Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘literature

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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How I became a novelist in Beijing — by Carly J. Hallman

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Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Later this year, through some mysterious cocktail of luck, hard work, and sheer determination, my first novel will be published in the U.S. ‘Year of the Goose’ is a dark comedy about the Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful fictional corporation. The novel weaves together tales of a deadly fat camp, a psychopathic heiress, a hair extension tycoon, a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a talking turtle, some witches, and an anthropomorphic diary-penning goose, among others.

I dreamed up the original idea for the novel back in America, sparked by a short story I wrote while still a student (about the aforementioned fat camp). I’d traveled and lived in China before, and, hailing from a boring small town in Texas, found it to be a treasure trove of inspiration — China is a place where things are happening, present continuous tense.

After I graduated I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where I worked as a glorified babysitter, sent out endless “real job” applications and resumes, and struggled to find my way out of a bad relationship. At twenty-four I gave up and got out, and moved back in with my parents. Depressed, disillusioned, directionless. The only thing I knew I wanted — needed — to do was to write that novel.

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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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