Brendan Davis: Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom (#145)
Our Guest Today: Brendan Davis
Brendan Davis is the host of Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom, a weekly podcast about making it big as a foreign fish in the world’s biggest pond – China! Every week from Beijing, host Brendan Davis talks with a fellow foreigner who is doing something challenging, unique or maybe even just a little bit crazy.
Listen to Brendan Davis’ podcast and perhaps drop him a comment here. You can also find Brendan and his show on Facebook, Twitter and WeChat (search for ID “BrendanDavis”).
- [06:00] Fei and Brendan explain how they connected
- [10:00] Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom show navigates how foreigners live in China. Can you tell us more about that?
- [13:00] How do you think about downloads, sponsorship and getting paid for your podcast, given that you have other work and projects to do in China as well?
- [16:00] How was your life in Georgia when you were a kid, before moving to LA?
- [22:00] How did you decide to move to LA, what was the motivation and how was that transition like?
- [28:00] What’s your opinion towards Asian culture? What are some of the things you found in common, and that you found different?
- [29:00] What is your network of friends in Beijing right now? Are they mostly expats, or locals?
- [35:00] Have you met other Americans living there? Where are they from?
- [38:00] What is some of the food you regularly eat, examples of things you’ve discovered? Do you cook your own food or dine out often?
- [39:00] Where do you live and hang out in Beijing?
- [41:00] How is the housing and rental market like in Beijing?
- [42:00] Could you share some final thoughts for people coming to China? What would you recommend to them?
[27:00] I think I always, probably from the bouncing around and the disconnected childhood, I always felt like the new guy. When I would meet students or people from a foreign country, I always felt that I could relate. As they were trying to settle in its home, but where nothing really felt 100% like home…
[35:00] In the past, foreigners used to be able to get away with almost everything frankly. But over the last 10 years, you have to come here in the spirit of partnership and humility and willingness to learn and work, and that’s the only thing that works. People who don’t have a clear mission, if you don’t have a clear mission, it’s going to be pretty brutal here.
[45:00 ]I would encourage everyone coming here to keep an open mind, and for Chinese listeners, to know that there are plenty of people like me, that are here sincerely, where we want to be part of things, and helping to improve the world for all of us a little bit.
Transcript of Interview With Brendan Davis.
Fei Wu [6:34] So Brendan, first of all, I definitely want to welcome you to Feisworld. And it’s such a rare opportunity for us to connect this way. We connected through another podcaster whose goal is to record something like 10 episodes a day.
Brendan [6:54] Thanks, Fei, I’m really glad to talk to you in this way. And that’s Engel Jones, this really interesting guy. He is from and is still based in Trinidad and Tobago. And he contacted me through LinkedIn, he basically sent a request about being on his show, and I checked the show out, thought that sounded cool and said: “Absolutely, I’d love to”. And he does this thing called “12minconvos with Engel Jones”. You’ve been on the show, too, and when I was checking his show out, you had been a guest pretty recently. So I skimmed a lot of his most recent handful of episodes. And honestly, I saw a Chinese name and I thought: “Oh”, and I saw a little blurb about you. So I thought okay, I’ll start here because, again, I thought: “Oh, actually, someone with a Chinese name, maybe there’s some synergy with what I’m doing”. But I mean, I wasn’t trying to peg you as a guest. It was more just to hear your story because I figured it’d be interesting. And I was right. My instinct was correct.
Fei Wu [8:04] Yeah, so you reached out to me from there, and you put me on your show, “Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom”, which really piqued my interest as well because I feel like we’re, in a way, trading places: I’m permanently living in the US, Boston specifically, but you’ve actually been living in my home country, which is China, Beijing for the past year or two years.
Brendan [8:30] Yeah, about that. Yes, I moved here in May of 2016, so I’ve been living here a little over a year and a half. But I’ve been back and forth for over four years now.
Fei Wu [8:41] You started this show, I listened to a few episodes and I was thinking “wow, I want to know more”.
Where Does Your Audience Come From?
Fei Wu [9:51] I had originally imagined that your audience would be expats living in China, or people who want to know how do they go about moving to China by themselves or with their family. But to my own surprise, I found the show to be really interesting, because as a Chinese person born and raised in China, I’m still very interested in how foreigners are living in China, which today has really become the norm. There are a lot of you guys over there versus compared to the 80s and 90s.
Brendan [9:29] Sure, your instinct is right. And I appreciate what you said because it tells me that the focus of the show is translating. There are a lot of shows out there.
I’ve been planning to start a podcast for years. Also, I didn’t want us to live in LA and I was planning to move to China, so I knew there would be some connection, but the concept became more and more focused after I’ve lived here for a while. And I have already had the concept six months before I started it in late 2016, but I just didn’t have the time to do it. I was here helping to build another business and it was very, very hectic.
I’m trying to do a show that actually can reach a wider audience. I’m wanting to do something that goes a lot deeper. I’m no trying to solve people’s daily mundane problems there’re plenty of blogs that do that. I would be happy to partner with some of those and put them on my website. But for me, I really want to do something that’s my version. I go for something that’s in-depth but has personality.
My first questions are always “Who are you? Where are you from? And for you, why China? Why did you make the move?” I’m trying to be my version of Tim Ferriss, super detailed, but then more like Mark Marin show where’s a lot of emotional connection and figuring out what motivated people.
The audience is roughly one third to one half China-based, which is kind of interesting. And then it’s consistently about one third from the US. The rest is spread out around the world. And what’s really crazy is the last time I checked stats, it was 78 countries. I mean, there were like a handful of people in Pakistan who listened to the show. And I think there’re about 18 or 20 people who seem to consistently listen somewhere in Iran. So it’s just all over the place. But anecdotally, it is heavy on expats in China. It’s also bilingual Chinese people who are interested to know more about the strangers, you know. Then it’s people like you – the Chinese diaspora, who are out amongst the English, and then there are just people who are curious about weirdos like me who would do this.
Fei Wu [12:34] Thanks for giving us that level of detail. What I find really exciting about the conversation with you is that in retrospect, I haven’t really had that many conversations with real podcasters who are doing this day in and day out.
When You Were Doing a Podcast on Top of Having a Job and Living in a Foreign Country, How Were You Thinking About Downloads, Sponsorships, and Yet Getting Paid?
Brendan [13:17] Yeah, well, I’m thinking that those are aspirational goals.
I definitely hear what you’re saying. For me, one of the primary reasons I do the show – it’s helpful for me, it gets my name out there. And as you know, it’s a way for me to communicate, it lets me meet interesting and cool new people and talk to people. But the biggest reason I do the show – I’m trying to flatten the world and make the connections a little less distant. The most fundamental benefit for me day-to-day – it’s a mental health exercise. Guys working as producers of film and TV, the fact is that in their industry it takes forever to get something done, and there’re no guarantees – with this, the podcast is a production that I can control top to bottom and deliver every week. I love that idea. It’s such a mental health blessing to do this for me, honestly.
Fei Wu [14:46] I think we should both write about that. And I love it when we get so raw and just get to have someone ask ourselves that question in a safe environment where we can really think deep about it. Because I gotta say that if we asked 10 or even 100 podcasters, it really wouldn’t surprise me that our answers are not the only ones, that this very message resonates with so many people in the world today, especially those who are pursuing creative endeavors.
I worked in advertising for a long time, 10+ years, consulting. And I couldn’t agree more in terms of working days, and nights, and weekends, and having absolutely no guarantee that the project would even launch. And it’s not even about putting our names on it to be able to brag about it, but just being able to do that was such an impossible and painful endeavor. And then here you are, anyway, and that’s just so liberating to be able to choose your own path and make your own decisions, you know, like a grown-up.
Tell Us About Your Life in Georgia as a Little Kid Before Your Transition to la Into the Film and TV Industry.
Brendan [16:51] I won’t take you too far back, but I was also around acting and theatre and things like that. My parents both did different levels of performance. My dad did some sort of semi-professional stuff. And they divorced when I was really young, about seven years old, and I was kind of back and forth. I’ve lived all over the southeast, not just Georgia, but mostly Georgia. I say that Atlanta is basically my hometown by default. But I really grew up half in Atlanta or around that area, and then half in this small town in Alabama called Aniston.
I moved to LA from Atlanta. As an adult, I lived in Atlanta for years. But my mom is from this place called Anniston, Alabama. And her parents about the most consistent people in my life, you know, because they stayed in the house. It’s like the second house that you know. They married and built a house, And that’s the house they were in for decades and decades. And my grandmother – decades after my grandfather died.
So growing up, I was a pretty weird kid, and that I very much created fantasy worlds. We moved so much that I was always the new kid. I was in 10 different schools over the course of 12 years. So I was always the new kid and was not naturally athletic. I was naturally musician, so I was able to make friends. And now I joke that my first career is failed rock star. I was a hard rock guitar player. And growing up, the assumption was that I was going to actually be like a professional guitar player. That was my assumption. I ended up having a professional band, and everybody who plays at all has their high school band, and maybe in college, and I had that band too. But I actually formed a real professional band, where everybody but me had been signed to a major label. I mean, it was like a real band. We were showcasing four major labels, we were on TV, and that was on Star Search in 1995.
Fei Wu [19:37] I assume, this was when you were in your 20s?
Brendan [19:39] Yeah, from about 21 to 28-29.
Fei Wu [19:51] Hmm, interesting.
So, you know, I realized that people struggle with guests’ professions: there’s an FBI agent, and there’s an artist, and there’s a Cirque du Soleil performer. That’s a little confusing, but I think at the end of the day, everybody who has been on the show is a self-made artist, and many of them are unsung heroes who have touched so many people, have done tremendous things in life, but not at all household names, that you wouldn’t even bother to find out about them.
What I also love about the journey of talking to different people is simply showing others that people like us or like them have not and will not give up on our dreams. And it takes maturity. So I think your journey as a rock star, and as a film producer, and now doing a podcast – it seems small compared to something like Uber’s success, but the making of it is the journey, and I feel like it’s so often missing in popular media, therefore, it gives people the false assumption of overnight success. They imagine it being something like six months to a year, and that’s also false.
How Did You Transition Into the Media Industry After Moving to La?
Brendan [21:47] Sure. So my degree was in the film. I had been working, doing live sound, I was mixing shows at clubs and ended up doing bigger shows later. But I mixed music as a job while I was in college, while I had my band. After college, pursuing the band, but paying the bills, I switched into doing sound for film and TV. So I was a production sound engineer, I was a boom operator, I was a utility sound guy. So working on film and TV shows I did the technical work on other people’s shows for about 12 years. I worked all over the US, Canada. And I had always wanted to move to LA. I was always drawn to California, had never been there before I moved, I made plans a few times, once just testing the waters and once was kind of serious. Then I got really busy and it didn’t make sense to leave.
But things lined up. So, my house was near the airport in Atlanta. And I was in a place where the planes didn’t fly overhead, but you could hear them all the time. I woke up one morning early and was going to head into work. And I didn’t realize something was strange, I had no idea what was going on, but I got up and got my coffee and kind of sat down in the living room. I was just sitting there thinking something felt really off. And I realized it was completely quiet outside. I turned on the TV and watched the second plane flying to the tower. So yeah, it was the morning of September 11. That made me realize I’ve got to do what I need to do here, you know. I’m going to move. Yes, I didn’t have everything figured out yet, I’d got a house, but I figured it out.
I’ve been all over the country, but I’ve not been to California until I moved.
Fei Wu [24:26] That’s really interesting how we make our decisions. I’ve heard several stories of people making life decisions based on that moment of reality and truth and just clarity.
How Many Years Did You End up Spending in La?
Brendan [24:51] I lived in Los Angeles 14 years prior to moving to Beijing. So I moved to LA in the summer of 2002, and I moved to China in May of 2016.
So I moved to LA specifically to switch back into writing, producing and directing, which was what I studied in school, I love doing the technical work. That’s part of why I enjoyed doing the podcast – because I can edit. It’s my little chance to do that, so I moved to LA with the intention to flip the switch on that. And I still worked a few years in the technical world to pay the bills, but I was able to start doing that. I made a short film, it didn’t set the world on fire, but it was shortlisted for the Sundance Film Festival. I did not get in, but I got to meet a lot of people that led to the first feature film that I produced, which led to the next one, and so on. So I produced a bunch of independent feature films. And several things that I’ve had been lucky to have was being part of films that played at all the major festivals around the world. I started to get a little attention, although I wasn’t the creator of those. One of my mentors says “you can get rich producing, but you can’t earn a living” because it’s feast or famine, in a way, and until you really do have some giant hit that financially sets you up, it is a really a grind. And that’s true for writers, directors, and especially the actors.
Fei Wu [27:03] What I do think is very interesting is that as a Chinese person who has lived in the US now for half of my life, I noticed something really fascinating going on: yes, I have a lot of American friends, obviously, and I also have a good number of Chinese friends. But in comparison, there are a small fraction of my local American friends. I feel like I know a lot of people like you and similar to you who find themselves to be so intrigued, so fascinated by Asian culture. And they find themselves as if they’re almost stuck in a way that they are so shocked by how much in common and how much they have to say and share with their Asian friends.
Did You Find Yourself Feeling That You Have a Lot in Common With Asian People When You’re Living in THE US?
Brendan [28:08] Yeah, probably because of the bouncing around and the disconnected childhood I always felt like the new guy. So when I would meet people who were from a foreign country, I just felt like I could relate, you know. They’re trying to settle into a place where I live, but yet, nothing ever felt 100% like home. So I think there was a connection.
Fei Wu [28:44] On the other hand, I’ve also come across people who are incredibly uncomfortable connecting with people from a different culture. And then, here’re people like myself, who really are from a different culture, to begin with, and we now get thrown into a hodgepodge, a place like the US where we get to meet everybody.
I noticed that people from certain cultures are really only comfortable and would prefer to hang out with people from that country and speak that language, whereas I absolutely love meeting people from all around the world. I love meeting their families, I love homemade meals made by their parents and their grandparents, I love listening to funky music. You were just telling me that story, and that’s kind of how I felt too. So now it’s no surprise that you ended up nowhere near home. That’s really cool.
Who Are Your Friends in Beijing Right Now? Are They Mostly Expats or Local People That You Just Bumped Into?
Brendan [30:03] Great question. I mean, I have plenty of local friends. I had quite literally several hundred Chinese students, and a lot of them are back here. And through that, through them, I met people. I don’t hang out with former students that much, but definitely, a few of us are connected.
You know, up until recently, I’ve mostly known Chinese people. I don’t hang out in the expat bubble at all. Why not? Let me walk that back. I mean, that’s not a position, I should say that I used to rarely hang out with the expat bubble, and in the previous company that I was building, I was the only foreigner. But fairly recently, in the last few months, because of the podcast, I was meeting foreigners. And I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the food and beverage world, who own or run a bunch of the bars and restaurants, or the Beijinger, which is the big English language media outlet here. And by getting to know a lot of these people, all of a sudden, I realized that these people who’ve been here for 10-20 years are all gathered together. So I’ve sort of gotten to know a lot of people pretty recently, but most of the people I deal with day-to-day are actual Chinese people.
Let’s Talk About Expats for a Second. What Is the Breakdown of Their Nationalities? Are They Mostly Americans or Are They Equally Divided From All Over the World?
Brendan [32:18] I know that that South Koreans are actually the largest expat group in China, followed by Americans and then followed by Europeans. And in terms of my world, Americans are probably the dominant group. But also there’re people from Switzerland, and Belgium, and Singapore, Canada.
Fei Wu [33:06] I also think Americans are exposed to a lot of Asian cultures, believe it or not. And where are these Americans from? Like, which states? Where did they last stay in the States?
Brendan [33:36] Well, it’s funny. So I’m a primarily a producer, and I’m working to build a new company right now, so I actually don’t have a job other than producing Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom. And what I can say right now without jinxing is that there is one American partner and there’s a Chinese guy. The Chinese guy is from Guangzhou, and the American guy is from Michigan, but he became a Hollywood guy, and then he moved to Australia. So he’s been all over the world.
And that’s what I mean. I know Americans who were here, a lot of the entertainment people – a lot of them are from LA, some – from New York. But most people I know in LA are from someplace else. They aren’t natives. What I could say that I think everybody would nod their heads and agree with is that you have to have this interest in the spirit of adventure to be here. In the past foreigners could get away with everything, but now you have to come here with a spirit of partnership and humility and wanting to learn and work. That’s the only thing that works. And people who don’t have a clear mission, it’s going to be pretty brutal here.
Fei Wu [35:31] Yeah, I can imagine that. And I loved it when you said foreigners used to get away with anything. And I remember that being the case when I was very young. I remember there were shopping malls that are only people with white skin and blue eyes can get into. And by the way, that was such a turn off for my family. I remember that was something that left such bitter taste in the conversations that just went around. I remember as a kid, my mom had something so strongly against it.
There’s a very old shopping mall in the center of Beijing which had a lot of luxury brands. I remember when I was five or six, my mom would take me there to get certain things, but will always teach me what the brand represented. And then obviously, for many reasons, we wouldn’t go there because we didn’t feel like it served us and respected us. When I first got to the US, it was a very different environment where I felt like I need to behave and really build a reputation for Chinese people. And now, these days, the whole thing just keeps on shifting while I’m still here.
You know, I think you really pinpointed something just about 5-10 minutes ago, it’s really an advice for people who are thinking about moving to China or elsewhere. I encourage especially young people to consider it, maybe either in school or after school, go to a country where you do not speak the language, that will be most ideal. Try to live and enjoy the culture and not just survive. Have fun! You know, a few weeks or even six months just doesn’t feel like enough. But once you reach a year, there’re so many stories you could tell.
Do You Make Yourself Chinese Food?
Brendan [38:23] I mean, I do. I’ve always loved Chinese food, even before I had “real” Chinese food, living in Los Angeles. There’s an area east of Los Angeles called San Gabriel. It’s a series of different cities and towns, and there are over 2000 authentic Asian restaurants, mostly Chinese, and then Korean, and the Japanese, with old grandmas who are, you know, bringing the spices back in their suitcase, so it is legit. That’s where I got a lot of really authentic Chinese food with Chinese friends in Los Angeles to kind of prepare myself.
Where Do You Typically Hang Out in Beijing?
Brendan [[39:15] Well, I live in Shilibao. So for the people who have never been here in Beijing – the expats’ bubble is really centered in this area called Sanlitun. There’s Taikoo Li Shopping Center in Sanlitun, there’re probably hundreds of bars and restaurants around there. And it’s this giant center of all these western and local brands to buy, like high-end stuff and daily stuff. That is a convenient place where I meet people a lot. But I also try to meet locally, there’re some great places near my home because I’m in a really convenient area for meeting and whatnot. And I also get up this really cool funky Arts District. It was like converted industrial warehouse place, but now there’s world-class art galleries and boutiques and restaurants, there’re lots of meeting spaces. Co-working has become a giant thing here. So there are some pretty cool co-working places, there’s this outlet called Naked hub, which has become this giant brand. It’s like Wework but more upscale.
Fei Wu [40:47] It’s kind of crazy. I just feel that I’m living vicariously through you right now. You’re talking about my hometown, where I spent half of my life, but so often when I go back, I don’t even recognize it, I’m lost all the time. I’m shocked. So this is really interesting.
What Is Rent Like in Beijing?
Brendan [41:13] I mean, there’s a huge range. I mean, there are people who are expats, who are executives with a company, and they come here and they will get maybe 20,000 or 30,000 RMB a month of housing allowance. So their apartments that are two-bedroom or three-bedroom apartments for people that maybe have a family, who are sort of the Executive Class of folks. But. for instance, I have a lovely studio apartment, and it’s 7000 RMB a month. But if you live in a place that’s funkier, you could pay half that to have a room in a shared apartment. I just have to live by myself.
What Are Some of the Final Thoughts You’d Like to Share?
Brendan [42:24] Wrapping up, this is an adventure for me, and I really do enjoy sharing it. That’s, again, a big reason why I created my podcast. You can learn about the show on my site, and you can contact me through there, there’re links to everything.
But I would say that again, but my personal mission for being here is related to wanting to learn and discover and be part of this future that is being grown as we speak. You know, with all the geopolitical stuff going on, educate yourself, don’t believe everything you read, and definitely, regardless of where you fall politically, don’t believe what any politicians have to say. The truth is probably somewhere between all those opinions, with a lot less rhetorical heat behind it. There are plenty of great sources where you can get less biased, but more accurate insight into China. So for me, I would encourage anybody listening outside of China, to keep an open mind. And for any Chinese listeners or displaced Chinese folks who happen to be listening to this – there are plenty of people like me who are here sincerely and want to be part of things and to help improve the world for all of us a little bit.
Fei Wu [43:57] I love that. It’s so gentle and beautiful. Brendan, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for reaching out to me and giving me the opportunity to connect with you. I’m sure because of this there are so many more stories that will be shared. And yeah, thank you so much. It’s been great.
Brendan [44:18] Thank you, Fei, I really love your show. And next time you’re in Beijing, let me know!
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