Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for November 2014

Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On

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So I’ve been in Beijing for a year. Okay, it’s a little longer than a year: I arrived in Beijing 11th October, 2013.

Next month, I’m heading home (Hastings, England) for Christmas. I’ll be there for almost a month. It’ll be good to detoxify in England for a little while. Beijing is full of pollution…

So I’ve been here for over a year. What has happened? Originally, as I wrote in my first post while back in the city, I wanted to improve my Chinese to near-fluency (failed that one); get a decent paying job (that happened but may change in the very near future); travel more, write more.

I did travel more. But I did not write as much as I wanted to or should have done. That was the failure of this year. Second to that was not actively learning Chinese.

I made a group of friends. I lost a few who drifted away. I moved through a relationship (the loveliest I’ve had). I went up in the world by moving in to a nicer apartment. I gained some great new bylines. I lost freelancing momentum. I lost some enthusiasm. I regained some bad habits. I’ve felt professionally and personally stagnant. And I look to the future with the brightest ambitions but tempered with anxiety and doubt.

I cannot see the future. I think I know where I want to go, but the path to it is so unclear. I am 25. Young to those who’ve already experienced it, older to those still beating a fresh path. It does seem a little like a crossroads, although this could be just “end of the year” talk.

But the optimism remains.

How to summarize a year? I freelanced for Aljazeera, selling the pitch after the reporting trip which was risky but it worked out. I had CNN cancel a story on me but I managed to publish it elsewhere (unpaid but it got me in with some new editors). I wrote more and more for a section of a UK newspaper whose pay rates went up midway through the year.

I wrote for a video games publication I respect and it gladdened me as I want to break into games writing. I had a few commissions not contingent on my being in Asia which demonstrates how location can be irrelevant to freelance.

Money

I made £1634.35 from freelancing since I arrived in Beijing last October.

This money definitely helped the UK bank balance but clearly I’m not actually making bank from this. It supplemented the far healthier income I got from the Chinese TV job which meant I survived comfortably (although it often did not feel like it), with it financing an expensive reporting trip, visa runs to Hong Kong and two vacations.

But there have been short periods I’ve had to scrimp, and early next year I can foresee cash flow problems. I am not getting rich whatsoever. I am still surviving.

The freelance income probably merits further discussion. Certainly if I didn’t have the TV job I would have had to be much more prolific freelancing. The amount I earned, over a year, is not much at all. But it was good to have these semi-regular injections of cash which I plundered every so often to buy plane tickets. Certainly I’m going to have to step up the production rate if I’m going to be able to afford the kind of travel I wish to do next year.

Success: or lack thereof?

Like I’ve written before, the feeling of progression for a freelancer is not so obvious. We don’t go from Associate Freelancer to Deputy Freelancer to Freelancer-in-Chief. But the failures of the past several months I attribute to not chasing the stories hard enough, to not working in pursuit of the big stories, of the interesting people and things that are happening. I realize these failures and I hope that they’re instructive for what I need to change for 2015.

Life

Because moving to another country, settling in to a new city, isn’t just about bylines and becoming “successful”. There’s so much not said, so much that’s a part of living, especially in your 20s, struggling to understand what it is you’re supposed to be struggling toward. An account merely focused on the journalism and not the journey misses the daily textural quality of life, and the results of which you had never determined would be the destination.

To put it plainly, this blog captures some of that struggle. But of course it misses the thousand small things that you learn, that you understand and helps to expand a sense of what is possible and what is knowable when you are placed in a situation foreign to you.

Struggling to understand what it is you’re supposed to be struggling toward

I mentioned before I was in a relationship. The truth is, it was quite short in duration (although I visited her in Thailand, and we kept in touch). But the intensity of it made it feel that much longer and deeper. And that’s the important thing. The memory of it, the intensity. It doesn’t matter that some experience may be short-lived, because all that you’ll remember of it is that fleeting moment, and what you experience, from one moment to the next, are simply moments. Bubbles in time.

That is why I place great importance on the adventure of moving abroad, or simply to invite new challenges. My life in Beijing has its very great share of downs. But the ups don’t necessarily ameliorate the downs. Because that’s not the point. It’s not even about being “happy”. It’s about how much I’ve put myself through. About finding great contentment in the fact I’ve made a go at this crazy life in Beijing. And have, more or less, made it. I feel great pride in that. Because it’s an achievement purely for myself.

Links:

Freelancing in Beijing: Three Month Update

Freelancing in Beijing: Six Month Update

7 Things That Make Up Life in Beijing: A Photo Gallery

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The phone

The Phone. It's the last thing I see at night and the first thing I wake up to. I can often be found reading stories using The Guardian's mobile app.

It’s the last thing I see at night and the first thing I wake up to. I can often be found reading stories from The Guardian’s mobile app.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 18, 2014 at 3:02 pm

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Being a Freelance Journalist in China

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Since I’ve been blogging sometimes readers will take the time to email me with some questions. Here are the five most common ones I receive, and my answers to them:

1. How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China?

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

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Part three: How to Make a Name for Yourself – As a Journalist

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This is a continuing series exploring the strategies of success of journalists and writers. Parts one and two in the series can be found here and here

Christopher Nolan is a film director with great power in Hollywood. He’s known for producing blockbuster movies – like his Dark Knight Batman trilogy – under budget and before deadline. Recently I read a brilliant profile of the British filmmaker written by Tom Shone; it’s an excellently reported piece.

What makes the article special is its description of Nolan’s commitment to his craft, emphasizing his abilities of focus to art and craft.

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Cal Newport’s blog focuses on how people achieve success by continually bettering their skills. It’s a must-read blog for me. One of his mantras, culled from comedian Steve Martin’s memoir, is: “Be so good they can’t ignore you”. Newport emphasizes that to be not just good, but truly great, to rise to the top where the best get unduly rewarded, you have to focus not just on improving your skills – a given – but to concentrate your efforts on projects that will generate massive returns.

Needless to say, this can be quite difficult.

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Part two: 4 Good & Bad Things about Living in Beijing

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The Good: Cheap Accommodation. Accommodation in Beijing is not as cheap as you may think. It is, after all, the capital of China and increasingly overpopulated. But good deals can still be had. For example, I lived in a place that cost me RMB 3600 for three months (£120 per month). In China, you often pay for three months at a time. My apartment now, which is about seven times bigger than my previous place – and a whole lot nicer – is RMB 7500 for three months. Some of my friends pay more than this, but they get pretty decent bang for their buck: free internet, large living rooms, a cleaning service etc. The Bad: Poor Accommodation. So things may be somewhat cheaper but this can also mean things don’t work properly; tiny kitchens and nasty bathrooms. My current apartment has a king size bed that is almost collapsing, curtain rails that are held up by glue (which fell down) and a toilet that doesn’t refresh its flush reliably. The worst thing is probably the dirty and incredibly small kitchen which I would use more often if it weren’t so. But Beijing is full of old, poorly constructed housing, and new housing with poor attention to detail, so these are compromises you will be forced to make.  

Beijing’s subway can be crowded

The Good: The Subway. It’s cheap, fast and reliable. It costs RMB 2 for all journeys. There are a surfeit of lines and it’s a convenient way to organize meet-ups. The Bad: The Subway. Commuting on the subway is horrible. It’s hot, sweaty and there are far too many people crammed in. Queues are disorderly and ill-mannered, and people still haven’t grasped the concept of first off, then get on. And services finish too early: by around 11.30pm (some lines close earlier than others).

The Good: The People You Meet. In Beijing, I’ve made Japanese, German, Italian, American friends. I’ve met people from Iran, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Nigeria. It’s easy to befriend such people because you’re all foreigners in a foreign land; it’s a common bind that makes striking up conversation easier. The Bad: The Smallness of Circles. Work friends and people you may see regularly for whatever reason become your friends in China. This limitation means your friendship circle can be suffocatingly small. From what I’ve observed your best bet is to make three close friends who are all mutual friends too; a strong base from which to branch out.

The Good: Great Opportunities. The opportunities that are afforded to you, especially in media, business, marketing, architecture, technology and fashion (to name just a few), in China are legion. People move up rungs of the ladder far faster here and your foreign status accords you instant prestige. In practice, this means that simply because you own a foreign passport, you are paid a salary far higher than your Chinese nationality co-workers (even if you work less than they do). It is not fair and although it is more competitive than it was five, ten years ago, such is the relative dearth of foreigners in China that demand still outstrips supply. The Bad: The Sense of Entitlement and White Face Worship. This treatment of foreigners means many a foreigner in China develops an inflated ego. I’ve met plenty of people who expect others to take an interest in them, rather than reciprocate and those who demand higher salaries for no apparent reason than the fact it’s simply not what they’d expect from back home. Those who are foreign will face some harassment, but those who are non-white will face discrimination they might not expect. For example, those with Asian faces may expect a few clubs demanding entrance pay while their white friends walk in for free.

Part One is available here.