I landed in Beijing on June 16th, 2014, in the early afternoon on a one-way ticket from Boston. I had just turned 24. China was not new to me. I’d been before in 2011 when I had studied in Kunming and also before that in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo. But this was my first time in the nation’s capital and I thought it’s very grey here.
I stayed with a friend from a study abroad program at the Beijing University of Science and Technology. When she and others asked what I was doing in China I’d get shy and mumble, “freelance journalism”, and felt like a five year old saying, “I want to be an astronaut”.
I wasn’t confident because I really didn’t know what a freelance journalist was or if I could even be one and I usually stumbled when I tried to explain anything. I’d come to China off a whim and depending on who I was talking to they’d either be impressed or think I was an idiot.
Now, seven months later I can answer people with more assuredness. I have written and shot for the Diplomat, the Daily Telegraph, VICE, Al-Jazeera and the BBC, among others. In the name of “journalism”, I have been smuggled into rebel-held territory in Myanmar from China, toured refugee camps, reported on one of the year’s largest and most daring democracy movements, sampled hairy stinky tofu and tracked down a Hunanese peasant who claimed that a tea brewed from animal feces had cured her cancer. I sampled that too.
Journalism, when done right, is an adventure. Let me explain. Journalism is many things and one form isn’t necessarily better then another. I’ve never wanted to report on expensive condos or failed furniture stores and I don’t ever plan to. Doing journalism right for me means reporting on things that I find interesting/engaging/unique/weird/impactful. I didn’t have to go to Asia to find those things but I did because I think it’s easier to find those things there and also I could survive better off what I was making in Asia.
When I started out I was getting about one project a month on average. That’s about $200 give or take. In China, it can buy you several dozen bowls of noodles or dumplings and several nights in a decent hostel. In America it might buy you a few nights in a shitty motel and a few Chipotle burritos which are also shitty.
So that’s why I went to Asia to begin my career as a freelance journalist. Like I said, I had been to the continent before as a tourist and a student, but never as a writer. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of doing reporting there and I figured I’d just wing it. I majored in Chinese Studies and International Affairs in school. I also knew that not having a “Journalist Visa” in China and doing journalism there is technically illegal so I would have to be mindful of what I wrote and how I collected information. I had had a good experience in Washington DC before I left, interning for an international affairs journal which improved my writing and news analysis skills, but besides that I was pretty green. Pretty damn green, I’ll tell ya.
Networking and travel
If journalism is about anything it is about people and if you want to be a journalist damn it you have to be okay interacting with people on the reg. And not just while working on a story but also while networking.
Networking is an annoying and silly thing when done wrongly but when done right it is beautiful and invaluable. If you are an aspiring journalist and are not getting out there and meeting with professional journalists you are doing it wrong.
The best thing I did during my first few months in China, mostly when I was in Beijing, was network. How does one find working writers? you might be thinking. I’ll give you a hint: Twitter and Google. Unless they’re a jerk or legitimately too swamped most writers are open to meeting and talking about their careers. Everyone’s been a beginner before.
I met with many journalists to fill in the blank spots in my head about freelancing while in Beijing: How do I pitch stories? What makes a story? How do I find stories? How do I organize my notes? How much do places pay? And most of the time journos would provide me with the contact info of someone else I could talk to or an editor I could pitch my half-baked pitches to. Everyone who makes it in this world is a good networker. (Full disclosure: I met Lu-Hai through networking).
I remember one journalist I contacted way in the beginning of my journalistic journey, right after I graduated from college (University of Colorado ’13!). I’d found his website online after reading one of his stories in Outside magazine and sent him an email. I was looking for a mentor and the subject of his dispatch—an American militant training Burmese rebels in the jungle—showed me that he was the kind of journalist I could learn a thing or two from. We kept in touch through the months and one day in China I Skyped with him, feeling kind of bummed at the time because I had gotten some pitches I was confident about turned down. “Who cares?” he said, “Really dude, who cares? You’re gonna get tons of stories knocked down. Everyone does”.
It meant a lot to me at the time and still does. You’re gonna get tons of stories knocked down. Everyone does. Who cares? Learn from it.
A lesson from failure
One of my biggest learning experiences happened two months into my time in China and it involved failure. I was in Xinjiang, a gigantic province in China’s northwestern frontier where violence often breaks out between the region’s Muslim Uyghur minority and the Han Chinese. I’d always wanted to go there because of its remoteness and natural beauty and it made for a convenient end-destination for my westward journey from Beijing, it being the most westward place in China.
I pitched a story to Al Jazeera before I got there on the state of Uyghur nationalism, and the editor commissioned the story. The idea came to me from a paragraph in a Lonely Planet guidebook about a town outside Kashgar called Yensigar. It mentioned that this town was the birthplace of a famous 20th century Uyghur nationalist though the Chinese government tried to keep that under wraps. That got me thinking about what Uyghur nationalism was like today. I looked into the topic and found only academic writing; nothing in the mainstream press about it.
I figured it would be interesting and important for the average reader to know about in regards to the Xinjiang issue so that’s how I came up with the idea to write about it. Keep in mind I had never done any actual reporting before this. All of my published work was news analysis stuff, which is all done on Google. So a couple weeks later I wrote the story up and sent it to my editor. What follows is the entirety of his response:
Regretfully, this piece won’t work the way it is. It appears that you did not interview anyone except for a quote from a student who didn’t give her name, and a comment about sharp knives from a knife maker. Have you interviewed anyone else for this piece?
It was disheartening and they ended up killing the piece. I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty sour about it. It felt like the first time getting dumped. However, after a couple of reworkings I was able to publish it elsewhere. But more importantly I learned something from that first kill: know exactly what the editor wants before you get started. Does he want an opinionated analysis piece or just a light introduction to the issue? Does she want 1000 words or 2000? It seems obvious but sometimes you get excited and before you know it you’re halfway through making a pizza that your customer didn’t order.
Follow your gut
On the flipside it’s also okay to follow your gut with a story and throw any worry about editors out the window. At least that’s what New Yorker correspondent and China-hand Peter Hessler told me over the phone: “I found querying unnecessary, I think it’s better to just write the story and try to sell it”.
I’d seen on Peter’s Facebook fan page (which is run by his sister) that he was set to give a talk at the Shanghai Museum of Modern Art. I was in Beijing when I saw it but would be in Shanghai at the same time as the talk. A week later I went to the event. I approached him during the post-show book signing, which was the wildest book signing I’d ever seen. It appeared I was the only westerner there—he gave the talk in Chinese and it wasn’t widely advertised in the English press—and his hordes of Chinese fans were going nuts for him to sign their copies of River Town and Country Driving (his second book Oracle Bones is banned in mainland China).
I asked Peter after he spoke if he’d be down to talk shop with me some time. He agreed and handed me his business card in between autographs, grinning at the absurdity around us. We spoke a few days later over the phone. Him being one of my favorite writers, I was nervous. But he ended up doing most of the talking and was quite friendly; after nearly an hour of speaking with me he said, “I should probably get going, someone is waiting for me. Is that okay?”
Peter gave me some good tips—write up the story in lieu of pitching, get out of the major cities and into the country—but the real takeaway for me from that conversation was that even the most successful writers come from humble beginnings. During Peter’s first year as a freelancer in Beijing, he couldn’t foresee the success that would eventually come to him and of course he felt doubt and anxiety over his decision to do freelance journalism in China. He weathered his fair share of rejections, like we all do, and he didn’t always feel on top of things. As someone going through those same ups and downs, it was reassuring to hear that it’s just part and parcel of the job, especially from someone who’s risen to the top of that job.
It ended up being bought for $500 by an independent literary journal
So I followed Peter’s advice a month later in Guangdong province. Back in Xinjiang I’d met a European couple who had told me about a strange city they had been teaching English in called Shantou. It was a beat-up, forgotten cesspool of a place, large swaths of which were run by Chinese criminal organizations and governed by a corrupt collection of disgraced cadres. It sounded like a juicy story but after a quick internet search I found there was little to nothing written about it. I decided to go, thinking I’d surely find something interesting to write about. China (and Asia in general) is such a fascinating place that in most spots you go you can find a story if you look hard enough. 90% of the time if I decided to go somewhere off a whim I’d find something. It’s just a matter of doing a bit of research beforehand, talking to locals and being receptive, curious and alert about what’s happening around you while you’re there.
I had my European friends connect me with an American who taught journalism at the local university there (which is rated one of China’s best) and through him I met the subject of my story: a scholar of religion and a passionate connoisseur of heavyweight boxing. I thought he was interesting and without making any pitches I wrote a profile on him called “Boxing and God in Shantou”. It ended up being bought for $500 by an independent literary journal called The Magazine, managed by a wonderful writer and editor named Glenn Fleishman. In that single story my trip to that Guangdong backwater was paid for and then some. That’s freelancing at its best for me: going to interesting places and doing interesting things then getting paid for it.
My most exciting time as a journalist happened in November, after more than five months of backpacking through China. I had recently decided I would go to Myanmar and I was reaching out to journalists who’d done work there, trying to get a picture of the place before I arrived. A photojournalist in Beijing connected me with another photojournalist who often works in that country and when I emailed him he said he was in a place called Laiza, a frontier town on the Yunnan-Myanmar border and the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar’s second largest armed ethnic group. When we spoke over the phone a few days later I asked him how he got to Laiza as it’s closed to foreigners. “Ah it’s easy,” he said calmly. So I decided to go and he connected me with the fixer who would arrange transport for me from China. I didn’t know what I would find there but I figured even if I couldn’t find anything to write about, I would just be happy to see the place for myself.
The war between the KIA and the Burmese army, the world’s longest running civil war, picked up in 2011 after the breaking of a 17-year ceasefire and ever since it’s been a tense situation. Laiza is run by the KIA and the Myanmar central government has no control there. I knew I was taking a chance. Chinese border guards could intercept me before I got in (or on my way out) and then there was the possibility of violence. But I did my research, talked to people who knew about the situation and decided that the reward outweighed the risk.
On the second day I was there a Burmese army shell landed on a mountain-top military training academy three miles outside of the town, killing 23 young cadets and injuring many more. It was the worst single attack on the KIA since the breaking of the ceasefire. When I heard the news from my fixer I thought, “Well this is it”. I got on Twitter to see if any of the major publications were covering it and saw a Tweet by the BBC Myanmar correspondent Jonah Fisher, “Kachin rebels say 20 cadets killed after their parade shelled by Burmese army. If verified casts doubts over alot. Potentially v serious”. I Tweeted at him, “Jonah I am here now, in Laiza. Confirmed killed is 21 so far, 11 injured in three mortars shot at Officers Training Academy.” and he responded, “@bcamcrane have you got a number? can i call you?”.
We connected over Skype, he asked if I could shoot video, I said yes and next thing I knew I was working for the BBC, one of the most well-respected news agencies in the world. Jonah wanted me to shoot footage of the shelling site and the burial the following morning. That next day was a whirlwind of reporting unlike any I had ever experienced. I had done several stories before this but this was by far the most timely story. The attack came out of nowhere and the BBC needed footage and information ASAP. It was truly newsy reporting and my first time doing it.
At sunset, Adam, my KIA-provided fixer, drove me up on his sputtering motorcycle to the site of the previous day’s shelling, up winding, cobblestoned roads through verdant mountains. After that we headed to the burial where I counted 23 grave sites freshly dug in a jungle clearing. Dozens of KIA soldiers and officers as well as soldiers from other ethnic armies were gathered for the ceremony. A huge stack of locally made AK-47 assault rifles were leaning up against a thick grey tree. I was the only westerner there. Later I met with a colonel from the KIA in an old casino converted into the KIA War Office. In his room the stoic colonel presented me with maps and through a translator explained why he was certain the attack was unprovoked.
It took several hours to upload all of the footage and then send it over the crappy internet to Jonah (here is the published video). By the end of the day I was exhausted but I felt as if I’d reached a new plateau as a journalist and I wouldn’t have gotten there without taking that risk to enter Laiza.
I’d say that the biggest challenge for me was maintaining my professional aspirations while on the road
I chose my itinerary by going to places where I thought I’d be able to find stories and also places where I knew people or had connections. If you are choosing between two spots and in one of them you have a connection with someone who lives there, you must always choose that place. As a journalist, having a local explain the ropes is invaluable. But I was also committed to only taking buses and trains because 1.) I hate planes and 2.) traveling overland is a much better way to experience a country. That made my itinerary planning easier too because it limited my choices and kept things linear.
While in China I made it to 18 of its 22 provinces. I’ve seen more of that country then I have of my own. China’s transportation infrastructure is very good and it is also very consistent.
You can visit a train station in Shanghai and one in Urumqi, which are 2,500 miles apart, and they’re going to be 99% the same in appearance and procedure. My itinerary planning was made infinitely easier too because I was for the most part traveling alone. If there were no tickets available for one place I could simply buy a ticket to another, without having to consult the preferences of a travel partner and it was always easy to find lodgings. There’s nothing wrong with traveling with friends but if you are committed to working as a writer on the road it helps to be alone.
I traveled through China and Burma for just over six months. Until I bought my plane ticket home, I was running a profit (though a very small one). My biggest expenses during my travel in Asia were my train tickets, which ran from $20 to $80. Also my 18-day stay in Hong Kong, where food and drinks are about the same as New York, was not cheap. But money is not why I got into journalism and I never expected to come out of Asia ready to buy a Rolex. What I learned over there is worth more then money. Beyond the crash-course in journalism, I made great friends and acquired invaluable life skills: a stronger patience, a new sense of empathy, social malleability and a deeper understanding and appreciation of cultural relativity.
…risk in eating nothing but ramen for long durations of time
Language was only an issue when I allowed it to be one; with enough creativity and without frustration one can bypass any language barriers. Of course it helped that my Mandarin is decent but I’m certainly not fluent and still encountered plenty of incomprehensible moments, especially in the more remote provinces where the accents can be challenging. I didn’t find it hard to live out of a suitcase. You’d be surprised how quickly you adjust to that. I didn’t have much of an issue with the food either; I only got sick three times and each bout was over in a day. I’d say that the biggest challenge for me was maintaining my professional aspirations while on the road. It’s a lot harder to write a story in a completely new town with shitty internet then it is to do so in the comfort of your own bedroom or a trusted cafe. Whenever I got to a new place and had an assignment to write I’d ask around for the quietest cafe with the best WiFi but often my searches would end in vain. In noisy China solitude is a hard thing to come by.
If you are a writer reading this, as I have assumed most of you are, then I hope that you can find something of use here. But I also hope that you adapt what I’ve said to fit your own situation. Everybody has their own individual comfort levels, financial needs and time restrictions. I’ve always loved the idea of being a writer because it comes with a completely customizable career path and no single writer’s journey ends up the same as another’s.
However, I will say that in the path of all of my favorite writers there has been a consistent element and that is the risk factor—and I don’t necessarily mean danger. Risk in traveling to a foreign place, risk in writing about an under-reported topic, risk in blindly following a lead, risk in experimenting with a different style, risk in eating nothing but ramen for long durations of time. Being a successful writer is an extraordinary job and no one gets to have an extraordinary job without doing extraordinary things. You just have to decide what extraordinary means for you and act accordingly.
I booked a flight to Myanmar on Friday. It’s a one-way ticket. My situation here in Beijing has changed a little. I am now part-time at the Chinese TV company where I’ve been working for over a year. The salary I draw from them is now low enough for me to consider jumping ship, to other jobs, or even to cut loose, though I still consider Beijing my base.
It’s been very cold, although the days now are warming swiftly. The first part of the year in Beijing is always tough. The feeling is one of getting through the depressing days – and difficult for a freelancer I feel. Although commissions have been forthcoming, the motivation to complete them is low. Simply because the sun-deprived body and the comfort-seeking mind dreams of future summery days and craving small satisfactions in the meantime. A bonus of maintaining this blog however is that I can look back to blog posts from the same time last year and see that I felt the same mixture of misery and ennui, and that I eventually got over it.
I bought a TV. I also bought a one-way ticket to Myanmar. How are these two things connected? They aren’t so much as they point to different paths. The TV (which I use to play my Playstation 3) points to my increasing reliance on Beijing and its related comforts: friends, familiar bars and routines. The ticket out is exciting, quite scary and a path to very many unknowns. I am intending, once I arrive, to journey south, eventually reaching the former capital Yangon, although I do want to explore the coastline also. I might even head to Vietnam after. I have not too much money. I am in fact hedging on future freelance payments derived from the stories collected from my travels, to fund present and future life.
I moved to Beijing basically on a whim. If you have read previous blog posts, you may know that originally I had decided to move to Beijing in the autumn of 2012, after finishing university, and that, upon arriving, I knew exactly four people in the city, had no job and no concrete plans. That narrative is already established.
If you ask many of the students, the expats, the foreigners who have come to China, why, for all purposes, did they happen to choose China – So why China?” is the conversational fallback – they will often mumble out something.
They might mention the economic miracle, how it’s good to get to know China and Chinese and the culture, how employers might find it useful or at least you’ll stand out from the crowd. They might mention interest in learning the language, or an affection for Asian culture more generally. Or they might have come because they heard about others doing it, and it’s a good place to teach English to earn a bit of money.
A lot of people in Beijing, the migrants, the foreigners, don’t really know why they are here. Two and a bit years after arriving I feel now is a good time to identify why exactly I decided to come here, for myself, to work it out.
The reasons why of course reflects vast forces of which we’re barely aware. The confluence of economic, political and social factors far too large to comprehend on a macro level. It’s one of the tasks a journalist and writer should have in fact, trying to untangle this web of influence, to make clear the strands that tie people, politics and the decisions of every day, together.
The reason why I came here is obviously bound to that. China is big and large, important and vital. It made sense journalistically, and trying to make sense of it all presents great opportunities for the freelance journalist. But this is not why I came to Beijing. It is and it is not. Just like you may choose a job or a partner based on a checklist of reasons (because it offers better promotional offers; because she has a good family background), it does not really speak to the truth, the gut instinct of why you chose to do what you did.
I think the bigger part of me chose to move to Beijing because for the need of adventure, for experience, and for a narrative greater than that offered by the humdrum exactitude of the everyday. You may find such a reason laughable in its innocent sincerity, but such romantic ideals, I guess, are the ideals in which I find most fascination.
In Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed, she talks about a theory of the novel based on Miguel Cervantes’ classic novel of adventure Don Quixote: “The novel form is about the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books”.
Likewise, I find great empathy with the sentiment expressed by a reviewer writing in the New York Times about Jack Kerouac: “He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience”.
That is what I live for. And when I set out, at 23, to go far away, to a new city, I guess a part of me instinctively knew it was the right decision to make, despite the subsequent misery of the first three months after arrival and some of the later moments of being here.
Why did I move to Beijing? Because anything else would’ve been easy. And the quest never is.
Blog posts from last January, 2014:
Hello. By the time you read this I should have already arrived in Beijing, after flying from England which is where I have spent the past 27 days. Time to get back to the Big Beige.
January is a busy month for me, with a couple of commissions, and most urgently the planning of a trip to Myanmar. I’ve talked about it in previous posts but finally it should be on the cards. I have a story related to it that I’ve been developing for a while now. But the biggest reason I want to go there is simply to look around and make it less unwelcoming: to get to know it.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was once a British colony and is the second largest country, after Indonesia, in southeast Asia. That fact alone, its bigness, is beguiling.
It is a Buddhist country, nominally now a democracy after decades of military imposed rule, filled with unspoilt landscapes, and yet riven with hate crimes and ethnic conflict, as well as drug barons, mines and smugglers. A perfect recipe then for a journalist.
This year I intend to go out more from my Beijing hub. I want to have bases spread throughout Asia. Once you’re familiar, once you’ve mapped out and made a place previously unknown known, it’s so much easier to grasp the geography of traveling.
It’s part of why I like this idea of freelance foreign correspondence: the adventure. I’d gotten complacent, too comfortable and sequestered in Beijing. It was seeing a fellow freelance having so much fun that spurred me. He has been journeying around China and Myanmar traveling and writing and getting published. Goddamit! I want some of that! Some of that momentum and adrenaline and the wild experiences. Brent Crane, I salute you!
I hope to ask him to write a guest piece about how he did it, how he traveled and wrote at the same time. Did he first travel somewhere and then look around for stories or did his successful pitches determine his itinerary? Hopefully he will oblige and teach us, because I haven’t actually done it yet and it would be good to know.
In early 2014, I decided to buy a new camera. With it I started to take short videos that captured how life unfolded. I would record at dinners, while I was commuting, when I’d travel and so on. It wasn’t every day, but over a year I’d collected enough footage to make a short film about my life as a freelance journalist.
The video shows what Beijing is like, my horribly cramped former living quarters, what I get up to on my off-hours, and includes footage from my North Korea reporting trip and other travels. I hope to make more videos for my YouTube channel this year, so please consider subscribing.
This blog is a guide on becoming a roving freelancer, as well as a chronicle of my journey. The above video, I hope, fills in some of the blanks: a visual record. A written round-up of 2014 can be found here: Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On.
The video was shot on a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker. These are the tools I currently have, and I intend to make the most of them. For more on this, see these posts: 6 journalism resolutions for the new year, and getting into video storytelling: using a cheap compact camera.