Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

The perfect story: do all journalists want to become novelists?

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I’ve written one “perfect” story in my life. It’s a bold claim but it’s ironic because the story in question is a Japanese fable about Perfection. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. Before the story materialized I had spent the previous two weeks or so thinking about it late at night while I was in bed. Slowly the rough outline or arc of the story took shape and I kind of vaguely knew how it might turn. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know what the story was or what the story would be. But over the two weeks it was what I thought about during the day and before I fell asleep.

Hemingway and a small tiger. Hemingway started his career as a journalist.

Ernest Hemingway and a small tiger. He started his career as a journalist.

Then one afternoon at school, while I was in some form of detention, I decided to write the story, for an English assignment. I was in the library with a few other miscreants. And I just started writing – in longhand, with a blue Biro on lined paper. And what came out was 99% perfect. The story was rounded, full, and did what the story set out to do. My English teacher read it out in class and I distinctly remember the enraptured silence as the story gripped my fellow pupils, and the applause once it ended – the applause! And she showed it to the other English teachers who also praised the story.

But before you tire of this anecdote, here’s the point: I have never, in the 11 years since, been able to reproduce anything approaching the same level of effortless flow, the ease with which that story seemed to shape itself, the logic and momentum, the plot and the ending all taking shape as the Biro made its way across the page. As if brain, arm and pen were one single entity all directed toward the inevitable creation of that story.

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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

What happened last time I tried to be a freelance foreign correspondent

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I finished university last year. After a busy summer (presenting, Olympics, work exp at The Guardian), I decided to go to Beijing,

I had no definite plan, no accommodation and I knew exactly four people who lived there, one of whom was a stewardess I had met a couple months prior. I had vague ideas about brushing up on my Chinese, exploring new opportunities and freelancing.

The first couple months were kind of miserable to be honest. I had few friends and I was just hemorrhaging money. I made very little progress journalistically and I was aimless and wondering what exactly I should be doing.

I then answered a chance call-out for interns for The Beijinger, a listings magazine aimed at expats that pre-dated Time Out. How wonderful, you might think, being an intern! Great!

But it was an opportunity. I still wasn’t making any money, I made enough just to cover rent. I was in the office three days a week. The managing editor of The Beijinger was a loud, rambunctious 30-year-old Manc, and his deputy was a very tall and louche Scouser. No, I am not making it up.

December came and I chanced upon a publication online called The Gateway. It’s a business newspaper aimed at students. I immediately dashed off an email to the editor asking if she would be interested in business articles focused on the booming economies of China and south-east Asia.

She would.

Meanwhile, a Chinese girl I was courting ended things abruptly. And that stewardess? Well, she was always flying everywhere, that’s the problem with stewardesses.

Anyway, January was my best ever month for freelance journalism, in terms of pure £. It was a grand whopping total of £700. But by then I had been given a full-time role at The Beijinger so I received a modest pay rise. I wrote some of those freelance articles in the office – something I would not recommend.

I spent a total of 7 months in Beijing, going to some great events, learning a lot (about magazines, staff banter, freelancing, women) before my visa ran out. I even got two great big commissions from The New Statesman which I royally fucked up. Lesson there: if you’re working on something ambitious, be sure to have already done some groundwork on it before pitching.

In a future blog, you’ll find out why I’m returning for a second round.

For more about my experience at The Beijinger, see here.

The Beijinger office.

The Beijinger office.