 28, 2015 at 9:33 am

VIDEO: A year in the life of a freelance journalist abroad

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In early 2014, I decided to buy a new camera. With it I started to take short videos that captured how life unfolded. I would record at dinners, while I was commuting, when I’d travel and so on. It wasn’t every day, but over a year I’d collected enough footage to make a short film about my life as a freelance journalist.

The video shows what Beijing is like, my horribly cramped former living quarters, what I get up to on my off-hours, and includes footage from my North Korea reporting trip and other travels. I hope to make more videos for my YouTube channel this year, so please consider subscribing.

This blog is a guide on becoming a roving freelancer, as well as a chronicle of my journey. The above video, I hope, fills in some of the blanks: a visual record. A written round-up of 2014 can be found here: Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On.

The video was shot on a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker. These are the tools I currently have, and I intend to make the most of them. For more on this, see these posts: 6 journalism resolutions for the new year, and getting into video storytelling: using a cheap compact camera.

Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On

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So I’ve been in Beijing for a year. Okay, it’s a little longer than a year: I arrived in Beijing 11th October, 2013.

Next month, I’m heading home (Hastings, England) for Christmas. I’ll be there for almost a month. It’ll be good to detoxify in England for a little while. Beijing is full of pollution…

So I’ve been here for over a year. What has happened? Originally, as I wrote in my first post while back in the city, I wanted to improve my Chinese to near-fluency (failed that one); get a decent paying job (that happened but may change in the very near future); travel more, write more.

I did travel more. But I did not write as much as I wanted to or should have done. That was the failure of this year. Second to that was not actively learning Chinese.

I made a group of friends. I lost a few who drifted away. I moved through a relationship (the loveliest I’ve had). I went up in the world by moving in to a nicer apartment. I gained some great new bylines. I lost freelancing momentum. I lost some enthusiasm. I regained some bad habits. I’ve felt professionally and personally stagnant. And I look to the future with the brightest ambitions but tempered with anxiety and doubt.

I cannot see the future. I think I know where I want to go, but the path to it is so unclear. I am 25. Young to those who’ve already experienced it, older to those still beating a fresh path. It does seem a little like a crossroads, although this could be just “end of the year” talk.

But the optimism remains.

How to summarize a year? I freelanced for Aljazeera, selling the pitch after the reporting trip which was risky but it worked out. I had CNN cancel a story on me but I managed to publish it elsewhere (unpaid but it got me in with some new editors). I wrote more and more for a section of a UK newspaper whose pay rates went up midway through the year.

I wrote for a video games publication I respect and it gladdened me as I want to break into games writing. I had a few commissions not contingent on my being in Asia which demonstrates how location can be irrelevant to freelance.

Money

I made £1634.35 from freelancing since I arrived in Beijing last October.

This money definitely helped the UK bank balance but clearly I’m not actually making bank from this. It supplemented the far healthier income I got from the Chinese TV job which meant I survived comfortably (although it often did not feel like it), with it financing an expensive reporting trip, visa runs to Hong Kong and two vacations.

But there have been short periods I’ve had to scrimp, and early next year I can foresee cash flow problems. I am not getting rich whatsoever. I am still surviving.

The freelance income probably merits further discussion. Certainly if I didn’t have the TV job I would have had to be much more prolific freelancing. The amount I earned, over a year, is not much at all. But it was good to have these semi-regular injections of cash which I plundered every so often to buy plane tickets. Certainly I’m going to have to step up the production rate if I’m going to be able to afford the kind of travel I wish to do next year.

Success: or lack thereof?

Like I’ve written before, the feeling of progression for a freelancer is not so obvious. We don’t go from Associate Freelancer to Deputy Freelancer to Freelancer-in-Chief. But the failures of the past several months I attribute to not chasing the stories hard enough, to not working in pursuit of the big stories, of the interesting people and things that are happening. I realize these failures and I hope that they’re instructive for what I need to change for 2015.

Life

Because moving to another country, settling in to a new city, isn’t just about bylines and becoming “successful”. There’s so much not said, so much that’s a part of living, especially in your 20s, struggling to understand what it is you’re supposed to be struggling toward. An account merely focused on the journalism and not the journey misses the daily textural quality of life, and the results of which you had never determined would be the destination.

To put it plainly, this blog captures some of that struggle. But of course it misses the thousand small things that you learn, that you understand and helps to expand a sense of what is possible and what is knowable when you are placed in a situation foreign to you.

Struggling to understand what it is you’re supposed to be struggling toward

I mentioned before I was in a relationship. The truth is, it was quite short in duration (although I visited her in Thailand, and we kept in touch). But the intensity of it made it feel that much longer and deeper. And that’s the important thing. The memory of it, the intensity. It doesn’t matter that some experience may be short-lived, because all that you’ll remember of it is that fleeting moment, and what you experience, from one moment to the next, are simply moments. Bubbles in time.

That is why I place great importance on the adventure of moving abroad, or simply to invite new challenges. My life in Beijing has its very great share of downs. But the ups don’t necessarily ameliorate the downs. Because that’s not the point. It’s not even about being “happy”. It’s about how much I’ve put myself through. About finding great contentment in the fact I’ve made a go at this crazy life in Beijing. And have, more or less, made it. I feel great pride in that. Because it’s an achievement purely for myself.

Links:

Freelancing in Beijing: Three Month Update

Freelancing in Beijing: Six Month Update

7 Things That Make Up Life in Beijing: A Photo Gallery

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The phone

The Phone. It's the last thing I see at night and the first thing I wake up to. I can often be found reading stories using The Guardian's mobile app.

It’s the last thing I see at night and the first thing I wake up to. I can often be found reading stories from The Guardian’s mobile app.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 18, 2014 at 3:02 pm

October 5th, Beijing

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It is a Sunday afternoon in Beijing, in the middle of Golden Week, a national holiday here in China. The weather is cooling down, days are mild but the nights are drawing in. Autumn is the most beautiful season in Beijing, but the briefest, casting its warm glow before the harsh, bare winter.

Lately, I have found writing and pitching somewhat difficult. Freelance has been slow, very slow. I had been pitching but I found no reply from editors who have previously commissioned me. This is the worst; worse than rejection, it is the anxiety of not knowing that enervates the soul of a freelancer.

More than that, motivation is weak right now. And I am not sure exactly why. Maybe it is homesickness, maybe it’s a slight boredom with the whole affair of freelance journalism. Writing requires energy and I’ve found that energy to be depleted. The ambition is still there, but the actions required to reach it seem harder to take.

Life seems to get in the way too. Unlike before, I realize how important it is to just enjoy the moments that accompany a day and to look forward to those times where you can wallow in the luxury of doing things that you want to do. Hanging out with friends in Beijing, eating and drinking, playing poker, getting wasted in clubs is fun, sure. But it means the important work gets left behind. But that’s okay. But equally, it is absolutely no excuse whatsoever.

Of course, there needs to be balance. I find solace in the fact that this blog is going from strength to strength. But the desire to read all the articles I should be reading, to pitch editors, new and old, to send out emails, to sit down and plot out the essays and articles I know I’m capable of writing, is diminished. It worries me because the feeling is deeper and longer lasting that what I’ve felt before. But it doesn’t unnerve me. Writing is what I love to do the most.

I am also trying to get started on a book proposal This gives me something to be excited about, even if book publishing can be a long and arduous process. Book writing is what I’d really like to do. And although I love journalism, I know that literature will always win out. Journalism can be literature of course — it’s literary nonfiction that really compels me to be a better writer. Perhaps this is time out towards that end.

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Movin’ up: from poor freelancer to slightly rich writer

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I’ve written about being a poverty-stricken writer before. Tales of squalor and survival. On having to eat street-cooked sweet potatoes for a week because I was waiting to be paid. On readjusting attitudes toward money, or rather the accumulation of it, beliefs which I still hold. But now the going should be easier.

I recently moved into a new apartment. It’s in a nice area of Beijing where rich couples stroll around in the evenings. It’s like a little community, a more cosmopolitan part of a city that’s usually gritty – Beijing is perhaps one of the more squalid capital cities of the world.

My old room cost me RMB 1200 a month, or £120. It was a tiny little place, where I could almost touch the walls, just big enough for a single bed, a desk, a sink and a wardrobe. My girlfriend commented that it was the smallest and horriblest place she’d ever seen someone living in (thanks!) and that the bathroom was like the setting for the movie SAW.

The new place is RMB 2400 a month, or £240. I will go to a Beijing IKEA in the near future to furnish the place. I’ve taken on a part-time tutoring job for an eight-year-old Chinese girl. The monthly fee from this pays the rent. I get RMB 10,000 a month (£1000) from my full-time job at the TV company. My freelance journalism pays around £300-500 monthly, depending on my own productivity.

In total then, my monthly salary is around £1600, or 16,000 Chinese RenMinBi. In the UK, £1600 to live on per month is not too bad although this would depend on where you lived. In London I can imagine, after rent, bills, transport and food, it would not stretch very far.

But in China, even in Beijing, this is quite a comfortable salary, what a 35-year-old manager might earn at a medium-sized media company so I’ve been told.

It has taken me seven months to reach this stage. For about seven months now, my UK bank account has been in the red, where I’ve made fervent use of my bank overdraft to finance rent deposits and visa runs to Hong Kong. It is just now back in the black.

The Chinese bank account, after paying for three months rent in advance and a deposit, still has left a sizable residue that will easily tide me over until my next paycheck. Which I will use for a 20-day vacation in Thailand. Life is alright, for now…