Beijing Bunker: A TBJ Writer’s Masterclass on Freelancing Through a Crisis

2 weeks ago
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As Beijing enters its eighth week in self-quarantine, the stories of how people have been dealing with the coronavirus outbreak – by staying, leaving, or watching on from afar – are many and varied. In Beijing Bunker, we quiz Beijingers on what approach they’ve been taking to stay safe and sane through the ordeal.


For every person that stuck it out in Beijing through Chinese New Year and way beyond, there’s another person who left but found themselves somewhere that they never planned to be, at least for so long. Enter Robynne Tindall, long-time Beijinger staffer-turned-freelancer who is usually in charge of telling you about all of the top-notch grub in this city. Unfortunately, Tindall has found herself marooned in Boris’ Britain, weathering ever-more severe quarantine policies and a multitude of policy flip-flops along the way (it wouldn’t be Britain without some flip-flopping, after all). Here we speak to her about how she’s been coping and what it’s like living through the coronavirus outbreak for a second time.

Can you first tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m from the UK, have been in Beijing for eight and a half years. I moved here after graduating from university with a degree in Chinese studies. At the time I was struggling to find decent jobs in the UK that incorporated Chinese language skills so I took a punt of moving to Beijing, working as a freelance writer/editor/translator, mostly focusing on food, travel, and lifestyle. 

Would you consider yourself safe, sane, safe and sane, or other? Why?
Safe absolutely but sane varies from day to day. What with the constant news cycle and policies/travel advice changing every couple of hours, I’m finding it pretty hard to focus, so I’m just trying to be kind to myself and take every day as it comes.

Has the virus disrupted your travel plans or those of your loved ones?
I decided to leave Beijing and fly to Kuala Lumpur on Feb 9, as the focus of international attention was very much still on China back then and I wanted to make sure I was out of the country for a full 14 days before deciding what to do. I flew back to the UK on Feb 28 and have been here ever since. I initially thought I’d try and get back to Beijing around mid-April but that is looking increasingly unlikely what with airlines grounding their entire fleets and the high cost of quarantining in a hotel when I land (which I certainly cannot afford – see my answer about how the situation has affected my work).

I’m especially worried about not being able to get back because of my cats, but luckily, my roommate and I have got a wonderful sitter from Spare Leash pet sitting service who has been able to extend his stay. I highly recommend using them if you find yourself in a similar situation.

How have you been spending your time since the outbreak? How has your life changed or not changed on account of the situation?
I tend towards the introverted at the best of times, so being told to stay inside and avoid people has really legitimized my lifestyle.

For the first week or so after I got back to the UK at the end of February, things were pretty normal here. However, my mum is on the list of people considered extra vulnerable so we’ve been “social distancing” as much as possible for a while now. 

No-one is more surprised about this than me, but I’ve gotten pretty into gardening/DIY, since we have a big garden at home. If you had asked me in Beijing if I thought I’d be dismantling a shed in my parents’ garden at the end of the March I’d have laughed into my Mosto brunch.

Has the situation affected your work or business? If so, how?
I mostly work for companies on a freelance or part-time basis so the switch to working from home hasn’t made much difference. Being able to work flexibly has definitely been a boon in this scenario and what work I have had to do has definitely helped with the “sane” part of “safe and sane.”

Some of the companies I work for have had to cut back and non-essential employees like me are the first to go. As much as this is understandable, I’ll admit that it took me by surprise and I wasn’t prepared for the hit to my income. I’ve had to scramble to find new work, but luckily there is still stuff out there, particularly as life returns to almost normal in Beijing.

With that in mind, if anyone reading this is looking to switch to full-time freelance in the future, I’d give them the following tips:

  • Be sure that you know the weak links in your freelance portfolio – which contracts would be the first to go?
  • Check in with clients frequently, even clients you might not have worked for for a couple of years.
  • Assess how diversifiable your skills are. Could you do translation as well as writing? Could you teach art/cooking/a musical instrument on the side?
  • Consider starting a subscription-based project such as a newsletter or podcast that followers pay to subscribe to so that you have a financial safety net.

Have there been any unexpected upsides to this whole situation? 
It’s been nice to have some real quality time with my parents. I’m sure most people who live abroad will relate that when you usually go home it’s for a couple of weeks around a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas and you spend more time running around doing errands and visiting family than actually talking to each other. 

What’s one thing that you’ve done that has saved you a lot of hassle/time/insanity?
I have started running outside again properly for the first time in about 15 years (since it’s one of the only things we’re allowed to do in the UK at the moment) but honestly, the things that have kept me sane are Netflix and YouTube. I keep seeing stuff online about how to be productive during self-isolation but this is such a stressful time that I think we should all just get a free pass for some TV binging. Plus there are so many good-quality shows these days that it hardly feels like wasting time.

What do you most look forward to doing once all of this has blown over?
Having a reason to leave the house with makeup on (although with all this time on my hands, my smoky eye game is now extremely on point).

Want to hire Robynne? Get in touch with her at @gongbaobeijing on Twitter and Instagram.

READ: Beijing Bunker: On Eliminating Bad Habits and Starting Afresh in Quarantine

Images courtesy of Robynne Tindall

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