Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Top 5 mobile phones for journalists

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Most productive

The stylus helps to frame the Note 4 as a productivity tool

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The Note 4 has a large screen, a top-of-the-line processor to handle multitasking, a very capable camera, and, best of all, a multifunctional stylus with features journalists may find very handy.

The phone has two-day battery life and there is the option of expandable storage with a MicroSD card slot.

The larger screen, which is one of the sharpest and most vivid on the market, is an important feature. Web browsing, having multiple windows open (which the phone allows you to move around and resize), and typing out emails or memos, are all made easier when there’s extra screen space. The downside to this is the phone really has to be handled with two hands in use. But few other phones has the ability to act as a very portable computer as the Note 4 does.

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The perfect story: do all journalists want to become novelists?

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I’ve written one “perfect” story in my life. It’s a bold claim but it’s ironic because the story in question is a Japanese fable about Perfection. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. Before the story materialized I had spent the previous two weeks or so thinking about it late at night while I was in bed. Slowly the rough outline or arc of the story took shape and I kind of vaguely knew how it might turn. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know what the story was or what the story would be. But over the two weeks it was what I thought about during the day and before I fell asleep.

Hemingway and a small tiger. Hemingway started his career as a journalist.

Ernest Hemingway and a small tiger. He started his career as a journalist.

Then one afternoon at school, while I was in some form of detention, I decided to write the story, for an English assignment. I was in the library with a few other miscreants. And I just started writing – in longhand, with a blue Biro on lined paper. And what came out was 99% perfect. The story was rounded, full, and did what the story set out to do. My English teacher read it out in class and I distinctly remember the enraptured silence as the story gripped my fellow pupils, and the applause once it ended – the applause! And she showed it to the other English teachers who also praised the story.

But before you tire of this anecdote, here’s the point: I have never, in the 11 years since, been able to reproduce anything approaching the same level of effortless flow, the ease with which that story seemed to shape itself, the logic and momentum, the plot and the ending all taking shape as the Biro made its way across the page. As if brain, arm and pen were one single entity all directed toward the inevitable creation of that story.

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The secret anxiety of being a freelancer

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I am not the world’s most prolific freelance journalist. I tend to report and write fairly slowly. I don’t pitch all that often and I’m not insanely busy with assignments. These are all great faults that I need to improve. And yet even with this somewhat leisurely state of affairs I find myself feeling stressed, anxious and under pressure.

This boils down to one thing and something perhaps unique to the freelance trade. And that’s you always feel like you should be doing more. 

I find myself constantly worrying about story ideas, about the fact I haven’t written enough pitches, or that I haven’t pitched enough, or about new ideas. In bed, at cafes, at diners, my mind is abuzz with activity, always whirring, constantly active. A lot of the time it’s cycling through trivial, arcane bits of matter, pop cultural references and connections, things people said and the songs that are for some reason stuck.

And yet this constant activity is conducive to making the sorts of connections and curiosity that can be a freelance journalist’s source of power: that ability to generate story ideas that people have not yet identified previously.

But it can be tough on your sanity to be living with such an always-on state of mind. I know other, better, more experienced, more meticulous freelancers will be more organized and have routines that best manages their workflow. I guess I still need to fumble and reach toward that ideal.

April. It’s a transitional month. It’s still fairly cold at night here and the days are sometimes warm enough for a light jumper. But it’s windy and everyone is expecting real warmth to arrive. I feel April should be the month you spend, if you’re a freelance, on those tasks, some of which may be leftover from the previous year, that are important but not urgent.

Any creative will have those ‘just-started’ or ‘half-finished-but-haven’t-looked-at-it-for-months’ projects that they know are important. Even if it’s just something they want to produce, create, get out into the world, they know it’s important to finish such projects because the value of these things can be great.

I’ve been working on an essay (nonfiction memoir) for a while now and I have no idea if it’s even halfway complete, but I know that once it is complete it may be worth more than those urgent journalism pieces. Why? Because it’ll capture something important for me personally, and for others it may be a piece of writing that leaves a more memorable and longer lasting impression than a news report. But I hope the anxiety of living, working, doesn’t leave me bereft.

After Burma, now I’m broke

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I spent quite a lot of money traveling to and from Burma. This is largely because I dropped big sums buying plane tickets to and from Burma. It is not likely I will make all that spent cash back from the stories gathered from the trip. Ho. Hum.

I had a fantastic, eye-opening time over there. And I met a wonderful array of people: travelers from China and Taiwan. Locals. Interviewees. Journalists.

Now I have very little money. I had to ask my landlady to give me an extension for paying the rent. I have the equivalent of about £30 in my Chinese bank account. And in my UK bank account, which I consider my “savings” account, I have something in the region of -£500. Yes, that’s right – minus. Thank god for bank overdrafts.

The effect of this has mostly been that I’ve curbed the frequency that I eat out or drink beers. I do not really buy a lot of things in Beijing…clothes, shoes, gadgets. I don’t feel any great compulsion to buy things. But I do spend a lot on eating. And I don’t even really think about it. It’s just one of those things. In Beijing, eating out and eating tasty things is kind of unconscious.

I cannot say I feel a great deal of anxiety. Oh and I quit that script editing job I had at the Chinese TV company. I was barely working for them part-time and I thought it was time to part ways. So I am just freelancing right now. And also applying for some jobs.

I do have money coming in from the published stories so I think I will be okay. It’s mostly making rent that I worry about but that also should be okay once payment for those stories start accumulating. It is an annoyance not having a local source of income. But that also should be okay as I’ve been networking and feeling around for opportunities. One of the great lessons you learn living abroad is how to hustle, feel and adapt, flex and initiate. Resourcefulness.

I have managed to sell, or rather get commissioned for a couple of Burma stories, but it’s not been the easiest but I will persevere on that front. It is a struggle and there’s no use in pretending otherwise. The trip will be a loss-maker. But I did say, before I went, in my earlier blog post, that it was part of my plan to get to know southeast Asia better.

Being “broke” is a curious thing. Obviously I can still afford to feed myself. Rent money may be harder to acquire but it’s not like that time I was living in a tiny hovel eating sweet potatoes for lunch and dinner for a week while I was waiting for a payment to hit the bank (and what a beautiful recurring anecdote that has become).

There is no moral to be extracted from this. No lesson to be drawn – apart from maybe buy cheaper plane tickets next time. I have little money, making the choices I have fewer. And yet I am content and satisfied. And I feel free. Somewhat. Okay, maybe there is a summary of sorts. And that is…when you come across limitations like having less money, that can be – oddly, ironically – freeing.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 31, 2015 at 7:43 pm

A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first 5 paid-for articles

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The idea for this blog post comes from reader Sam Shan who asked via email about how, when you’re starting out, you first start asking for payment and how to negotiate this aspect of getting paid for your writing. I replied with my advice. A background blog post about my beginning days and my first five published articles for which I got paid I thought would be a good structure in which I could detail my thoughts and struggles of negotiating payment. As well as the stuff I did for free that were beneficial in other ways. Before anything though I will say this, always, always, at least try to get paid for your writing, the sooner the better really. And thanks to Sam for this post’s topic!

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Living freely

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“Living freely is one of the most difficult things you can do”

I freelance because I like the freedom that it affords. But I do it because that’s what I do – I’m not really capable of much else currently. And it’s only the visible aspect of a larger idea that motivates how I choose to move through life, the decisions I try to make, and the values I hold.

For me, freedom is the idea that’s become most important. And there was a clear moment when I realized that to live not according to that idea was simply, staggeringly ludicrous.

Life is about trying to enjoy it. Once you adopt this aspect, it all becomes pretty clear. Why do a miserable job? Why work in something that only makes you miserable? Enjoyment and misery has to be framed correctly however. You may not “enjoy” it all the time but satisfaction can arise from accomplishment. It means more about thinking critically about the choices you make, and why you make them. If it brings so few rewards and you do not, categorically do not enjoy it then why continue doing it?

To live freely is one of the most difficult things in the world.

You can live according to your own whims, your own ideas, your own momentum. You can choose how you live your life. We forget this. We forget this all the time. Every single day. Every single hour. Because we’ve set up our societies to do so. The clock forces you to compartmentalize your time into the most productive packets, segments of time that you can squeeze more into. Because capitalist systems require you to work more, make more money. To buy more stuff. To buy more stuff. It’s so blindingly obvious. But why do any of this? Why? Who is forcing you to? Why not live according to the things that you yourself deem important, rather than the things “society” has deemed important.

Why not enjoy things just as what they are, rather than by what they represent?

You have to slow down. You have to enjoy it more. You have to be in the moment more. Because if you aren’t, you’re just moving faster towards the end. Enjoying what you see right in front of you right this second, see it for what it really is. It is just that thing, nothing else, nothing more. If you don’t see it that clearly then time and mind will speed up into forever, and you will lose it, lose your claim over Now, that should be yours to seize. And it’s lost and time just speeds along, hurrying you towards oblivion.

Unless you stop and see, hear, feel the now that is your life. The incredible joy that is being.

You can choose how you live your life.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 11, 2015 at 4:53 am

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

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At Inle lake, March 5th. A great strawberry shake can be found up the road from Remember Inn.

At Inle lake, March 3rd. A great strawberry shake can be found up the road from Remember Inn.

I’ve been in Burma now for 12 days and I am writing this post from Rangoon, the country’s commercial capital and largest city, and my end destination.

I traveled from Mandalay, where I touched down from China, then I went via slow boat to Bagan, a place filled with hundreds of pagodas dotted along a picturesque landscape, before heading to Inle lake to meet an interviewee.

I am hoping to meet two journalists living here in Rangoon who are around my age. Joshua Carroll, a British freelancer, and Catherine Trautwein, an American who writes for The Myanmar Times.

Along the way I have enjoyed the sunshine and warmth of the climate and the people. It is an immense relief to be away from Beijing, away from the cramped conditions of mind and body that was the prison of overly WiFi’d Beijing.

Here I’ve been able to relax, and to practice slow journalism. Sitting at temples, cafés and restaurants, waiting for a local to come talk to me or just observing what’s around and in front of me. Picking up kernels of story ideas or pouncing when one comes along, changing schedules on the fly.

Being on the road without the distractions of Internet and social media (Internet is quite patchy in Burma) has meant I’ve been writing more in longhand, a welcome change of pace.

I might head to Vietnam after but I have not yet made up my mind. All this travel and the money spent on it I hope to recoup by selling the stories I am picking up along the way, but it is risky as I am not certain they will sell.

But the momentum of travel, the sensation of discovery, new people and new places brings you alive, shaking off the chill of a dark winter. It has been a great tonic.

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