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Why I Should Have Used A Pseudonym For Travel Writing

It’s too late now but would have been a good idea.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- Way back when I first started blogging in 2005 I knew that it was stupid to write online using my actual name. This was long before I began writing for big media — long before people started being denied entry to countries or deported based on what they post on social media or published in articles, way before countries all over the world starting purging foreign content creators so they could more easily deliver to the world their own hand-crafted message. I began my career in the Wild West days of media — where the internet was free and open and nobody took it seriously.

But it was still obvious to me that using my real name was stupid.

That’s why I began writing this blog under a pseudonym.

I’m sure nobody here remembers this, as it only lasted for about a week or two in 2005 — it only lasted for about a week or two until my best friend found out what I was doing and started picking on me:

“Dude, why are you calling yourself Jack? I’m going to start calling you that hahaha. Jack! Hahaha.”

I promptly retreated to my real name.

While I’ve had many big opportunities arise because of this blog — a book deal, Forbes, offers to write for other magazines, etc — I don’t believe that using my real name had anything to do with it. It was more about the content and what I was doing rather than the “brand” behind my name — which didn’t really swing a very big bat at that time. Now things are a little different… I’ve gone too far with “Wade.” There’s no turning back now.

However, I admire the strategy of using a pen name. Authors have been doing this for a really, really long time for a reason: A pseudonym allows a writer to be honest; to not be hamstrung by the fleeting morality, worldview, and government of the time.

But pen names are not so common today — in a day and age where such buffers for content creators are actually more needed than ever.

We now live in an age where even benign technology bloggers are being denied entry to countries and editors of British financial publications can’t even go to some places as tourists. Just yesterday Russia passed a law making online “fake news and insults” illegal.  Fake news and insults is, of course, a euphemism for anything the government doesn’t want to be published.

We are entering a new intellectual dark age.

If you write you willingly provide the bonds of your own repression.

It is inevitable that I’m going to become blacklisted from a large array of the countries in the world, simply because of the fact that I write and shoot video.

I imagine that the technology is getting to the point where I could be denied entry not only at the point of arrival but at the airport on my way out:

The airline swipes my passport and I get a “Sorry, sir, but they’re not going to let you in.”

I’m going to ride this train out for as long as I can, but the writing is on the wall: the governments of the world have figured out how to control their own message. If they want to make a major international publication watch their mouth they deny their reporters visas for a while. China did it with the NY Times and Bloomberg; India did it with the BBC. After serving their punishments, the publications tend to fall in line with what the respective government’s wishes. Self-censorship has become the rule of the day.

Now, as far as the usefulness of a pseudonym goes, if any immigration department decides to do a deep dive into their intelligence files (or whatever) on you it’s going to be more or less useless. The thing is that such deep dives are not common, and, generally speaking, if you’re name clears a normal Google search, you’re in. A pseudonym gives you a certain degree of keyword subterfuge:

If I kept calling myself Jack nothing that I’ve written would show up in a search for Wade.

Oddly, at the same time that nets are tightening around the ability for creators to observe and report on the world they travel through, we also have this big push for transparency — for using real names and identities online. Facebook, Google, they all want our real names. While we’ve been told that this is somehow more ethical and safer, it gives governments, tech companies, law enforcement, employers, and the general public super simple ways to track us, advertise to us, and ban us.

English Teacher X — the mysterious man behind what was probably one of the best travel-related blogs ever written — kept his true identity a secret for a reason. He knew that there was no way that he could write freely using the name if he ever wanted to get jobs or visa again. He would either need to provide a vanilla take on life or create a separate persona. He went the later route, and even after blogging for 15 years and authoring numerous books his literary infamy never caught up with him.

The same can’t be said of William Powell, the guy who wrote The Anarchist Cookbook using his real name when he was 19 years old. For this guy’s entire life he was haunted by it, losing jobs, being ostracized, and forced to live on the run, settling into each new stop with the knowledge that the past would eventually catch up with him.

English Teacher X once joked something to the effect of, “Maybe he should have called himself Anarchist X?”

Maybe I should have called myself Vagabond X?


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Filed under: Blogging, Essays, Media Analysis

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3723 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

37 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Rob March 8, 2019, 2:28 pm

    Your name & all that can be attached to to it is the product that google & facebook sell…

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    • Wade Shepard March 8, 2019, 2:59 pm

      Very true.

      Link Reply
  • sng March 8, 2019, 4:01 pm

    I’ve had the opposite problem, I’ve always kept my name off my website (not by using a pseudonym, just by using the name of the site) and years later no one knows who I am. So I recently added my name to the site, created an about page, the whole bit. It actually never occurred to me that that might backfire down the road.

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    • Wade Shepard March 8, 2019, 5:06 pm

      Yes, definitely. Having an identity is important — how else can you be referred to or “branded” — but whether that identity is the same one that you’re parents gave you is optional. I wouldn’t worry so much about this unless covering controversial topics, news, or if you regularly travel internationally…..No, I take that back. It’s my impression that an alternative online identity is useful no matter what.

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  • Trevor March 8, 2019, 7:19 pm

    Johnny Vagabond was a great name. sadly he passed away cos as well as a great name, he was a great teller of stories.

    Alexander ‘Supertramp’

    The longest way home.. its dave, there aint one pic of him online and no one knows his nationality right ? though i suspect he’s British…????

    I used White Monkey and never put my name anywhere on my site which does, btw, still exist but its hidden. was tired of being famous… lmao

    am gonna come up with a great Q for next time…..

    have a beer for me. im on Dry March..

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    • Wade Shepard March 9, 2019, 11:40 am

      Yes, a name has so much impact on how effectively you can share your story and how much it will resonate. It kind of has to be a name — that’s how people talk. I’ve seen Dave using his full name more often — which I’m pretty sure is his real name. I think not using at least a first name, last name combo he kind of held himself back a little. However, it seems as if he has better things to be doing than the endless struggle of trying to make it in media. Yeah, he’s British.

      Looking forward to your next question!

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  • Jack March 9, 2019, 8:52 am

    Jack isn’t my legal name, but it’s now what everyone knows me by. not really a psuedonyn either…..I went the make up a nickname route.

    Anyways, there are those of us who have a pretty good idea who English Teacher X is but we keep it to ourselves….a good mystery helps the stories.

    I think more important than any pseudonym is a good brand. Build the brand even if you don’t use your real name.

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    • Wade Shepard March 9, 2019, 11:51 am

      I had no idea Jack wash’t your leagal name. I guess you are a perfect example of what I should have done — develop an alternative name so deeply that nobody knows the difference … and then use a legal name that nobody knows for legal things. I actually considered doing this the reverse way: giving myself a new legal name and keeping my media name the same, but I’m going to wait until I start having problems to do this.

      Or maybe I should get ahead of the curve? Actually build up a legal and travel history for the new legal name. That would probably be better.

      I agree completely about the branding behind a pseudonym. That’s all that matters.

      Who is English Teacher X?

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      • Trevor March 9, 2019, 4:38 pm

        Teacher x ‘s first book is free on UK kindle. !!!!

      • Wade Shepard March 9, 2019, 9:11 pm

        Cool. Get it. The guy is good at what he does.

      • Trevor March 10, 2019, 9:00 am

        i got it!!

      • Wade Shepard March 10, 2019, 12:24 pm

        Excellent! Let me know how it is.

      • Wade Shepard March 9, 2019, 9:13 pm

        He really lives the vagabond life — traveling for work.

    • Wade Shepard March 9, 2019, 9:10 pm

      Are you really a John?

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      • Jack March 24, 2019, 7:04 am

        No, I’m not a John at least not since being married lol.

        I can’t remember how I came up with Jack but it works. Everyone knows me as Jack now so it doesn’t create any issues keeping my name straight.

        If you ever choose to legally change your name, I’d suggest going either your middle name and dropping your first name. It will present fewer problems and give you just as much freedom.

      • Wade Shepard March 24, 2019, 4:31 pm

        Haha, cool, Yes, Jack works for you. I like it that I don’t know your real name after all these years …

      • trevor March 24, 2019, 7:06 pm

        i’d recomend using the same first name so when some shouts u will look up.if some one shouts Jonny, but if u r really Wade,u might ignore them and use the first letter of ur family name..

        eg. Wade Smith or Wade Sutton

  • Zhang March 12, 2019, 4:46 am

    Well Wade, governments like China and Russia have been the target of massive American propaganda campaigns. If they didn’t have such controls in place, America would be able to easily destabilize it like Venezuela.

    It’s not directed at random travel bloggers like you.

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    • Wade Shepard March 12, 2019, 11:32 am

      Hello Zhang, Thanks for commenting but I don’t agree with that at all. It’s Chinese / Russian people who are mostly the victims of this censorship, not foreign journalists — we’re almost irrelevant in terms of our impact in these countries. Also, the US government has little influence over the media, so it’s not technically propaganda. However, free market media tends to play to the sentiments of its audience so the effect can come off as being oddly similar.

      Also, please take a look at my bio. I wasn’t talking about my writing on this blog as having such an impact.

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      • Zhang March 13, 2019, 8:01 am

        Hi Wade, as I a Chinese person I most certainly don’t feel that way. The Chinese people mostly not affected by American propaganda is because the Chinese government is doing a fairly good job at filtering it out and been insulated by the language differences.

        During the 2008 I experienced this first hand while traveling in Lhasa. Bands of Tibetian hooligans started ransacking stores and businesses and attacked anyone on the street perceived as “Han” or “Hui”. Resulting in hundreds of people getting hospitalised and millions in property damage. One innocent family of 5 was even burnt alive when they barricaded themselves inside their store and the hooligans set fire to the place. And the cause of it? In the days leading up to the riots, rumours were spread by the Dalai Lama radio stations from Indian border that the Han police were “killing and raping Tibetans” and “engaging in genocide”. No doubt there was some CIA ring leaders involved as well as the violence just came out of nowhere and it happened to coincide with the Chinese Olympic games.

        The US has a well known history of using terrorism and propaganda to destabilize governments. China and Russia been able to minimise the effects does not mean it doesn’t happen, nor does it mean it doesn’t cause damage.

      • Wade Shepard March 13, 2019, 10:54 am

        Hello Zhang, If you could show me some evidence of the US government attempting to destabilize countries with propaganda after the Cold War era I’d like to see it. I’m being honest here. There’s something that you may not understand about the Western media. By design, it is meant to be critical of all governments. In the USA the press is ideally the institution that is tasked with keeping governments and big businesses honest, and the government that the US media is most critical of is its own. This is the opposite of China, where the press is used as a device of the government to keep the people informed of what’s going on.

        What’s your take on the millions of Uighurs locked up in internment camps in Xinjiang?

      • Trevor March 13, 2019, 7:04 pm

        this discussion is now way outta my depth.. lmao

        too tired for another Q for ur Q and A series…but was thinking on along the lines of Q retirement and more specifically pensions for those like me who travel more than work.. my pension pot is /will be worthless BUT i have my own solution of how it will be…

      • Wade Shepard March 13, 2019, 11:48 pm

        Yeah, that’s a little beyond me. I don’t think I will be eligible for any kind of pension or social security. What is your solution that you speak of?

      • Trevor March 14, 2019, 3:30 pm

        i am entitled to gov pension at 65. pro rata most likely as i havnt paid in enough..years on the road/swiss jobs.. but it aint nowhere near enough to live on…. can draw private pensions at 55… thats soon. .

        so my idea…… if i can get outta here, this October, then i will have 4 1/2 years of travel with what i’ve got, then get a boost at 55 which will last a bit longer… by that time, my body will have had enough. im 51 (soon) and i still run around at work, flat out for 10 hrs a day… i will keel over one day,,,,, AND I have no desire to be 65, so no need to worry about having money at that age..

        gonna go out in style…..trekking up a lonely mountain side…off the grid, alone but happy…

      • Wade Shepard March 14, 2019, 3:52 pm

        Disappear off into the sunset… Excellent.

      • Trevor March 14, 2019, 7:47 pm

        For sure!

  • Zhang March 17, 2019, 12:48 pm

    Hi Wade, if you really don’t know, I suggest reading Katherine the Great by Deborah Davis and Operation Mockingbird. Carl Bernstein also wrote a lot about it after he left the Post in the 70’s.

    “You could get a journalist cheaper than a good call girl, for a couple hundred dollars a month.” – transcript of a CIA operative’s conversation with Philip Graham, editor Washington Post, on the availability and prices of journalists willing to peddle CIA propaganda and cover stories. “Katherine The Great,” (New York: Sheridan Square Press, 1991)

    Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins is also a good primer on the mechanics of US destabilisation operations in South America in the last few decades.

    Some recent web articles on this subject I came across:

    Looking at the current examples of the US operations in Syria and Venezuela, and their coverage in the MSM, then reading through the coverage by non-MSM outlets like RT, Global Research, Venezuelanalysis, Telesur, and comparing it with the coverage from the western outlets is good illustration of this in action.

    My reading summary is that propaganda in western media is privatised and embedded. They encourage good discussion between two points in domestic politics to give the illusion of choice, but converge to a T in foreign politics to align with military-industrial complex interests.

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    • Wade Shepard March 18, 2019, 8:25 am

      Hello Zhang, Thanks for sharing.

      US media is vast and there are outlets covering just about everything from every angle.

      I would criticize the MSM more for catering to corporate rather than government influence though — as that’s where the funds come from.

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  • Zhang March 17, 2019, 12:59 pm

    As for my take on the Uighur imprisonment claims in the western media.


    Personally I have also seen videos of these schools on Chinese TV. They’re just normal schools where young people sit at a desk and copy down material from the board in front. Nothing like the lurid descriptions of where “millions get locked up”. Or that they’re internment camps/concentration camps(!) where Uighurs get killed. Funny western MSM only relies on lying words to make their case, but don’t dare to show the videos from Chinese TV. Guess they know it’ll blow their story out of the water!

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    • Wade Shepard March 18, 2019, 8:18 am

      Hello Zhang,

      Thanks for sharing your take on this.

      I had to edit out the section of that post that you quoted because of duplicate content reasons (we can’t have that much text that was published elsewhere appearing on this page). Apologies for that.

      My response to this is that the post that you quoted from was published in 2015, so it may not really be current anymore. There are plenty of people who have researched this topic in-depth for many years who have a different perspectives on this.

      Also, do you think Chinese TV is going to show you something that goes against the interest of the gov? I mean, it’s no secret that Chinese state media is a mouthpiece of the gov — this is almost a form of transparency.

      That’s cool if you believe Chinese state TV. It doesn’t bother me at all, and it probably makes your life way easier at the end of the day. But do you have a thought somewhere deep in your mind that maybe what they’re telling you may not be the truth?

      In the USA, kids are raised from the start to assume that their government, media, and corporations are lying to them. So telling me that the MSM lies or expounds the interests of other sources (mainly the established perspectives of their audience and interests of advertisers) it’s not really news — everybody already knows this.

      However, this has created an entire host of new problems where large portions of the population don’t believe anything the gov and its institutions and MSM say on principle, giving rise to theories like Flat Earth, etc.

      When I was a Chinese medicine student in Hangzhou my professor would sometime say, “Excessive yang creates yin, excessive yin creates yang.” The contrasts between the societies of the US and China sort of exemplifies this: they are so different that they are very similar — zealots believing in nonsense.

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      • Zhang March 22, 2019, 7:58 am

        Is that really the case? I don’t believe most western people think their msm is lying. They think it’s the truth. Most western people I’ve met believe the all lies they hear on msm about China, North Korea, Venezuela etc. Because MSM coverage from the pseudo left-right points converge on the same smear type campaign to demonise countries the US wants to attack.

        Isn’t that the case with you? I mean you think China is rounding up Uighurs in “internment camps” to torture them, killing them or god knows what. Even the word “mouthpiece” to describe foreign media is a CIA propaganda invention. From history, it spawned from CFR media lexicon to influence their viewers, much like “regime”, “pre-emptive strike”, and “brainwashing”. Consider how widespread the usage of these words are and you’d get an idea of just how pervasive propaganda is in the so called free press.

      • Wade Shepard March 23, 2019, 4:46 pm

        I don’t believe you really understand the people you’re talking about as well as you think you do.

      • Zhang March 22, 2019, 8:11 am

        For an additional note, the program on Xinjiang I saw was from last year, not 2015. They had videos of inside the vocation schools, interviews with the students, and background summary of why teaching job skills to young people was the best tool to prevent them from been influenced by extremist propaganda. The statement from the Pakistani poster who’s been to Xinjiang and confirms western MSM coverage to be bs, was also from December 2018. The only part that’s from 2015 was the article from (https://journal-neo.org/2015/09/23/turkish-uyghur-terror-inc-americas-other-al-qaeda/) but that pointedly illustrates the beginnings of the US destabilisation op and how long it’s been going on.

        I also think it’s pretty ironic you decided to edit out large parts of my post in a topic about censorship, but hey ლ(´ڡ`ლ).

      • Wade Shepard March 23, 2019, 4:44 pm

        As I said, we can’t have duplicate content on this site, so you can’t repost large portions of other people’s work in the comments. It’s not a matter of censorship, it’s a matter of copyright infringement.

        I don’t think were going to reach an agreement on this, so let’s stop here.

      • Wade Shepard March 25, 2019, 7:31 am

        I would like to add that it wasn’t just the Western MSM who exposed / condemned the Xinjiang camps, but that of major media sources from around the world, government agencies (including the UN), multiple respected academics whose research focuses on Xinjiang, a plethora of humanitarian organizations, and testimonies from people who were held in these camps. I believe the information coming from such a wide array of sources should be weighted more than Chinese state sponsored propaganda and some guy from Pakistan who traveled to Xinjiang in 2015. Other than that, there’s really no need to continue this conversation. Thanks for reading and the discussion.

      • Jack June 16, 2020, 2:04 pm

        I lived in Karamay. I know the truth about the evils of the Chonese Communist Party. I know that they are committing genocide because I saw the genocide with my own eyes.

      • Wade Shepard June 19, 2020, 11:17 am

        Exactly. Go out there. Talk to people.