How freelancing has allowed me to navigate an international relationship

As a writer and editor who has been freelancing for more than seven years now, I appreciate many aspects of this working lifestyle, and I wouldn’t give them up for an in-house job. Those include choosing the types of projects I work on, structuring my own days, not having to commute, and even being available to stay home with my child when she is sick.

But there’s one part of my life in particular that would have been significantly more difficult if I hadn’t had the flexibility of freelancing these last few years: my international, cross-cultural relationship.

I’m not talking about a long-distance relationship. People with all kinds of careers make these work (or not). I’m talking about a relationship with someone from another country who does not automatically have the right to live and work in my country. Let me explain.

My husband is Nepali, and I am a New Zealander. While I have “passport privilege” (though not as much in 2020 thanks to Covid), my husband suffers from the opposite.

We met in Nepal after I’d already spent a year or so in the country and didn’t immediately have plans to leave. I enjoyed my life in Kathmandu. I could do my international freelance work from there. I had friends, I enjoyed learning the language and about the culture, and as a travel writer (among other things), I had an endless supply of story ideas.

But when I had a baby and my sister invited us to her wedding back home, we thought it would make sense to go back to New Zealand for a while.

What ensued over the next couple of years was frustrating, infuriating, disheartening, and downright racist at times. Getting my husband a visa just to visit New Zealand was hard enough, and getting him a work visa took much longer than we anticipated — about 18 months from first try.

After his first application was rejected while I was pregnant, his second application dragged on and on, and then required us to pack up and leave Nepal within ten days. Doing so was only possible because my husband’s work was seasonal and he had put it on pause after our daughter was born, and because I could work from anywhere.

With a four-month-old baby and a couple of suitcases of belongings, we landed on my dad’s doorstep in rural New Zealand, where we stayed for the better part of a year. My husband hadn’t been granted a work visa when we first arrived in New Zealand, and although we hoped to get him one shortly, it actually took about nine months.

So with an infant who exclusively breastfed for several months, I was left as the sole income earner out of necessity rather than choice. If my work hadn’t been location-independent, we would have also been beyond broke by the time his work visa came through. And, of course, I was lucky to have the privilege of a family member with the space and inclination to put us up for several months.

My husband picked up full-time work fairly quickly, we moved into our own (rented) place, and for a couple of years we enjoyed the luxury of being a double-income household.

Then 2020 rolled around…

We had been planning to return to Nepal to live for a few years while our daughter is young. We wanted her to get to know her Nepali family and to be familiar with Nepali culture, and we thought it would be best to do this before she started school. By March 2020, we realised this was looking increasingly unlikely.

For one thing, Nepal closed its borders, and I and our daughter (who doesn’t have a Nepali passport) wouldn’t have been allowed in. But also, New Zealand was doing a good job of controlling Covid-19, and we knew that leaving one of the safest countries in the world in the middle of a pandemic would be foolish, to put it mildly.

The decision to stay would have been straightforward but for the fact that my husband’s work visa was due to expire and couldn’t be renewed. We would have to apply for residency for him to have any chance of staying, but the waiting times for that are more than a year.

That’s the process we’re going through at the moment, but he’s had to stop working in the meantime. So I’m back to being the sole income earner again, under the shadow of not knowing if and when we might have to leave.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, I’m not feeling too stressed. This is largely because I know I can continue to support my family through my freelance work.

While I lost a few contracts at the start of the pandemic, things have picked up again by now. Although some people complain about the instability of freelance work, I’d take losing a proportion of my income over losing my sole source of it, my one-and-only job, any day.

While I recognise that my situation is particularly complicated, it’s also not very unusual for international couples, especially when one has a significantly more powerful passport than the other.

We know Dutch-Nepali couples who have had to live apart for months because of visa restrictions and work clashes, even before the pandemic. We know an American-British couple living in Nepal who happened to be outside the country when the pandemic hit, and haven’t been able to return to the life they’d built in Kathmandu. We know a Danish-Nepali couple who may have to be apart for the birth of their child because of visa restrictions. We know a British-Nepali child who hasn’t seen her father all year because of travel restrictions.

I’m not suggesting these other people’s problems could be “fixed” if they were freelancers, because of course not everyone’s career lends itself to location-independent freelancing.

But my little family would certainly be in a worse situation — financially, health-wise, and just in terms of staying together, physically — if I wasn’t a freelance writer and editor. How I’m going to make a living while juggling all the other uncertainties of life is not something I have to worry about.

Sometimes people ask if I’d swap the freelance life for an office-based job if I was offered it, and my answer is always the same: no way.

Elen Turner is a freelance writer and editor based on New Zealand’s South Island. After completing a PhD in interdisciplinary humanities from the Australian National University in 2012, she lived and worked in Nepal before returning to New Zealand. Through her editorial business she works with academics, novelists, memoir writers, and others in fine-tuning their work for publication. Find out more at www.elenturner.com.

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