I’m an Immigrant: Why is it So Hard for Me to Work as a Travel Journalist?
Overqualified and underpaid, a Filipino travel journalist tries to get a break in the UK journalism industry. Is London’s creative community as diverse as it makes out? As a lack of Britishness holds back her career, she works hard to convince colleagues that she’s more than her passport.
04 August, 2020
"I wish I had your job" is a phrase you often hear as a travel journalist. Often touted as a "dream job" (and in so many ways rightly so), travel journalism isn't all about exotic new destinations and beautiful hotels; especially for an immigrant looking to earn a break in an industry that's often inherently exclusive.
My struggles began even before I set foot in the UK. My partner and I jumped every bureaucratic hoop to overcome a never-ending barrage of immigration requirements. This included paying for expensive English tests, organising a paper trail of our entire relationship as if we were in a detective serial and saving up £67,000 to convince the government I would not become a burden on public funds.
After 18 months, I finally moved to London with my then fiancé, now husband, starry-eyed and hopeful for new opportunities. As an outsider looking in, there was nothing I wanted more than to write for the very same platforms that inspired me to pursue a career in journalism.
After a five-year career as a journalist in the Philippines, I thought I could pick up right where I left off and share my voice on an international stage, but I was in for a rude awakening. Those five years spent honing my craft, working for one of the country's top titles, had suddenly become irrelevant. Interviewers would take one look at my CV, mentally note my previous, unfamiliar employers and my - quite literal - foreign work experience, and move on to the next candidate.
It didn't matter that I'd graduated top of my class in the prestigious university I attended in Paris or that I'd worked for several top publications in Asia. What mattered was whether I appeared familiar enough to take a chance on. There were plenty of other travel writers who had instead, spent years building industry rapport and relationships I knew I would never have. In many cases, my lack of Britishness outshone my talent, and I was convinced I had to compensate.
I remember being told during an interview that while I was overqualified for the role, I also lacked experience working in a city like London. I was told I needed to understand how British people worked and would benefit from applying for an unpaid internship, which they coincidentally had open spots for at the time. I was essentially being asked to work for free to gain more experience in a role for which I was apparently overqualified. I convinced myself this was an acceptable price to pay.
The next few years were defined by a slew of these unpaid internships, some good and some bad. An ominous cloud followed me everywhere, reminding me that I wasn't enough; and that I always had to do more and be more to be seen. I felt like my British counterparts were always a few steps ahead of me and I strived to make up the difference, imagined or not.
During a particularly difficult agency stint in London, I found myself in tears climbing inside a skip, looking for a product that one of the executives had accidentally thrown out the day before. My manager went outside for a cigarette and spotted me carefully combing through yesterday's rubbish and "jokingly" said, "If I were you, I'd get inside that skip - otherwise you're never going to work in this industry again." I found the sample and told them I would not be returning the next day. I cried on the bus home.
Even the opportunities felt like taking one step forward and two back, a dance of sorts between compromise and the fleeting feelings of accomplishment. I remember having to apologise to other journalists for causing a delay in the airport, simply because I had to queue at the non-EU line at immigration. Unlike my British counterparts, I need to pay for a visa for every destination I travel to, often eating up the little fees that I do earn and making this "dream job" just a little bit more unsustainable.
I remember being told to take lots of photos because "Asians like that sort of thing" and having to keep my cool - for fear of being the "difficult" one on a press trip. When I was finally offered a job at an independent magazine, I worried that my meagre editorial-assistant salary wouldn't be enough to retain my leave-to-remain visa, which required a significantly higher income for me to stay in the country. I grabbed every one of those opportunities with a smile and truly believed that I was one of the lucky ones. In so many ways, I still do.
I am painfully aware that these experiences are not unique and that so many aspiring journalists who have come to London in similar circumstances have faced far worse. I am also aware - even as I'm writing this - that I come from a position of privilege, where others may not. Despite the setbacks, I was still able to go on those trips. I was still able to afford to live in London and accept those unpaid internships. I had a partner and family who supported my dreams, which is a privilege in and of itself too.
Despite the challenges, I turned every event, every trip and every meeting, into an opportunity to grow - and I kept growing. After all, it only takes a few good people to see your value you and give you the support you need to elevate your career. I met those people, finally, and now know I've escaped the version of myself that was crying in that skip, thinking she'll have to sell her soul to get the coveted dream job.
Today, I sit here knowing that I have the rare opportunity to travel and discover some of the world's most breathtaking places. While the landscapes may be vast and the opportunities endless, I still wake up every day knowing I must convince those around me that I am worth more than my passport. I know that when I return from these "dream destinations", that I will still be questioned at immigration as to why, and how, I'm travelling without my husband; as if any sort of independence as a Filipino immigrant is simply unfathomable. I still smile when people politely ask me if I've travelled to China recently, as I watch the mild panic come over their faces when they realise that no I am not Chinese, and no I'm not a COVID-19 carrier either. I use a double-barrelled surname to feign familiarity and, unsurprisingly, it has made things a little easier.
London's creative industry is a wonderfully diverse community, filled with some brilliant and fascinating people. Yet while I have not experienced explicit racism in my career, it was abundantly clear to me that the opportunities afforded to each of us were not equal. As a foreigner, I will continue to face unspoken pressures to compensate for what I lacked - and that is my lack of Britishness.
I still feel that I am one of the lucky ones.