Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘life as a freelancer

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

18th May — In Beijing

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It’s 28 degrees outside and hazy. Beijing’s spring is the shortest season. Soon the sweltering heat will arrive. Blue skies have been fairly common and it’s always good to see the city suddenly green.

I finished two books recently: John Updike’s Rabbit Redux and Evan Osnos’ Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. 

The latter is a nonfiction title that is the most comprehensive, evocative, and insightful book on contemporary China I have read. The author was China correspondent for the New Yorker. He is widely regarded as brilliant.

His book is a page-turner, written with narrative drive, and telling the China story with great human stories. He had incredible access to some of China’s most notable and influential figures. And the story he has carved out; of rising fortune, middle class excess, and, later on, spiritual searching, manages to capture China with something approaching the greatness of a novel.

Checking out the book’s Notes on Sources I was awed by Osnos’ depth of research and reading. This guy seemed to have read everything. Was he just reading and writing all the time?

I put this question to a friend of mine, someone who has met Osnos, and who knew his Chinese assistant. My friend told me that the assistant told him that Osnos just wrote all the time, from morning to night.

And it was such a basic realization: to be outstanding, you have to work extremely hard.

It’s obvious of course. But we kid ourselves by imagining secret elixirs, fabled shortcuts, magic ingredients. It’s baloney. Only through work can accomplishment be achieved.

*

I haven’t been working so hard. I’ve been having a great time.

I’ve been socializing with friends, drinking and partying. We went to a music festival that was very enjoyable. I’ve been working out and tried out boxing and Muay Thai. This year so far has been a hoot.

I’ve had very little journalistic published this year.

Last week I finally finished an essay I spent two months laboring over. It’s 2000 words long. I sent it to the editor but he has not deemed to reply yet, not even to acknowledge that he’s received it. I know editors are busy people. But for a freelance it can be demoralizing and frustrating to hear such silence. All I can do is patiently wait. And hope.

*

Next week I am going to Hong Kong to meet up with someone. It’ll be a vacation. Someone asked not long ago how can I afford to travel so much. I didn’t know quite how to respond. Truth is I don’t really know. I do not receive parental handouts. And the money I make is not by any means a great amount. In fact it’s only around a little more than double what my rent is.

I think it may be psychological. It is true what many of those travel bloggers say, that travel actually is not as expensive as what people may imagine. And that as long as you account for accommodation and things like flight tickets travel is just like being home — you still have to eat and get around and the usual expenses but you’re just doing it somewhere else.

I think that mindset is good to have. You always have to buy things to eat and in Asia that’s usually cheap. Hostels and even hotels can also be similar to what you pay for a monthly apartment. So travel is only restricted by time and busyness, your conceptual perception of how much time you have. For a freelance, who thinks in freelance ways, it comes easily. I don’t burden myself too much though, on the frugality, while traveling. Because, what’s the point?

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.