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Working to “Work” in China

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I woke up this morning and realized that I had work to do. Real work. Not “my work,” just work. The “I trade my life to do this shit and you give me money” kind of work. I don’t know how it happened.

It seemed novel at first. Being an employee seemed to be a welcomed change . . .

I’m not going to go this far. I believe “contractor” is technically the word for what I’ve been doing, though it feels like the same thing when I’m told that I need to ship X amount of product by X-hundred hours. The product I ship, of course, are words. Not my words this time, but those of some anonymous sucker who is also selling away their life at the other end of the pipe somewhere. They translate, I edit. We will never meet, talk, or think of one another. The chit we get 45 days after pushing the “work completed” button is all that matters.

I realized a while back that I could become very valuable if I could come up with a system for editing Chinglish — i.e. poorly translated Chinese — into solid (enough) English. What I didn’t understand at that time was how painful this skill would be to cultivate and how unrewarding it would be to ply. I chose this task as it is extremely difficult and nobody else wants to do it. Mastering skills that meet these two attributes is a key for being a very valuable little worker.

The first job like this that I took was for a university professor who could neither speak nor write English. I turned magician, and it ended very un-glamorously. The lady couldn’t take being criticized (i.e. edited), and the pay did not make up for the onerousness of the experience. Though, perhaps, the cultural insights did. Whatever the case, in the process I devised the editing system I was looking for — though I really hoped that I would never have to use it again.

Then I received an offer from a media company needing an editor to fix up some translated Chinese. At first I didn’t think much of the job. I accepted it, of course, but sort of forgot about it. Two weeks later they emailed me again, offering a raise. I’ve never been rewarded for not showing up to work before. The novelty got my attention.

The job has proved decent so far. They have real translators who seem to actually know English. So the work is not difficult. When the translation sucks I mark it as shit and send it back. Though what the task lacks in difficulty it makes up for in tediousness: thousand and thousands and thousands of lines that need nothing more than basic grammatical fix-ups. Post-translation editing is a twisted form of copy editing — bottom wrung of the newsroom kind of work. It’s extremely basic, tedious, robotic . . . It’s work.

But it pays OK. I make around $1,500 from roughly two or three weeks of working approximately three hours per day. This truly isn’t a bad per hour rate, and leaves most of the day open for other projects.

Actually, I’m in no position to complain about this work. It’s the perfect travel job. The company sends me an email offering me a job, and I click accept or decline. The projects are generally short term, and I can take them whenever I want or need to.

I’ve found myself in a financial pit this summer. The weather is beautiful and I want to go out and make a full length documentary to accompany the ghost cities book and I want to start working on another book. But the cash just isn’t there. I can’t even bullshit that it is. Literally, it’s gone, the coffers are dry. The fast travel for my last book put me in a pit of penniless-ness. To get out of this hole I started up a couple small businesses and began taking initiative to increase the earnings from this website and its related financial streams. The road ahead looks to be a little more fruitful, but the cash won’t start coming in for some months yet. By then summer will be gone, and I wouldn’t have obtained what I’m after.

The challenge here isn’t how to make money. I know how to make money, I’ve been hacking together a living on the road for 15 years. The challenge is how to make a lot of money with very little time. I no longer need to just make enough cash to get from place to place and eat, but enough to fund a film and another book — both of which are expensive, even using vagabond means. I need more money than I’ve ever needed before, and I’m pretty much doing whatever it takes to get it. It’s fortunate that I’m in China.

“There are so many things that you can do for money in China, it’s crazy,” a friend spoke the other night.

It’s true. For the past month or so I’ve been taking on various jobs, and figured that I may as well write a short narrative book about how a penniless vagabond can make money in this country. May as well capitalize on this sorry state of affairs. I tell myself that I’m writing a book about these experiences because I know that it will make me actually go out and find interesting jobs to do. The reality, of course, is that I need the money. Sometimes I kick myself in the ass for cultivating such an unglamorous skill set. There are many ways that I can make money from a laptop, but a man sitting at a computer is never interesting. I have to cut the tether again if this book will actually be worth writing.

As of now, I have around a dozen streams of income. I need to tack on a couple more before the summer is out.

For four years I only did “my work” — the stuff that I am proud of, the stuff that defines this era of life, the stuff that gives me a working title and an identity. “My work” is the stuff that I choose to put my time into which has benefits beyond the money it procures. I work on my projects of passion and I build up the skills and knowledge and experience that I value. I work on what I’m passionate about, and this is precisely the reward: having something to obsess over, something that keeps the mind spinning, something that never stops feeding a feeling of accomplishment — the feeling of getting somewhere, the feeling of having something to wake up in the morning for.

Work is something else entirely. Work is something that you do solely for money. There is no broader value to editing jobs than getting paid. There is no broader value to the side jobs and businesses that I will work on over the next couple of months. The hope is that this work will make me enough money to continue doing “my work.”

Though working to “work” can easily descend into a redundant Catch-22 of sorts: you work to make money to fund your projects but you can’t engage in your projects because you spend all of your time working.

When I was 20 years old I met a former traveler in a hostel in Santiago. He was around 30 or so, and spent a good number of years when he was younger traveling as I was: poor, but able to go anywhere and do whatever he wanted. By the time I met him he’d become successful in some business firm, pulling in large amounts of cash. He explained to me why, though wealthy, he can’t travel anymore as I was.

“When I was young,” he said, ” I used to have more time than money. Now I have more money than time.”

I snickered at the bastard, but now I understand his riddle: How do you get a lot money and have a lot of time too?

Cracking this is the challenge here.

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Filed under: Make Money for Travel, Perpetual Travel, Travel Diary, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 79 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3092 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Vega Alta, Puerto RicoMap