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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.