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Mom, I’m a freelancer

Thoughts on anxiety around graduating, entry-level employment and making a living out of the arts

By Elodi Troski

I recently graduated from
university and, much to my disappointment, it wasn’t as eventful as one might
think.

I paid the equivalent of about 40
dollars for a much-too-large graduation gown (clearly modelled on the wardrobe
of the Harry Potter-franchise, but lacking sufficient pockets to house bare
necessities such as Chocolate Frogs and the magic wand of the witch or wizard
in question), sat through a four hour long ceremony of which I spent a generous
approximate of 10 seconds on stage, and, to top it all off, didn’t even get a
fridge-worthy photo in commemoration of this joyous day.

As I’m writing this, my degree
scroll is lying on my desk, serving little to no purpose except for sometimes
doubling as a strangely shaped pillow for my cat to rest her head on. Three
years of student loans, Harvard referencing, anxiety meds and prayers before,
during and after French grammar exams: all neatly rolled up into this little
cylinder.

Don’t get me wrong. This “little
cylinder” is one I am very grateful for. But perhaps what is clouding my
gratitude for completing my undergraduate studies are the questions that come
with what I’m going to do with it.     

Trust me, as a student from the
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, I’ve been dealing with comments from condescending
engineering/economics/science/agricultural students for longer than a while.

“You’re majoring in English? But
you’re already fluent?”

“What can you do with your
degree? You can probably teach at a school?”

“Do you ever go to class?”

“Do you ever write exams?”

And, my personal favourite:
“You’ll be fine as long as you marry rich!”

There’s a saying in Afrikaans
that goes “BA-manvang”, which roughly translates to “BA-catch-a-man”,
insinuating that a wealthy spouse is the art student’s only saving grace. This
is a saying mostly used in a sarcastic, self-deprecating manner by BA-students
themselves, much like Taylor Swift making millions, if not billions, out of the
public by turning the tides on their criticism towards her. Which brings me to
the real message of this article: if you consider yourself a student of the
arts in any form, Taylor Swift has lawfully adopted you as her child. No,
that’s not true. Don’t tell her I said that.  

My usual response to anyone
reminding me of my money-deprived future has been that I don’t need a rich man
when I can be my own rich man.

But I’m not Cher and I’ll
probably never say the words “Mom, I am a rich man” out loud without lying
about the state of financial affairs. More accurate would be, “Mom, I am a
freelancer, which means that I often find myself living on nothing but instant
noodles and have trouble applying for health insurance but nonetheless I am
very happy and extremely content in my career”.

What a wholesome life to
live. 

***

When I first told my mom about my
post-graduation plans – to travel through Southeast Asia while vaguely “doing
freelance work” – she didn’t say much except that need to be careful not to end
up in a foreign jail somewhere. This had me questioning what she thought I
meant by “freelance work” but I promised her I would try my best to stay out of
trouble with the Asian authorities.

Now two months into my solo
traveling adventure, I’ve narrowly escaped a late night arrest for driving
without an international license (something I am yet to tell my mom about),
spent about 30 hours on an airport without eating or sleeping because I didn’t
have enough money to get a taxi or train to my hostel, DIY-treated the
terrifying second-degree motorbike burn wound on my lower leg because I
couldn’t afford to go an actual doctor, and bravely dealt with a minor rat
infestation in the kitchen of the Airbnb I lavishly spent the last of my
savings on.

But I’ve also watched more
sunrises and sunsets than I’ve ever done before, had a novel-inspiration-worthy
dinner with an Australian drug dealer (“I only do ‘soft drugs’ right now
because of customs”), shared a dorm room with a 70-year old vegan surfer from
California, celebrated my 21st birthday all by myself in a beach
town in the south of Thailand and have been greeted with “same as yesterday?”
every time I’ve gone to the canteen across the street from the apartment I’m
sharing with an Indonesian rat.

My best friend is making 700
dollars a week babysitting for a rich family in Connecticut and when she told
me her salary, I let the information sink in and waited for myself to start
feeling jealous. But the jealousy never came.

I don’t mind having an empty bank
account when my notebook is full of poetry and sketches and pieces of hasty
travel writing. I don’t mind staying in crappy hostels and drinking cheap
instant coffee when I know that I’m paying for it with my meagre but raw,
earnest freelance income. I’ve learnt to appreciate paper thin dorm room
mattresses as though they’re 5-star hotel beds and I’ve convinced myself that
the complimentary coffees sachets in hostel kitchens are top class foreign
blends that my taste buds are at the very least privileged to be burned by.

I’ve never read as often as I do
now. I’ve never written as much as I do now. And sometimes I even get paid for
it. Isn’t that crazy? I’m doing the one thing I’ve loved my entire life – the
one thing I’ve never gotten bored of – and I get paid to do it?

There is a peace that comes with being
content in your working life that I’m not sure I’m able to put into words. I
wish I could. I wish I could explain to those condescending
engineering/economics/science/agricultural students the incredible lightness of
crossing over the dark lines bordering what it means to have a ‘successful’
career.

There’s no harm in dreaming about
a comfortable life and I’m in no way trying to belittle any career choice,
however different it may be from mine. But at what point in human history was
material luxury inherently prioritized to doing what makes you want to get out
of bed in the morning? Why have I spent so many years panicking about the day
I’ll have to face the world with my degree scroll in my hand and no idea what
to do next?

I’m here now and everything is
okay. Nothing is easy but everything is okay. And I have no ambitions of
becoming a ‘rich man’.

Sorry, Cher.

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