Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘networking

The Freelancer’s Puzzle

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I want to make more money, so I can do more things. But how can I do that?

As a freelancer I have a lot of time to think.

And with that time I often think about things I could do with that time. For example: travel, both near and far, to visit friends, or just to go somewhere.

I would also like to save as I can foresee myself needing money sometime in the future, for some new adventure.

More money gives you more options. As freelance I already generate a stable income where I am not tied down to location. I can do the work I do any place — all I need is a laptop. In fact I can even do the work on my smartphone.

This makes me feel like I can go. Go where? Doesn’t matter so much.

I’ve been hustling a little bit for new work, to make more money. But something crucial about freelance and the work opportunities in Beijing is that a lot of it comes down to contacts and networks, suggestions, offers, and recommendations. Those lines of contact generate chance offers.

I’ve been waiting for a few of them to finally produce results. But it’s not certain. While other opportunities have occurred without any input from me. That’s the beauty of recommendations and professional networks — a cloud that floats around you, basically invisible, supported by people you barely know but who also have clouds barely tangible to them.

It actually makes me feel a little powerless because it isn’t always clear how to move forward. How to actively and consciously get more work for yourself.

I guess I could just get myself out there. Make inquiries. Meet more people. Send more emails and pitches. That is something I definitely don’t do enough of. And yet it seems that the more powerful way of getting work is via recommendation and personal suggestions.

In China, there is an all-encompassing word for this. It’s “guanxi”, which roughly translates as “connections”. But it’s much more than that. Much more than the western idea of “networking”.

In China people will do favours for you without an immediate expectation of a favour back, because they know doing favours for others improves their own social standing. It’s not a back-and-forth exchange, it’s about creating a social web of influence for yourself.

In China, the real movers and shakers are the ones who can create golden webs of influence which they can leverage and jostle, pulling strands and moving yourself around this web. It’s beautiful almost.

Anyway, that’s a tangent. I’m just aware that I want more income and I’m not fully sure, on a day to day basis, how to go about trying to secure that. It’s a puzzle for me to figure out.

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Published pieces about being in China: 2012-present

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Some friends and I.

Me and some friends

Here is a list of articles that I have had published about my time in China. The following collection of articles are specifically about life and the experiences I’ve had in China, rather than journalism about China itself. This post will be updated whenever something new is out.

Fast track to love? Hunting for a date on Beijing’s subway

This is a lighthearted piece about the time I took on a bet to see if I could get a date while riding Beijing’s crowded subway system within a week. A piece of whimsy that was fun to write but hard to pull off.

“Finding a date in Beijing is not especially difficult. If you know where to go, you can have your pick of either wayfaring expats, happy-go-lucky students or young, eager Chinese all on the lookout for potential mates. Beijing, like any other great city of the world, is a mass of people trying to hook up”.

An ode to Chinese greasy spoons

This is quite tightly written and quite a personal piece too. About the first fragile months after I’d moved to Beijing, my ambition as a young journalist, and growing up in the city through the habit of eating out.

When I first arrived in Beijing in the autumn of 2012, I was nervy. A confused young journalist straight out of university and with big ambitions. I walked the large, grey streets of the city aware of my surroundings, but alien to the environment. Everything was ordinary and extraordinary, new and old; a city of 21 million people where the mundane – a beggar, a street festooned with litter – jostled with the outlandish. 

Travel and Videogames: Missing Play in Beijing

I’ve been a gamer for a long time but since moving to Beijing I’ve mostly not been able to. This essay explores the incredibly strong desire I had to play and how much I missed playing my console. It’s also about travel, reality and the desire for adventure.

“I knew that I should be having adventures and experiences for real, too. For myself, rather than through a virtual character. That I should get to know “reality”…. When I was 18, I decided to go abroad. I lived in a small town thousands of miles away from home. I learnt a lot about relationships, what I want and how to get it, all that stuff”.

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5 things to do upon arriving in a new country, as a foreign correspondent

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Not as a traveler of course, but as a journalist, and maybe even to set yourself up as a freelance foreign correspondent.

Try to book in some stories
This is important. Some may find the prospect of traveling and going to a new locale stressful enough without having to think about reporting and deadlines to deliver on top of everything else. You’re a professional journalist, you need to be on stories 24/7. Having stories to do will give purpose and focus to your journey.

You should be pitching lots of ideas to a varied smorgasbord of publications well before your flight. A little research goes a long way – find out about new trends, in culture, society, business, look for the stories behind them, related to them, the human sides. You’re going to be a reporter on-the-ground, this gives you an advantage to staff reporters who are nowhere near the action, writing their stories about Columbia, Japan, etc on their London desks.

You could, for example, find expats. Many newspapers have a section devoted to expatriate life. But business editors, food, culture editors are also interested in Brits who are abroad doing interesting things. They have to be truly interesting though – are they an interesting person, in an interesting field, with a story that changes over time or demonstrates a trend? Look on websites, many countries have English-language publications for expats. Having a few stories to do when settling in somewhere forces you to make new connections, orientate yourself journalistically and establishes your presence in that country. Oh, and the moolah helps too.

Make contacts
But how? Well, go to events – gigs, lectures, art exhibitions, trade fairs, expat gatherings, open mic nights, hobby gatherings – you have to get yourself out there and start meeting as many new people as possible. And ask for business cards wherever appropriate. Ask for recommendations, maybe your new found friend knows someone with a business or is a musician, great – everything helps, to establish your feet and antennae for potential stories. Most locals, unlike reserved Brits, tend to be open and friendly toward foreigners so make best use of your exotic status.

Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable. Having journalist friends opens a massive amount of routes and having people to bounce ideas around or to work on stories together is priceless. In Beijing, I’ve had the fortune to make several journalists’ acquaintances and it can be a true inspiration to hear their stories of how they got into journalism.  

Attend talks, lectures, debates
I’ve found these events the single easiest way of making the best relevant contacts in one go. In Beijing there are two particular hot-spots and that’s at The Bookworm (a bookstore), and regular lecture events given by professors and intellectuals in Wudaokou, a student area in west Beijing. The Bookworm hosts regular cultural events and often feature eminent people. I’ve attended talks given by Mark Kitto, a former columnist for Prospect with a long and colourful history in China, and Martin Parr, a world-renowned British photographer.

What’s more important than the speakers themselves are the audience. After the speaker finishes, if you hang around or wait to speak to the speaker, you’ll find a lot of the audience can be just as interesting. I’ve met journalists from Chinese media in the audience who’ve subsequently become contacts. I’ve met scientists, academics, diplomats and trade officials. I often ask for business cards. An audience member I once met talked about doing her PhD in Beijing and told me, off the cuff, that China is the world leader in nanotechnology research – possible story and readymade contact there.

Start a blog, journal, diary
A blog can encourage writing and reporting, without the drain of thinking ‘Will it get commissioned?’ – you always have a back-up, and well written blog-posts are advertising for your work, and could lead to commissions. Even if you land one or two off the strength of your blog, that is reward enough, and it’ll strengthen your writing and research skills anyway. Also of course, book deals and invitations to give paid talks can arise, it happens – Adam Westbrook is prime example. Many a China writer’s career has been launched off the back of a blog, even media businesses have been bought and sold from blog-like beginnings. Danwei.org and Tea Leaf Nation were both humble online-only publications, with the latter recently bought by Foreign Policy for an undisclosed sum. Keeping a journal meanwhile will force you to seek out new experiences and will be a nostalgia-ridden chronicle of your hapless time spent trying to chase freelance and foreign dreams. Perfect material for a book…

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 21, 2013 at 12:20 am

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