Expat Freelancers on the Advantages and Challenges of Working AbroadBy Joann Plockova February 9th, 2016
Being an expatriate has always had a certain mystique to it. For writers like Richard Wright, William S. Burroughs, and James Baldwin, living abroad was both an escape from the pressures of home and a fundamental part of the art they produced.
For freelancers, living and working abroad has only become more possible thanks to the Internet. In theory, all freelancers have the flexibility to work from anywhere—but only some follow through and relocate to a new country.
Originally from Delaware, I’ve been freelancing in Prague since 2008. I first came to the city in 2001 and settled here with my Czech husband in 2007. Today, I write mainly about design and travel, and my bylines include The New York Times, Monocle, Four Seasons Magazine, and the Financial Times.
Plenty of other freelance creatives have moved aboard in recent years. American writer and editor Justin Bergman has been in Shanghai since 2010. Kansas City native Charly Wilder, a regular contributor to The New York Times, currently calls Berlin home. And British author and freelancer Toni Summers Hargis currently lives in Chicago.
Although all our stories are different, we share the perspective that the advantages of being an expat freelancer outweigh the negatives. Here’s a closer look at what it’s like to live the expat freelancer life, plus some recommendations for anyone thinking of working abroad.
The mystique of the expat
Since moving to the U.S. in the ’90s, Hargis’s experience abroad has, in one way or another, informed the majority of her work. “Most of what I write concerns U.S. and U.K. matters,” she said in an email.
Hargis began freelancing after the publication of her first book, Rules, Britannia: An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom. She was approached by a number of magazines and websites, including the The Wall Street Journal, BBC America‘s “Mind the Gap” section, and Expat Focus, where she is now a columnist.
Her story illustrates a crucial benefit of writing outside of your home country: Standing out from the crowd as a foreigner can be a massive advantage. I’ve had numerous editors express their appreciation about receiving story ideas from Prague since I can provide perspective both as an insider and an American.
“The advantage is definitely being ‘the foreigner,'” Hargis said. “There are now a lot of Brits in the U.S., but I think I was lucky (and old) enough to get into that market before the age of blogging, so I was invited to do radio and TV interviews before the deluge. There is plenty of material when you’re viewing it from a foreigner’s eyes.”
And as Wilder said, being an expat can help thin the competition: “Being an expat actually helps in some ways because there are simply less people competing for the same gigs and pitching the same stories.”
Location itself can also be a huge advantage, depending on the demand for freelance work. For Bergman, Shanghai has proven to be particularly fruitful. “Shanghai is really a freelancer’s market,” he said. “The demand for stories is plentiful. I’m having to turn stuff down now.”
Expat freelancing is still freelancing
Both Bergman and Wilder arrived in their new homes following the 2008 financial crisis. Among the casualties of a large layoff at a major travel magazine in New York, Bergman returned to Shanghai when his partner was offered a job there. Having always worked a “day job” while doing a bit of freelance work on the side, Bergman’s goal was to make the transition to freelance full-time.
To do so, he reached out to existing contacts (including Monocle, where he is now the Shanghai correspondent) and a network of local freelancers who helped put him in touch with publications he writes and edits for today, such The New York Times and the Associated Press.
His thoughts on the challenges of working abroad could apply to freelancers anywhere: “You have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty.”
Wilder certainly did. After completing her graduate studies in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU, she made the decision to “get out of dodge” as “the financial crisis was settling in, and the media sector was imploding.” When she got to Berlin, her situation worsened before it got better.
“But I kept hustling,” she said, “cold-pitching articles to anyone whose email I could get a hold of, working night shifts in bars and techno clubs to pay rent, which was still incredibly cheap in Berlin at that point.”
Today, she writes mainly for The New York Times—a relationship that began with the publication’s travel blog and has since expanded to the Arts, Sports, and Foreign Desk sections—along with other publications mostly based out of America.
But despite the geographical edge, Wilder still deals with common freelancing hurdles, like sending email after email that never get a response. “For the most part, [the challenges I’ve faced] have been similar to the challenges a non-expat freelancer,” she added.
Navigating foreign waters
In many cases, language barriers are a recurring challenge for freelancing expats. For example, Bergman initially conducted his interviews using limited Chinese, but struggled because he wasn’t able to get the full breadth of answers.
“It’s trial and error,” he said. He ultimately solved the translation problem once he found out that translators and interpreters are both readily available and affordable in China. He even joined a coworking space with a group of other journalists who share assistants and interns.
Expat journalist may also have to deal with locals who don’t take kindly to your work for cultural reasons. Although he seldom has issues now, Bergman noted that securing interviews can be difficult in China because foreign media is perceived to be suspicious.
“You learn to work with the system,” he said.
Should you take the plunge?
Would these expat freelancers recommend the life? “If you can make a living at it, the freedom, flexibility, and travel opportunities are great,” Bergman said.
Bergman, whose assignments have taken him to Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and all over mainland China, recommends building up your portfolio through some freelance work before making a major move. He attributes a lot of his success to his years of experience back in the U.S.: “I know what editors want, and they are more willing to take the risks.”
Bergman also supplements his income with steady work like teaching magazine and travel writing courses through Stanford’s online writing program.
From Wilder’s perspective, if you like money, consistency, and positive reinforcement, then the expat freelance life probably isn’t for you. “If you’re more like me and prefer adventure over stability and are willing to work side jobs,” she said, “go for it.”Image by Creative Commons