Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘literary journalism

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.

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Writing what you want to write vs. writing what editors want you to write

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Some years ago, when I was in my last year of university, there was a house party. At this party I got talking to a French girl, who was eloquent and charming. I reached a point where I got talking about journalism, my ambitions, who I’d already written for, and all the fine journalism pieces I’d written — the kind of things you might say when trying to impress a French girl.

She listened with interest but after I had finished my spiel, she looked at me and without a pause said simply: “But what do you write for yourself?”

This memory and those words have stayed with me ever since.

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The perfect story: do all journalists want to become novelists?

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I’ve written one “perfect” story in my life. It’s a bold claim but it’s ironic because the story in question is a Japanese fable about Perfection. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. Before the story materialized I had spent the previous two weeks or so thinking about it late at night while I was in bed. Slowly the rough outline or arc of the story took shape and I kind of vaguely knew how it might turn. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know what the story was or what the story would be. But over the two weeks it was what I thought about during the day and before I fell asleep.

Hemingway and a small tiger. Hemingway started his career as a journalist.

Ernest Hemingway and a small tiger. He started his career as a journalist.

Then one afternoon at school, while I was in some form of detention, I decided to write the story, for an English assignment. I was in the library with a few other miscreants. And I just started writing – in longhand, with a blue Biro on lined paper. And what came out was 99% perfect. The story was rounded, full, and did what the story set out to do. My English teacher read it out in class and I distinctly remember the enraptured silence as the story gripped my fellow pupils, and the applause once it ended – the applause! And she showed it to the other English teachers who also praised the story.

But before you tire of this anecdote, here’s the point: I have never, in the 11 years since, been able to reproduce anything approaching the same level of effortless flow, the ease with which that story seemed to shape itself, the logic and momentum, the plot and the ending all taking shape as the Biro made its way across the page. As if brain, arm and pen were one single entity all directed toward the inevitable creation of that story.

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