The Art of Being a Bilingual Writer
Twenty-three years ago, my dad bought me a PC, which opened a whole new world for me.
Eighteen years ago, I created my first blog on MySpace and started my online writing journey.
Ever since connecting on the internet, I was like a kid with a Disneyland VIP ticket that played around freely and happily. I didn’t realise I was indulging myself in the fairy tales of free internet and freedom of speech until one day, I encountered censorship.
In 2008, while the whole Chinese nation was in such a high spirit of preparing for the Olympic Games, I was in a low mood fighting against Sina Blog because they took off my content that mentioned Twitter.
I was pissed off as a hot-blood teenage girl and published more writings to attack the system. It was like a battle between David and Goliath. However, in my case, the Goliath was too strong to beat up, and I lost. They deleted my account and all my articles involving 3Ts and other censored topics.
Censorship & Cancel Culture on Chinese Social Media
Like many other Chinese bloggers, I learned my lessons and started to play with words to avoid censorship or self-censored when publishing something on Weibo and WeChat.
The most iconic example of censorship is described as being “harmonised (和谐 he xie)”. Since “he xie” has a similar sound as river crab (河蟹), if you see an image of a river crab on the internet in China, it’s likely to refer to something being censored.
Weibo launched another strategy to censor content in recent years. Bloggers who trigger the censorship words can still see their content (instead of being deleted straight away). However, we can only see what we posted, not our readers. We call it “traffic control （限流xian liu）”. It’s a gentle way to warn us not to post something against government content guidelines. The next level is either getting our content or account deleted based on the social media credit system.
Another interesting example is the ban of Winnie the Pooh. When the Chinese resident Xi Jinping had gone to the United States for an official visit, he returned with this nickname. Soon after he met with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the nickname meme grew and spread online. Then the censors began erasing and blocking the images of Pooh on social media sites, and poor Pooh was cancelled in China.
Apart from that, nationalism in China has been on the rise for the past few years. Individuals and western brands who embrace diverse values or hold hostility against China and influencers/celebrities and companies accused of being unpatriotic fell victim one after another to be cancelled online. From well-known fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana to billionaire actress Zhao Wei, from tech tycoon Jack Ma to many influencers who publicly support Ukraine.
The tedious and troublesome writing journey killed my inspiration and drained my energy to a large extent. Therefore, I built up my own website and gradually exited many centralised platforms to establish my sovereignty.
In 2020, 10 years since I lived in English-speaking countries, I had a light-bulb moment when my online mentor James Altucher initiated a 30 Days Writing Challenge, which empowered me to finish my first English novel. I realised I could actually write in Chinese and English and become a bilingual writer.
Nowadays, I publish newsletters, podcasts and stories on a regular basis in two languages and gained 160,000+ followers from all over the world. With the censorship and cancel-culture spread across the globe, it’s essential for people who can speak and write more than one language to cultivate digital footprints on different platforms or build up their own decentralised media channel to avoid losing freedom of speech.
I’d like to share my experience and thoughts to guide you through the journey.
Why should you write in English, even it’s not your native language?
English serves as the world’s favourite lingua franca - the language people are most likely to turn to when they don’t share the same first language. Apart from Pieter Levels’ saying that writing in English can help us reach over a billion people, there are another two advantages:
1. It helped me approach my mind without carrying many burdens from my native cultures. Writing in English provides me with an opportunity to see through the world from a different lens. I have to reassess my knowledge in my native language and cultures and sort through words and ideas to recombine them in a form those who speak English can understand. Take this article on Chinese Netizens' reactions towards Ukraine/Russia crisis as an example; It creates a chance for me to do research from both perspectives and jump out of my own narratives to report neutral truth.
2. It helped me gain confidence and not take myself too seriously. Everybody makes mistakes, so do writers who speak English as their first language. Therefore, I can use “English is not my mother tongue” as an ‘excuse’ to publish my works in English to overcome perfectionism. As long as I can communicate my ideas and thoughts correctly, I don’t need to worry about my imperfect grammar and vocabulary too much. Even though I made mistakes, I could entertain my English readers and learn from practising.
How to start writing in two languages?
Since I was in primary school, I’ve been writing in Chinese from notebook to online platform, twenties years non-stop. I’m a prolific Chinese writer with confidence.
After moving to New Zealand in 2010, I had to learn English to make a living. Back then, I was too embarrassed to speak broken English, not to mention writing fluent essays or articles, which led to my extremely low self-esteem in using English, especially in the writing part. It took me almost a decade to overcome my inner demon - sabotaging myself by saying, you suck! Thankfully, three significant elements set me free:
Although I could stay in my comfort zone to speak and write in Chinese, I would miss the opportunity to meet new friends and readers and explore the other side of the world.
Writing in both languages take time, but the rewarding is enormous. As Bruce Nauman said, “if you want to do it, you do it. There are no excuses”. What I need to do is to build a system and form a good habit to support my writing routine. Trust the process, make the commitment, and you can achieve more than you’d expect.
How to find audiences as a bilingual writer?
Serve the person you once were.
I used to be an international student and a new migrant in New Zealand. So I shared my overseas studying and job hunting experiences with those on the same boat or about to join the same journey to gain my follower base.
My friends Ellen and Summer, who spent years at fitness training and devoted their time to nutrition research, also share their learnings and lessons along the way. Now they build a large online healthy lifestyle community with hundreds and thousands of girls who read their articles, watch videos and try products.
Before, I spent loads of time on WeChat, Weibo and other Chinese social media channels to serve Chinese international students. Ever since I became a digital nomad, I started to produce more English content to make friends and knock doors to career opportunities.
For instance, I leverage my podcast channel to approach people I admire on Twitter by inviting them to chat and build connections on my show. I also write a monthly newsletter, publishing consistent content to showcase my digital transformation journey and topics I care about (philosophy and history) to attract like-minded people (1,200+ readers in half a year). By consistently publishing content in English and Chinese, I gather along with readers from the globe and never feel lonely like I used to be.
Being a bilingual writer provides a double chance for us to reach more readers and leave our digital footprints online. It’s also essential to learn from Balaji’s pseudonymous economy, lessen our actual identity usage, and build decentralised channels and communities. The ultimate goal is to see truth, health and wealth and create the Network State protocol where people don’t need to overcome so many barriers like what we encountered in the current media environment.
May we all have the right to express ourselves freely in the upcoming future.
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