Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘coronavirus

Ups and downs: the rollercoaster of freelance journalism

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I would not advise anyone, currently, to consider going into journalism. It has been a tumultuous time for the industry. Over the past couple of weeks, job cuts have been announced at VICE, Quartz, Conde Nast, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Vox Media, LA Times, The Economist, among others.

The printed word, as a business, is in a very precarious position as ad spend, the events arm, and other money-making parts of this industry, have been decimated owing to effects from covid-19.

Yet, more than ever before, people are reading and clicking through. Many media titles have reported increases in traffic. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reap benefits from the content created by news media, making their platforms go-to places for potential sources of information, yet the media do not reap the financial rewards. Facebook and Google suck up the vast majority of worldwide ad spend (in the billions of dollars), while journalism — which plays an important civic role, especially local newspapers — continues its downward trend.

On a personal level, as a freelancer, my fortunes have rollercoastered. If my finances remain fairly stable (although still low) the feeling of freelancing in this current predicament has been fraught and stressful.

Some days, I feel despondent at the entire process of coming up with ideas, researching, crafting a well-written and precise pitch, waiting for editor replies (some of which never come). It is a lot of investment, plus mental labour, for relatively little return. And yet, job cuts and furloughs are not confined to the journalism industry. Whole swathes of the economy are in trouble. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, theatres, retailers, are just a few examples of businesses facing a black hole. Tourism and all the people who rely on it are facing existential crisis.

To be a freelancer, at this time, is to feel simultaneously insecure, and yet, in some way, also stable and liberated. Because I am still working and able to work, as long as I continue toiling and pitching to those editors still with the budget to commission and pay. I am somewhat protected. So maybe do try going into freelance journalism — just know that you’ll likely be competing with the hundreds of journalists who have just been laid off.

And it is remarkable how just one commission, with a new publication, and on a subject close to my heart, can energise and renew my faith in this lark. Freelance journalism is mostly dining on greased up junk food, paying out little nutritional value, but occasionally you get to savour a gloriously fulfilling meal with plenty of vegetables (you’re not an adult if you don’t like vegetables).

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View from the rooftop of my hostel in Fukuoka.

But my finances remain on the edge. I realise now, in hindsight, I committed a couple of cardinal errors in the first three months of this year. In February I was in Thailand and I spent too much money, and earned far too little. I should have been more prudent. Now, in Japan, I am enduring on break-even income, budgeting hard, and working hard. I guess mistakes are made, and lessons will be learned. Had the pandemic not have occurred, I would have been in a cheaper country by now, yet having to remain in one place for so long (I have been living in the same hostel since March 13) has done wonders for my productivity and output.

So I will continue toiling until such time something changes.

My writing life 

I have been interviewing many people this week for a story I’ve been working on. It’s a feature about British Chinese, a minority group to which I belong. In October 2013, the New Statesman published this story: ‘Where exactly are my British Chinese role models?‘ To this day, it remains the article from which I have received the most email. Although I remain somewhat cynical about journalism, sometimes it really does have an effect on people, and the emails I received from that story are evidence. Hopefully, this new article will have a similar effect.

Recent bylines:

BBC Worklife — Life after lockdown: How China went back to work

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 23, 2020 at 7:48 am

Retreating into smaller comforts

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In the month of February, I spent too much money, and made it worse by not doing any work. I spent a full 30 days in Thailand (I arrived in January) and ate, drank, and indulged. It was enjoyable. But now, in April, I am paying the cost. I’m stuck in Japan, living in a hostel, and as I write this I am in arrears.

So, I’ve drastically reduced spending and have been budgeting hard. I’ve been spending £25 or less per day, including my accommodation costs, which is not bad for Japan. I’ve also enjoyed these quieter days and I have enjoyed working more. Every day I’ve been pitching more and working hard on commissions. I need to earn that cash and the side effect has been a leaning-in to the work, which I’ve embraced, gotten into a routine, and enjoyed the process.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching a lot of Netflix and listening to music. I am reading less, but writing more, which is how it should be. Consuming less of other people’s words and creating more of my own. I’ve been working on an essay, a piece of short fiction, a couple of commissioned news features. It’s weird because I am averaging a huge six or seven hours of screentime per day. But it’s because my iPad Mini — one of my best purchases ever — is my entertainment centre as well as a capable computer. In fact, sometimes I prefer working on my iPad (using it with a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard) over my laptop, although for serious writing and editing the laptop still reigns supreme.

My days look like this: getting up around noon, coffee, laptop. Work until around 4pm, eat brunch. Have dinner around 8 or 9pm. Yes, it’s not very healthy. But it has felt good, if sometimes stressful. I’ve been getting by on one or two meals a day. I’ve lost weight. But I feel more focused than I have for some time. It feels like I’m trimming off the fat and regaining focus.

These quieter days, with less busyness, have inspired a quietness within me too. What were we all so busy for anyway? I mean, really. What was it all for? Consumerism encourages you to spend beyond your means, to buy things you don’t need. During these pandemic times, do you really need that Gucci bag, that expensive watch, the latest gadget? The people who have the most have the most to lose. But there is a joy in appreciating the things that cannot be so easily bought. Having a Zoom pub quiz with some of my oldest friends, over three different time zones. Daily calls with K. Enjoying the fact I have writing as my job, passion, and money maker.

We have been spoiled. As an expat in Beijing, I would eat out all the time. Partly out of necessity (I did not cook often and eating out is cheap in China) and partly for enjoyment. Socialising with friends on the weekend and we’d go to restaurants and bars. Our parents would not have dreamed of such luxury, especially on such a frequent basis. What I miss though are not the luxuries. One of the memories I’ve been feasting on is when I was in Chiang Mai, in February, walking alone around a square filled with tables, people, and the conviviality of early evening. I wandered around looking for something to eat and found a stall and ordered off of their limited but specialised menu. It was northern Thai cuisine and I ordered a dish of liver with rice. It arrived after a while, while I checked out everyone, people watching. The liver was tender, the spicing delicious, and the rice gave the soft background the dish needed. It didn’t cost the earth, but my memory lingers over that dish (my mouth is watering as I write this!) — it is not just the food, but the feeling of pure freedom that accrues in retrospect. The freedom was the ultimate luxury. The memory of it a moveable feast.

Lately, I’ve survived on sweet potatoes (nourishing, nutritious, feel-good food) and I have been cooking more. Egg-fried rice, cup noodles, these cheap fairy cakes that offer great calorie-to-yen value. But I also cooked fish. Splashed on pineapple. And lately, I have bought beef. I season the beef well, heat the pan with a generous amount of oil. I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl. I place the beef into the hot oil, to sizzle the outside on both sides, and then put the beef into the eggs. I make sure the beef is properly drenched in the egg, covered with its yellowy goodness, then finish off the beef in the pan, and put the eggs in with them, and scramble those eggs with the beef. I serve my steak and eggs, and reader, it tastes fantastic. Simple, pleasurable, joyful. Each mouthful a world of savouriness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 26, 2020 at 4:56 pm

The Wandering Freelance Journalist In A Pandemic: Stuck in Japan and Staying Productive

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Hi reader,

I write you from a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan. I have been here a few weeks. Same hostel, same city. Fukuoka is in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan’s five main islands.

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Since I arrived, I have seen borders close and citizens in cities around the world stuck indoors. We are living through a pandemic, which is defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease. Pubs and schools are closed in the United Kingdom, something that seemed unthinkable. Wuhan, the origin point of the virus, a city of 10 million, was placed under strict lockdown. America and Germany saw infections balloon. France, Italy and Spain have borne the brunt of fatalities. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, whom I interviewed 10 years ago when he was mayor of London, is in intensive care.

And me? How has it affected my freelance career; my wandering life?

I am fortunate that Japan has a relatively low number of cases. Although a state of emergency has been declared by PM Shinzo Abe, the government here is unable to enforce strict lockdowns due to civil rights abuses during World War Two, and protection of such rights was enshrined in the post-war constitution. Museums, art galleries, schools are closed, but many shops and restaurants remain open here in Fukuoka.

Freelance copywriting work from China has dried up, as many agencies have been affected by clients scaling back their budgets. Many journalism publications, meanwhile, have been under huge pressure to keep up with Coronavirus-related content.

I was supposed to have left Japan, flying from Fukuoka’s airport, on March 23 but my flight was cancelled (still waiting on that refund, Air Asia!). I am glad it was cancelled anyway as my next destination was Kuala Lumpur but the Malay government is not accepting foreign entrants at this time.

I have friends who are currently stuck in Tokyo. After being forced to delay their return to Beijing, where they live, they took refuge in Singapore but had to leave due to finishing visas, but as soon as they left the Singaporean government closed their borders. Now they’re in limbo, with their stuff scattered across two countries. My family in England meanwhile are all at home: with shops and schools closed.

A novelist friend of mine has had her book marketing tour cancelled. Many of my acquaintances and journalist colleagues describe hellish working conditions, as they bury themselves in a deluge of coronavirus reports, or their commissions have all but dried up. A fellow wandering journalist, who had lined up reporting assignments all over India got stuck in Goa, India, but took a hail-mary flight back to London via Rome. Travel journalists, meanwhile, seem the most severely affected. Thankfully no one I know has been terribly affected by the virus, health-wise (touch wood).

Japan

So this is my first time in Japan. I lived in Beijing for six years, but funnily enough I never made it to the Land of the Rising Sun. I always thought it was too expensive, and my suspicions have been confirmed. Truthfully though, Fukuoka at least is not awful in terms of costs. Accommodation and food prices are not as cheap as I’d like but it’s certainly not as costly as, say, the UK.

Everything here is neat, tidy, extremely safe and well organised. But honestly I am not one of these people who are obsessed with Japan, some of whom I have met in my hostel. I’ve never been a Japanophile although it’s always interesting to visit a new country and I was genuinely curious about what this east Asian country would be like. I always find it interesting to compare/contrast China with its historical rivals.

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An island in Japan. (All photos copyright: LHL 2020) 

But Japan doesn’t reach into my soul like places in other parts of Asia do. The symbols and motifs of Nepal; the distinctive light of Burma; the colours of Thailand; and the sultry food of Malaysia and Singapore all sing to me. The “exotic” aspects of southeast Asia speak to my heart.

However, highlights so far have been going to a random restaurant and having my opinion of tempura completely changed. Consuming a superlative bowl of ramen (which cost £7). Visiting an island and meeting an interesting Australian guy and his wife. Seeing the Sakura bloom — I really didn’t expect them to be as splendid as they are.

I know I should visit Kyoto and Nara, and I will at some point, but I think I prefer to save my money for future travels. Tokyo is also on my wish-list but the museums and art galleries there are closed. Getting around Japan is expensive.

My writing life 

While I have been in Fukuoka, I have filed one article, a feature for BBC Worklife. I finished it during an evening in my hostel, while an Australian guy chatted to me about heeding his government’s call for Aussies to return home, and the next day it was published. That article, I’ve been told, has received over 300,000 clicks.

Recent bylines:

How Viruses Spread in Offices – BBC Worklife

How Covid-19 led to a nationwide work-from-home experiment – BBC Worklife

I’ve started work on an essay for which I was contractually commissioned by a literary journal. It has a very long lead-in time (deadline is months away) so I am enjoying this, and Iimg_2936 am excited to write this essay as it marks a first for me.

This week I will work hard on pitching. I worked out I am living on around £25 per day, so I need to file a certain amount of articles per month to keep this show on the road. And I hope the roads will open up soon.

I have seen many writers and freelancers complain of being unable to work and be productive while this pandemic is in swing, but I have found it a clarifying force. I cannot control borders and government ministers and the movement of viruses so I don’t think about them. But I can control my routine. I can control my schedule. I am lucky that I am still able to go outside and wander the parks so I make the most of that. I have a friend here in Fukuoka so we hang out.

Still, I waste a lot of time watching Netflix and bouncing around the various social media. But one doesn’t need to be too hard on oneself. A few days I just spent lounging: reading and Netflix-ing. Watching Snowpiercer and re-watching The Godfather; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Finishing a novel, All That Man Is by David Szalay. Downloading a game, Forgotton Anne (that’s not a typo), on to my iPad. Sometimes you just gotta settle into a simpler rhythm and enjoy the things you have.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 7, 2020 at 1:46 pm