By Jennifer Gampell
I became a writer in 1993 because I couldn't make a living selling Balinese jewelry in France. I'm based in Thailand because I crashed a motorcycle here. These are the most plausible explanations I can come up with in the short time I've been given to turn the story of my life as a freelance writer in Asia into a publishable piece of journalism.
The truth of the matter is, I'm an accidental journalist: I literally hit the accelerator when I should have hit the brake. After two years of world wanderings that included several misguided business ventures and a month in a Thai hospital, I decided-to paraphrase Monty Python-it was now time for "something completely different." And that something was becoming a writer.
I wasn't always this adventurous, or this reckless for that matter. For 15 long years, until 1990, I worked for a famous scientist at the University of California San Francisco as his "administrative assistant." That's one of those marvelously euphemistic titles like "sanitary engineer." Sounds important, but ultimately the reality of managing a 25-person science lab isn't much more exotic than organizing other people's garbage.
Why'd I stay so long? For the same reason most people stay in jobs they can't stand: because I was afraid to leave. All my nice upper middle-class American friends, former hippies who now have careers and children who attend private schools, told me I was lucky to have such a well-paid, secure position. Anyhow, I couldn't imagine what other meaningful employment a 1960s college dropout with advanced secretarial skills could hope to find in an increasingly competitive West Coast job market. Besides, I earned enough money for a nice house, a fancy car and tons of therapy to figure out why I was so unhappy.
Like most working stiffs, I lived for vacations. Every year I'd head off to Europe, Mexico, Guatemala, the mountains of California. Any place where I could forget about having a regular job. Every year after I returned I swore I'd quit. For a decade and a half I didn't.
But even cowardice has a statute of limitations. My father died in 1988 and left me a little money. I put half of it in the bank, converted the other half into travelers' checks, quit my job and rented out my house. I bought a backpack, lots of expensive organic hair dye (don't ask) and a one-year around-the-world plane ticket.
As a going away present, a good friend gave me a beautiful journal with gilt-edged pages. Another bought me a Waterman fountain pen and a supply of purple ink cartridges. I'd never kept a journal or done any other kind of writing beyond a few desultory attempts at "writing out my feelings," which is California psychobabble for whinging. These boring litanies of doom and gloom inevitably got shoved into the bottom of a drawer after a week or two.
On June 1, 1990, I flew to Bali. Only after four weeks passed and I didn't have to go back to work at the dreaded university lab did I fully appreciate that whatever I was doing could no longer be termed a vacation. Every experience--from the mundane to the bizarre--suddenly seemed worth remembering. I began filling my new journal with the day's events, writing in tiny scrunched up lines to save space. Every two months I transcribed the best bits into a long letter and sent it on to friends. But I never dreamed that I could make a living through writing.
Even lounging on the beach in Bali costs money so I began considering my future income earning options. I adore handmade silver jewelry, I thought to myself, and Bali is filled with it. I speak fluent French, I mused, and always wanted to spend more time in France. Why not combine the two and sell silver jewelry in France! OK, so it was a crazy idea, but it seemed eminently sensible at the time. Charged with entrepreneurial spirit, I bought enough jewelry to fill a couple of big Balinese shoulder bags, stopped off in Thailand for two months of sightseeing, and arrived in France in the fall of 1990.
But, alas, my jewelry-importing career was to be short lived. I'd blithely ignored several minor technical details--like import licenses and selling permits. Besides, offloading a few baubles went out with the '80s. Successful importing, I discovered, involves trade shows, letters of credit and a business sense I clearly lacked. Oh well. I ended up peddling my wares at a reasonable profit during lunch-hour sales in lobbies of large corporations.
Contemplating my next move was easier in sunny Thailand than arctic Europe. After a 10-day meditation retreat and a few weeks of mindful lounging about on a southern island filled with more Lonely Planet readers than Thais, I figured I ought to visit less touristed parts of the country. While exploring the Golden Triangle, I bumped into some adventure-seekers from the island who would change my life--and almost end it.
"Rent a motorcycle and come riding with us!" they enthused. "I've never driven a motorcycle," I told them. "Don't worry! It's easy!" they assured me. And it was--at first. I spent the morning and early afternoon of February 19, 1991, zooming along country roads. Around 3 p.m. I headed into a curve and somehow grabbed the accelerator instead of the brake. "Here I go!" I thought as the bike careened into the oncoming lane and plowed into a concrete guardrail, sending me soaring through the warm Thai air. I landed in a ditch several meters from the bike. I came to with my right leg permanently arranged in the classic lotus position. Miraculously, I ended up with no major injuries, apart from a dislocated hip.
A one-month stay on the orthopedic ward of a provincial government hospital loaded affords fabulous insights into Thai life and customs. Flat on my back with my right leg in traction, I learned about the primal role of eating (we Westerners bring flowers to patients, the Thais bring food), the rigid hierarchical social structure (a doctor can hold up the wrong X-ray and his word is still law), and where not to hang your underwear (on the bedstead or anywhere else above knee level because this is considered sacrilegious). The inherently good-natured Thais managed to turn a potentially lonely and terrifying hospital experience into laughter-filled adventure. They treated me like a strange Martian relative, but a relative nonetheless. For someone from a "dysfunctional" American home, it was an emotional El Dorado.
After recuperating in Bangkok, I traveled around for another year. But aimless wandering can become as boring as a desk job. I'd met people who taught English in Bangkok and that seemed a lot easier than flogging Balinese bijoux. On May 19, 1992, the day I lugged my backpack into a $40 per month room in a small house I shared with 19 other Thai residents (and one bathroom), soldiers were firing on demonstrators in downtown Bangkok.
I proved no more adept at teaching English to children of wealthy Japanese businessmen than selling jewelry to the French. Now what? Friends back in California who still received my bimonthly travel logs kept urging me to try to sell my writing. I couldn't imagine why anyone would be interested but I also couldn't imagine teaching spoiled expat kids forever. My first story-ironically on the dos and don'ts of renting motorcycle taxis--appeared in the Bangkok Post in March 1993. The rest is indeed history.
What does this long-winded personal rant have to do with being a freelance writer? Hopefully, it explains why I love keeping my lance free, as one editor recently described it. When well-meaning established writers urge me to find a steady reporting job or at least focus on a niche market, I cringe. I spent 15 years stuck in a niche. Now, for better (when an editor says I've done a great job) or worse (when I'm told my writing is flat and not compelling), I'm in charge.
The uncertainty of never knowing where the next idea will come from or which (if any) editor will accept it, makes the freelance process simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. If I'd stayed at the lab in California I would never have covered an international juggling festival in Laos or a dove singing festival in Thailand. I wouldn't have interviewed the governor of Bangkok or a Catholic priest working with Bangkok slum children. A few months ago I even got to interview a famous New York artist who, believe it or not, teaches elephants how to paint abstract art.
Many of my friends in the U.S. are contemplating their early retirements. Jeez. I've barely started my career! Sure, I no longer own a house, a car, or a retirement plan. But I live in a wacky apartment in Chinatown overlooking the river, and I'm proud to say I rarely know from one day to the next what's going to happen. Freelance writing is a lot like gunning the throttle of the motorcycle instead of applying the brakes. The outcome may not be what you anticipated, yet the momentum propels you forward in amazing new directions.
Copyright © 1998 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell