Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Year in review: 2019

with 2 comments

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Singapore’s Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit

2019 was framed by two (long) periods of staying at home, while the middle was occupied with four months of travel, where I stayed in Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul and Singapore.

This period of travel felt exploratory, where I was making steps toward a different lifestyle. I guess it could be called digital nomadism.

I used to live in Beijing. The capital of China kickstarted my freelance career. It is where I spent six years and the reason why this blog was born. To give aspiring freelance foreign correspondents insight and advice. I didn’t leave out the worst moments. Within these columns you’ll find posts about the hard, tough times I had. If you don’t see too much of those these days it is because I learned the ropes, sailed through the rough seas, and found stable ground. This year I’ve navigated new challenges and different ways of thinking. Beijing was my base and teacher, but it’s behind me. I left it as my home last year, in December, exactly 12 months ago. Now it’s December 2019 and I am excited, very excited, for 2020.

Next year, I am certain to do things very differently and I will be on the road much more. I’ll go into this a bit more in another post. But let’s look at what I published this year and how much I got paid for them. Other journalists are revealing their rates on Twitter right now (this one by Anna Codrea-Rado, who writes a popular newsletter about freelancing, is very revealing). It will help us all if we’re a little more aware of the rates that are paid out so that you don’t under-sell yourself. Freelancers who don’t negotiate for higher rates create a downward pressure on the market, which doesn’t help the profession. So, toward this end, here’s a run-down of what I did this year —

January

I had no journalism published this month, but was commissioned for one piece after sending out 12 pitches. I worked on my own writing: nonfiction and short stories.

February

Wired UK, dating games in China (Rate: £320)

March

Went to Spain to celebrate my birthday. Nothing published. Worked on a nonfiction piece for a writing competition (didn’t get onto shortlist).

April

Departed for Hong Kong, to begin my travels. Worked on a few journalism commissions.

May

Moved to Taipei, Taiwan. Started working on a commission for BBC Future. Worked on a nonficition book proposal.

Published: The National – Dynamic Yield. The National – Virtual banks in Hong Kong

(Rate for both: about £0.41 per word)

June

Published in Attitude magazine, a 3-page spread, in print (Rate: £230).

At the end of June flew to Beijing for an assignment.

Published: The National, Luckin coffee in China (Rate: £0.41 per word)

July

Beijing & Seoul.

Published: The Cornell Enterprise, tips from entrepreneur Gang Yu (Rate: $1500)

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Seoul (all photos copyright LHL)

August

Went to Singapore. Finally finished with edits for BBC Future commission. Worked on a few commissions. Nothing published this month.

September

Went back to the UK.

Published: The National, next-gen videogames (Rate: £0.41 per word)

October

Published: Underpinned, migrant learns to be a freelancer (Rate: £250)

Inkstone, South Korean women work in China (Rate: HK$3 per word)

Wired UK, Hearthstone, esports, and HK (Rate: £270)

November

Wrote 7000 words for nonfiction book. Nothing published.

December

Went to Ireland for a holiday.

Published: BBC Future – Does e-money make you spend more? (Rate: £800)

Eurogamer – Shenmue: the view from Guilin (Rate: £320)

The National, Magic Leap and AR (Rate: £0.41 per word)

*

There are a few things to note. I work as a copywriter and from January to March I was making money doing that, and throughout the autumn. The rates mentioned above were the final rates. For many of them, if not most, I negotiated upwards. Please always try to negotiate more money for the work you are doing. Final point: I could have negotiated more for a couple of the pieces. For the Underpinned piece I wrote 1,500 words and got £250 because I (wrongly) thought they were a small company that couldn’t afford more. I then saw that Codrea-Rado, for an 1,800 word piece for the same publication, got £700. I could see the reasons why: she wrote 1,800 words, it was a deeply reported piece that would generate a lot of views, and she has a bigger profile. But still. I should have tried to negotiate more.

Generally, my rates averaged £0.40 per word. Heading into 2020, I will try to improve on this. How? Target publications that pay well.

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The Atlantic ocean meets the cliffs of western Ireland

Don’t your parents worry about you?

It can be difficult to truly comprehend your own situation, simply by dint that you have only yourself to inhabit. I am a freelance writer and journalist and so my situation seems normal to myself. If another person comments about how envious or unique my situation appears to be, it’s quite easy, actually, to ignore it. But, as I’ve met people and heard their reactions, again and again, I start to sense a pattern.

You hear people say they couldn’t imagine not having a routine, or that they wouldn’t be able to manage their time. You hear comments about how wonderful it must be to just travel all the time. Occasionally, you sense jealousy and resentment. They ask if your parents are okay with you living like this, or if you’ll ever get a real job. When you hear this enough times, you begin to understand that you are living an abnormal life (at least to those people who have what they consider the normal one).

So it can be reassuring when you find models who have done what you have done. They are usually other writers. And it’s satisfying when you recognise the patina of melancholy and wistfulness, because they too have had to contend with the fact they’re not quite living the prescribed script. Not everyone gets to live a normal life and it is both a burden and a blessing.

I was mollified to read this extract by famed travel writer Paul Theroux:

On my first long trip – to central Africa, 55 years ago – I was exhilarated by the notion that I was a stranger in a strange land: far from home, with a new language to learn, committed to two years out of touch, teaching barefoot students in the bush. I was to remain in Africa for six years, learning how to be an outsider. My next teaching job was in Singapore, and when that ended after three years, I abandoned all salaried employment and became a resident in Britain for 17 years, carrying the compulsory Alien Identity Card.

Partly from passionate curiosity and partly to make a living, I kept travelling. The risky trips I took in my thirties and forties, launching myself into the unknown, astonish me now. One winter I was in Siberia. I went overland to Patagonia. I took every clanking train in China and drove a car to Tibet. I turned 50 paddling alone in my kayak in the Pacific, threatened by islanders, tossed by waves, blown off course in a high wind off Easter Island.

Reading a sentence like, I was to remain in Africa six years, learning how to be an outsider, hits me hard. It’s so familiar to me.

Equally the line, Partly from passionate curiosity and partly to make a living, I kept travellingI’ve written this year how I felt a bit weary of travel, and this weariness I am not sure will leave me. But that passionate curiosity remains.

2 Responses

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  1. Nice piece, Luhai. Good to hear how you’re getting along. I didn’t write much in 2019,and currently back travelling around Vietnam so who knows. Anyway keep up the good work.
    Keith

    Keith Crane

    January 2, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    • Thanks Keith. Whereabouts are you going in Vietnam? Feel free to email me, LH.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      January 8, 2020 at 8:17 am


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