Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘life as a freelance journalist

While I was in Beijing

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I have a friend who is incredibly organised, has an adorable dog, likes baking, and possesses a property portfolio. We met while working for the same creative agency in Beijing; she had a fulltime job as an account director, and I was a copywriter on a temporary contract.

We kept a low-level friendship on social media, although we became friendlier as we commented on each other’s posts. She is several years older than me and is happily settled with husband and career.

While I was in Beijing, for work, in early July, we arranged a swimming meet-up. I am a keen swimmer and I had seen that she was learning to swim front crawl. She invited me to join her at her gym, on a Sunday morning, during her swim lesson. I looked forward to this more than I could say.

After the swim, and while my friend got changed, I snapped this photo of the sunlight filtering through the gym from the large windows.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 5, 2019 at 11:43 am

A brief timeline of 2015

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01 January

Arrived back in Beijing, after festive break in England with the family, in mid-January.

Continued working on a story about Buddhism for CNN, commissioned in December.

02 February

Celebrated Chinese New Year on the 19th, welcoming in the Year of the Sheep.IMG_2838

Two days later, I left for Myanmar. I spent a total of 18 days in Burma, hunting for stories and traveling. A mishap with flights meant I spent too much money on this trip.

The Telegraph published my article entitled The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Moving to Beijing.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/11386649/The-good-bad-and-ugly-of-moving-to-Beijing.html

03 March

Finally ended my association with BON, a TV company I’d worked for since November 2013.

I had no longer an office job and would now be living entirely on freelancing income.

At the end of the month, The Telegraph published another of my pieces, which was to be my final one for the expat section, due to budget cuts.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/11500033/Discrimination-based-on-ethnic-origin-can-be-blunt-in-China.html

04 April

My debut for CNN, a piece from my Burma trip for the Travel section.

edition.cnn.com/2015/04/16/travel/myanmar-monks-lunch/index.html

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Why I want to work this summer – July 11th

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This is my third summer in Beijing, and the first one where I want to work.

Looking back to last summer, I spent 20 days in Thailand, and I wrote a post in June entitled “What should a freelance journalist do in the summer?

In that post I said it should be the season to unwind and get rid of stresses, but this year I feel differently.

I want to work and do productive things. And this isn’t about money. Yes, I don’t have enough of it to travel. And I still feel the urge to go somewhere where I can swim and frolic.

But I wouldn’t want to do that for an extended amount of time; a weekend would suffice.

Why this might be, I am not sure. Perhaps it is natural that appetites change and the propensity to knuckle down and set to should swing by at different life-stages.

Current days

I have various approaching deadlines and quite a lot to do. And new opportunities have cropped up.

Friends of friends have started up a food company that is doing very well, and they invited me to come up with an advertising campaign. This is a fun challenge.

I am also in the process of designing a course on journalism skills and better writing, which I will be delivering to a multinational company’s Beijing office. This is well paid.

I need this money, it will pay for the next three month’s rent, which I have to pay in a lump sum, and the money from freelanced articles will contribute to food and other living expenses.

The plan is that I will hopefully have enough to do something travel-related in September.

A few weeks ago I had a very hard time — I was not in a good place. But everything has perked up again. Living abroad is often about overcoming those dark days, and trusting in the eventual good times. Optimism must sustain you.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 11, 2015 at 12:30 pm

I’m still broke — May 18th (life of a freelance journalist abroad)

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It has been over a month since I quit my regular script-editing job at the TV company. And since then I have only been surviving on my freelancing income.

Since I came back from my Burma trip, which cost too much due to a mishap with flights, I have been more or less broke — having had to ask for an extension on paying my rent, and for a personal loan to bail myself out.

I have had two job interviews. One of these jobs would’ve been perfect; offering a flexible schedule and a great salary. I did not get it however. The other job is for a big news agency where competition is tough so I am unsure about my prospects.

I had a lot of stop and starts when I first came out here – gigs that fell through, pitches that were lame, a bank account that was at zero so many times I nearly packed it in and went back home (on multiple occasions).    — Kate Hodal, freelancer turned Southeast Asia correspondent

When I read these words from Kate Hodal, I always feel better knowing that those before me, and also my peers, have struggled financially doing journalism.

But equally, when I see freelancers who are for more prolific than I am I feel spurred on to work harder and to find my own spread of amenable publications.

This is not to say I haven’t been enjoying myself — enjoying the acres of free time, partying with friends. That’s the beauty of China, money goes further: the experience of being broke here is unlike being broke in England, where relative poverty reduces choices more starkly.

But I thank the lord for my bank account’s overdraft.

The secret anxiety of being a freelancer

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I am not the world’s most prolific freelance journalist. I tend to report and write fairly slowly. I don’t pitch all that often and I’m not insanely busy with assignments. These are all great faults that I need to improve. And yet even with this somewhat leisurely state of affairs I find myself feeling stressed, anxious and under pressure.

This boils down to one thing and something perhaps unique to the freelance trade. And that’s you always feel like you should be doing more. 

I find myself constantly worrying about story ideas, about the fact I haven’t written enough pitches, or that I haven’t pitched enough, or about new ideas. In bed, at cafes, at diners, my mind is abuzz with activity, always whirring, constantly active. A lot of the time it’s cycling through trivial, arcane bits of matter, pop cultural references and connections, things people said and the songs that are for some reason stuck.

And yet this constant activity is conducive to making the sorts of connections and curiosity that can be a freelance journalist’s source of power: that ability to generate story ideas that people have not yet identified previously.

But it can be tough on your sanity to be living with such an always-on state of mind. I know other, better, more experienced, more meticulous freelancers will be more organized and have routines that best manages their workflow. I guess I still need to fumble and reach toward that ideal.

April. It’s a transitional month. It’s still fairly cold at night here and the days are sometimes warm enough for a light jumper. But it’s windy and everyone is expecting real warmth to arrive. I feel April should be the month you spend, if you’re a freelance, on those tasks, some of which may be leftover from the previous year, that are important but not urgent.

Any creative will have those ‘just-started’ or ‘half-finished-but-haven’t-looked-at-it-for-months’ projects that they know are important. Even if it’s just something they want to produce, create, get out into the world, they know it’s important to finish such projects because the value of these things can be great.

I’ve been working on an essay (nonfiction memoir) for a while now and I have no idea if it’s even halfway complete, but I know that once it is complete it may be worth more than those urgent journalism pieces. Why? Because it’ll capture something important for me personally, and for others it may be a piece of writing that leaves a more memorable and longer lasting impression than a news report. But I hope the anxiety of living, working, doesn’t leave me bereft.

VIDEO: A year in the life of a freelance journalist abroad

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In early 2014, I decided to buy a new camera. With it I started to take short videos that captured how life unfolded. I would record at dinners, while I was commuting, when I’d travel and so on. It wasn’t every day, but over a year I’d collected enough footage to make a short film about my life as a freelance journalist.

The video shows what Beijing is like, my horribly cramped former living quarters, what I get up to on my off-hours, and includes footage from my North Korea reporting trip and other travels. I hope to make more videos for my YouTube channel this year, so please consider subscribing.

This blog is a guide on becoming a roving freelancer, as well as a chronicle of my journey. The above video, I hope, fills in some of the blanks: a visual record. A written round-up of 2014 can be found here: Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On.

The video was shot on a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker. These are the tools I currently have, and I intend to make the most of them. For more on this, see these posts: 6 journalism resolutions for the new year, and getting into video storytelling: using a cheap compact camera.

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.