You never know future the holds. Alan Paul certainly didn’t when he encouraged his wife, Rebecca, to accept a promotion that would relocate their family halfway around the world, from Maplewood, New Jersey to Beijing, China. For Alan, it was a giant leap into the great unknown, but what resulted was an adventure beyond his wildest dreams. In addition to writing “The Expat Life” column for WSJ.com, he formed a blues band – Woodie Alan (named for himself and his Chinese bandmate, Woodie Wu) – that went on to win Beijing’s band of the year. If that’s not enough excitement for one lifetime, today Harper Collins is releasing his memoir about the experience!
Needless to say, I’m ecstatic that Alan was able to take time out of his busy schedule to stop by Beyond the Gray and share his exciting story with us…
Beyond the Gray: Tell us about yourself. What is your dream and how are you working towards it?
Alan Paul: I’m Alan Paul of Maplewood, New Jersey. I’m the author of the newly released memoir, Big in China (Harper Collins) about my adventures raising a family, playing the blues and becoming a rock star in Beijing. Before that, I wrote “The Expat Life” column for WSJ.com and was a senior writer for Guitar World and Slam magazines.
I’d have to say, I am living my dream right now. I always wanted to write a great book and if I may say so, I feel like I have done it. Today marks the release of my book. Of course, I hope that a lot of people like it and it becomes a big success, but it doesn’t really matter. I feel very proud of what I’ve written and no level of sales will take that away from me. Every time I read a review that seems to have gotten what I wanted to convey, I’m just incredibly pleased. To be honest, I had tears in my eyes when I read the first Amazon reader review because she had gotten out of the book exactly what I wanted to convey and I was just overwhelmed with joy. Only the birth of my three children has given me that kind of feeling.
Commercial success is elusive, luck-filled and hard to pin down. I won’t allow the success of the book to be determined by how it sells. To me, it’s a success and I am very proud.
BTG: Tell us about a time you found yourself in the gray. How did you overcome it?
AP: I have been very fortunate in that I have rarely felt truly lost in life. I might be the only person to ever write a memoir who can utter that sentence. My book is not from the “misery I’ve suffered” school of memoir.
Having said that, I have certainly had moments of doubt and aimless drifting – which is still very different from feeling lost. The way I have dealt with that is by focusing on the big picture and taking pride in my work, no matter how many people were reading it, or whether or not I felt like I should have been doing bigger and better things. That same approach really paid off in China when I formed my band; we played every gig like it was the most important one, even if only 10 people were there.
Ultimately, I just counted my blessings: I was born on the right side of the street at the right moment in history. I married someone I really love and love to be with. We have three kids I treasure. What more can I ask for? Everything else is gravy.
When I feel emotionally or mentally gray, I usually blow it out by either playing music and pounding on my guitar, going to hear live music that stirs my soul or getting outside and exercising. A good hike always clears my mind and makes me feel happy to be alive.
BTG: Back in 2005, you left your job as senior writer for Guitar World and Slam magazines and a comfortable life in Maplewood, New Jersey so your wife could pursue a great career opportunity in China. Tell us about that decision.
AP: For the most part, it was an easy decision. I actually pushed Rebecca to pursue the job. It’s hard for me to describe exactly why because China had not been an important part of my life, or a real area of interest, but when I heard about this opportunity I knew we had to do it.
After we made a visit and she accepted the job, I did panic. I had to work it through again, but once I did there was no looking back.
BTG: Many people would have a difficult time leaving all that security. How did you do it?
AP: I just knew we had to do this.
Rebecca and I were always pretty adventurous and we found ourselves in a situation we didn’t really expect to be in. We started dating when we were 21, way before either of us thought we would settle down, and we weren’t quite ready to be as settled as we were. We loved each other very much and we loved our house, loved our neighborhood and our town and didn’t really want to move. But we were 38 and couldn’t imagine living in the same house for the next 40 years, either. We knew we had at least one great adventure in us. When this job fell out of the sky, we just knew.
Also, the year or so before this all happened, I was probably rather “in the gray” to use your terminology. I had been writing for Guitar World and Slam for a long time and I loved it but it wasn’t fully challenging. I also had been writing from home for over a decade, and a new corporate parent at Guitar World wanted me to go off salary or come into the office. I couldn’t see doing that for a lot of reasons, most compellingly family balance, as my wife has a very challenging job and we always felt one of us had to be close to home to be on the frontline with the kids. So we were feeling a bit static on a lot of fronts and then suddenly we had an opportunity to move to China.
BTG: In the process of helping your wife follow her dream, you ended up following a few dreams of your own. Tell us about that.
AP: Well, I just wrote a 272-page book detailing it. It’s still almost unbelievable to me. I ended up with the two things I really wanted most, even if I didn’t realize it until I had them: a column (the “The Expat Life” for WSJ.com) and a band (Woodie Alan). And both of them were really good and met with great success.
Even after living it and writing the book it’s hard to explain. But I never had a plan, so I never could be too rigid – and I never could be disappointed. I was open to anything and anyone and I took everything in with what the great Chinese writer Lijia Zhang described as “child-like wonder.” I’m sure some people would be offended by that phrase, but I am proud of it and think it’s spot on. By being open and ready for anything, I found unexpected riches.
BTG: What fears have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
AP: There are always insecurities and fears along all paths and they all can be overcome the same way: stay confident but humble, plow forward, try your best and have fun. I think it’s all pretty basic stuff that applies to almost anything in life.
For me, the most tangible fear and insecurity I had to overcome was singing in public and being a bandleader. I started my band in Beijing as a lark and to have fun because I love making music, but I had always done so more in a background role, maybe singing one song a night. I formed this band in which I was the singer, not exactly intending to – it just happened because I met two dynamic musicians who wanted to work with me and we didn’t have a singer. I had to seize the moment.
Fortunately, some people told me they liked my singing – it always pays off to share your feelings and be positive with people, as you never know how important it might be – my bandmates were very encouraging. Eventually, I realized that the band had the potential to be pretty good and that I was the variable; everyone else was already solid and confident, but a band needs a leader and they were looking towards me. I had to step up my game, so I shut my eyes and jumped into the abyss.
BTG: What was more difficult, moving to Beijing or moving back?
AP: Moving back, by far. This is for a lot of reasons but the simplest one is when I left Maplewood for Beijing, I missed some people and places, sometimes ferociously, but I never mourned them, because I knew that I would eventually return. When I left Beijing, it was far more definitive. We built a wonderful, engaging, enriching, multi-faceted, multi-colored life. Walking away from it was at times excruciating, all the more so because I knew there was no turning back.
Thank God for Big in China. Writing the book kept me sane and really helped me move forward, while coming to grips with the past.
BTG: If you had to do it all over again, would you?
AP: Of course. And I have urged many people to do it, too, both directly when asked and indirectly through my writing.
BTG: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who’s struggling to move beyond the gray, what would it be?
AP: Get your eyes off your belly button and onto the pavement in front of you or the sky above.
Want to learn more about Alan Paul, Woodie Alan or Big in China? Visit his website (www.alanpaul.net) or follow him on Twitter (@AlPaul).
Watch the Big in China book trailer: