Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Kaiman

Money: or rather the lack of it when you’re trying to freelance

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A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

Until very recently I did not have a regular income and though 2013 was marked by great experiences (some of the best ever in fact), it was not one that saw me in great wealth. I won’t go over the details but there were periods where I had to subsist on the cheapest foods and debt seemed unending.

Poverty. Not many of us actually know it and know it well, and I would not be one to claim expertise. But a couple of things I saw recently helped to reaffirm my position toward the accumulation of cash. The first was a quote I saw in Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours. In an essay about writing and writers he quotes author Natalie Goldberg: “I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work”.

The second thing was a video of an interview with a musician who said: “If I have enough to pay rent, buy groceries then that’s cool – I can just concentrate on my music”.

Being ‘poor’ is relative. We live in an age of bounteous opportunity. Being so-called poor provides a clear set of options. How? Well, it frees you to concentrate on what most matters.

A month ago I published a post on WannabeHacks.co.uk, a website for aspiring journalists. There I set out the argument that in order to freelance, especially in the early stages of your career, one of the best things you can do is go and live in an emerging economy country.

In writing this blog, I have already made contacts with fellow freelancers who are doing what I am doing: taking a risk, moving to somewhere exciting where things are rapidly changing and kickstarting their journalism career. Someone I know (met via this blog) decided to relocate to Istanbul and has already been commissioned multiple times for a major magazine.

But it can be difficult, especially financially. It helps to have some money saved up. But one of the best things about living in a country like China or Turkey or Malaysia or Mexico is that although economies are growing things are still relatively cheap. In China I eat out almost everyday and party hard. If I were freelancing in London, I’d probably already be dead. Due to starvation and exposure (’cause I couldn’t afford a roof over my head).

Kate Hodal (Guardian) sold most of her possessions to finance a move to south-east Asia and was so hard-up on so many occasions that she almost went home. But she persevered and now has the envy-inducing job of being South-east Asia correspondent, meaning she gets paid to fly to places like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines from her base in Thailand. Jonathan Kaiman (also Guardian) had to survive on a low-paid internship and a visa that forced him to take a bus full of Mongolian tradesman to Mongolia¬†every month for almost a year, but he got bylines in the New York Times, LA Times, Foreign Policy and is now one of the most talented China correspondents around. Alec Ash, a Brit and correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote for four years for free on his blog about China from his home in Beijing. Now he’s living it up on an advance for a book he’s been signed to write.

Having the ability to purchase that new phone or buy that bag makes people happier. But it doesn’t, not really. You have to switch your mindset around to focus on what’s really going to drive you forward. Those shoes or that expensive meal might seem important but the enjoyment is absolutely inessential. You cannot, must not, think short-term material goals at this stage. What is important and infinitely more satisfying is recognition, appreciation of your work; the attainment of value.

To want more and more stuff is unerringly shallow. Invest in yourself. Buy what you need to hone your craft, no more. Spend on experiences…but spend wisely.

Being rich is meaningless if it doesn’t make you better at what you do.

Life in Beijing as a Journalist – Retrospective

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Over the course of seven months (from October 2012 to May 2013), I met quite a few journalists and media types in Beijing. Working for a listings magazine meant I had the opportunity to attend events (although not nearly as many as you may think).

I got to know Jonathan Kaiman, a tall young American who writes about China for The Guardian. His route into journalism is fortuitous. First visiting China as a Mandarin student he moved to Beijing in 2009 for a research project, making field recordings of traditional folk music in southern China.

He was at a concert in Beijing when he met Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. After a few meetings over coffee, Johnson suggested Kaiman should try journalism and hooked him up with an internship at the New York Times. After six months he proceeded to do another internship, this time at the LA Times. There, he worked under the tutelage of none other than Barbara Demick, who wrote a great book about North Korea. “He’s one I’m really proud of”, Demick said to me once, at a talk she gave in a bookstore. “When he came in, he knew nothing and now he’s doing really well”.

Kaiman says he learnt a lot about writing from her. He started freelancing for various newspapers after the internship finished, and then a chance came in from The Guardian as their China correspondent Jonathan Watts was departing for Brazil. So Watt’s press accreditation was handed over to Kaiman.

Kaiman is talented and a hard worker with a gift for writing flowing paragraphs filled with information. And his success is also down to a series of lucky breaks. But equally he could not have realized the full potential of every step if he had not 1. Taken the time and investment to learn Mandarin properly. 2. Worked his socks off, and taken serious hits to his bank balance (internships are low-paid). 3. Did not come up with great ideas and write great stories.

There’s no great lesson to be gleaned from that (no one example should be a great lesson).

Chinese media

I also met a fair number of expats who worked for Chinese media. For the most part, although it was relatively well-paid and secure job, they were not completely happy with their lot. They complained about their treatment by their bosses, at their lack of control, and at the amateurishness of it all. There were two young Brits who worked for the national Chinese TV network, in the English-language division. Their professional life was comfortable, but I always got the sense they knew deep down they were treated like puppets.

Not that I was in any better position.  I was an intern at The Beijinger (to begin with anyway). True Run Media is the company who owns The Beijinger. It was founded by an American who looks like a much lankier version of Steve Jobs.

I met a lot of interesting expats, ones who research nano-biotechnology, in which China is the world leader apparently, and entrepreneurs and European TV guys. The community of expats, and the places they frequent, is small. And the circle of journalists and writers – and the places they go – is even smaller. I look forward to joining that circle again.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 14, 2013 at 5:00 am