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Broke in China

Being broke isn’t necessarily an undesirable state of affairs; working isn’t just to make money. If I want to keep on this path, I need to try something new.

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I’m broke.

This is a good expression. A broke thing doesn’t work, and neither does a human without money. I’m very literally broken as I sit here writing this in Xiamen. I can’t travel anywhere, I can’t really do much other than walk on the beach, learn to read and write Chinese better, write, and scheme.

Life isn’t that bad, no alarms are sounding. I would like to say that this is the normal state of the vagabond, but I haven’t been this broke since my mid-twenties. I’m a little embarrassed, but I’m not decimated. I have $500. The good news is that I’ve had roughly $500 for the past two months. I’m staying steady, for each dollar that goes out another is coming in. Technically, this is sustainable. In actuality, I need to increase earnings if I want to catch what I’m after.

I want to keep writing books, but research for the first one whipped me out financially. As of now, I have no idea how much money I can make from writing books, but I do know that they are very expensive to produce. Unless writing a travel book, the travel that is required is of a different sort. You’re traveling to meet people, do interviews, see places and things in particular — which are often spaced across thousands of kilometers — and you generally need to get between them quickly. Fast, long distance travel is expensive travel. Add to this the fact that showing up places looking like I was pulled out of a dumpster wouldn’t be to my advantage. So I need nice clothes (cheap “nice” clothes are transparent and pathetic) and nice shoes, and as I don’t want to appear as if I’d just stepped out of a dorm room full of Chinese dudes ripping farts all night, on days before a meeting or interview I need my own hotel room. This means money, around double my usual travel fare.

I want to keep writing books. I have three other books about China that are in various stages of production, but for each I need to move, I need to travel — I need a lot of money, and if I really want to get these projects done, I need a lot of money fast.

I’ve never lamented being broke before. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I welcome this state of affairs, when it comes I just accept it — like when a couple drunken, sunflower seed spitting, lound mouth nongs pile around you on a train. The situation isn’t necessarily perilous, but it’s one that you want to get out of as fast as possible.

Though being broke does imbibe a sense of excitement into life. Being broke means what you are doing doesn’t work, it means you have to do something else — i.e. start something new. I look out over China and it is very clear that there are many social spheres that I completely unfamiliar with. I can make inferences about what it’s like in the business world here, what engaging in foreign exports consists of, and what the experience of running a company is, but I don’t really know shit about any of this. It is time that I start learning.

The traveler is perpetually on the outside looking in, you slide around on the outer shell of the planet. Part of the main directive of travel is to permeate through this barrier whenever the opportunity arises. Once in a while you will just stumble into the inner sphere of a culture, but more often you need to prepare in advance, arm yourself with knowledge, cultivate relationships — work for it. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to seek out employment.

Historically speaking, vagabonds travel for work, and working in a place is probably the best way to really experience it. Harry Francks’s A Vagabond Journey Around the World began on the premise that the most effective way to learn about the people of the world is to labor at their side. Engaging in more continual relationships, working towards mutual goals, seeing the same people each day and creating some degree of a mutual history is the way to access the societies you’ve traveled across the world to learn from.

I’ve spent many years traveling through and living in China, but there are still entire worlds here that I still know nothing about. I’ve never started a business here. I’ve never had a product manufactured. I’ve never imported or exported anything. I’ve never toiled in the service sector. Except for a couple of weeks in 2006 I’ve never even taught English. As far as work goes the only things I’ve ever done here was blog and write books. In many regards I’m standing outside of myriad cultural micro-spheres, but some of them I can get to the other side of simply by working.

This blog was originally the story of a perpetually broke guy working his way around the world. But when that broke guy began making enough money to travel from this blog the focus likewise shifted. To put it bluntly, a guy sitting around on a computer doesn’t make for good travel work stories.

But now I’m back to the beginning. Though traffic remains good, revenue from this website has been crashing for the past two years (from $5 per page per year to $1), and it can no longer keep me afloat. As I’ve outlined above, I also need more money. I’m not mopey about this — to the contrary, the potentiality for change is stimulating. I really needed to do something different, and not just for monetary reasons.

So I’ve been doing whatever I can to make money — digging into professions I’ve never touched before in social sects I don’t normally frequent. I’ve also started up a couple low risk, low investment businesses. Sometimes it’s been interesting, sometimes it’s been rather painful. When you’re hanging on the edge of a culture (i.e. just traveling) you’re able to avoid many of it’s more unique (read: onerous) aspects, but when you take a job or do business you’re thrust right in their path. This is when you learn what a place is all about.

There is a lot that can be learned from being broke.

Filed under: China, Travel Diary, Work

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • scott May 13, 2014, 8:29 pm

    Well people like to eat. Bake one apple pie and put a sign in your window. Sell by the slice. See what happens. Tax free. Keep it simple. Vagabond catering. Apple pie for that special occasion.

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    • VagabondJourney May 14, 2014, 3:42 am

      Would be good except for the fact that I’m on the 14th floor of a high-rise πŸ™‚ I am thinking along those lines though, and I’m starting up some similar little enterprises.

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      • scott May 14, 2014, 8:58 am

        There is this husband and
        wife team from Venezuela near me that sell specialty donuts from a
        converted ice cream cart on wheels with an umbrella. Whole grain type donuts dipped in chocolate. The guy wears white pro chef suit and he parks his cart near rich areas or people sitting near the beach in
        their cars. He sells about 5 different type donuts in clear plastic
        with a label stapled on the top of the plastic bag. He treats each
        customer like gold. You think you are in a five star restaurant.
        Donuts are to die for and not cheap. I think he is doing good. Cup
        cakes is another thing becoming popular in my area.

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        • VagabondJourney May 15, 2014, 3:36 am

          That sounds like a pretty good act there! May do something similar.

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  • David Jacobs May 14, 2014, 7:16 am

    Good to read some stories. As always… Your take on things is interesting. What’s Chaya doing?

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  • Jack Woods May 22, 2014, 1:19 am

    Interesting post, I know it sucks to be broke, especially in a foreign country. I have been there and done that so many times in the last 15 years abroad. About the best you can do is work through. Your wife is still teaching, right?

    Maybe it’s also time to find a different way to make money…the web as a way to earn money for content producers has been on a downward spiral since 2008. Content isn’t worth as much as people keep on Facebook and Youtube…..who are the ones who really make the money. Paper books might be the best way to go in the long run. Give out free tastes on Facebook and wherever and get people to buy a book.

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  • grasya May 28, 2014, 9:25 am

    ive been broke on the road too.. but for some reasons, help came in different forms. it’s good that you put your status out here, who knows someone reading this may be able to reach out. ^_^ btw, I tried different income streams just so if i get broke on one gig, at least I have another gig to rely on..

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