“Well, now that you’re doing interpreting, you can add it to your already teetering stack of jobs,” my friend quipped recently.
This was in a response to a gig I landed interpreting for a major media company at the Beijing offices of the United Nations, a total honor. I nervously stepped into the role with no real experience in the industry except my ten years of living here speaking Chinese. Well, also countless casual interpretation tasks I’d done for my Chinese family members or visiting English-speaking family and friends, but I wasn’t sure that was going to cut it.
Her comment made me pause. “Don’t you have, like, twelve different jobs, Ember?” she added, laughing, in response to my crunched brow.
I started counting them, upwards in order of priority: musician, writer, singer, songwriter, voice-over artist, translator, English tutor, recording engineer, audio editor, voice coach, booking agent, interpreter, researcher…
Of course, my number one job is being a mother to my two kids, daughter Echo (nearly 7) and son Topaz (nearly 5). The freelance frenzy I manage daily is designed to fit around their needs, first and foremost. So far, it seems to be working.
While my friend described it as a dangerously stacked tower, I liken it more to the game Tetris. Remember that video game? A series of differently falling shapes all comprised of squares must be fit together to eventually create complete horizontal lines on the bottom of the screen, which then disappear, clear space, and turn into points. The trick to Tetris is knowing in which direction to turn the shapes quickly in order to fit them into available open spaces.
For a freelancer like me, living in Beijing is like living at the bottom of a Tetris screen. The work falls out of the sky, is all coming from different spheres and requires some concerted manipulation to fit into the solid timeline of a day. When I manage to fill a day with lucrative blocks that keep my rent paid, kids fed, and their school fees paid, I give myself serious points.
Yet, it’s also a bit frenetic. There are times when I have to press pause on it all and just focus on one thing. Most of the time, as my greatest passions, music or writing gets this privilege. They’re also the fields with the largest ongoing projects. As well, I’ve learned to favor work that doesn’t require a fixed weekly time schedule because I often have to travel for my music. I’ve brought my tutoring or coaching down to once a week, for instance, limiting my number of students.
But, for a Tetris-style freelance mom, kid blocks are the most important. They’re the early morning routine that ends with watching them board the bus at 7.40am, paired with the afternoon bus pick-up at 4pm that ends with the kids being tucked in bed at 7:30pm. All the jobs I do in-between must somehow fit together. And exercise, socializing and empty blocks (to literally do nothing) are just as important in the game. Without planning them in, I’d feel much less healthy all around.
That media company called me back to interpret again for a UN-related event this week. I’m excited about this new “shape” that has fallen from the freelance sky and seems to be fitting in quite well. That’s the beauty of Beijing: you never know what opportunity is around the corner here. And if you compare it to a video game that you’re ultimately controlling, life never needs to feel like it’s all going to topple over.
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She has a daughter called Echo (벌흔寧) and a son called Topaz or “Paz” (벌各질).
This article appeared in the beijingkids November 2018 Beijing Makers issue
Photo: Adobe Creative Cloud