Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not All Writing Assignments Are Equal: Taking the Long View Can Be Painful

I am suffering a bout of buyer's remorse. I had one of my editors call me the other day with a travel assignment. An assignment, that's a good thing, right? Yes, on its surface it is. The destination: Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year. Sounds fun, doesn't it? Well yes, on its surface it does. The operative word here being "surface."

I'm a pragmatist and when it comes to assignment offers, I take the long view. I will sometimes take an assignment that I'm not keen on because, if you turn down too many from the same editor, suddenly those offers stop coming. Moreover, the dearth of current assignments means that I have nothing but time right now. So I am more open to taking on assignments that, in busier times, I might turn down.

As it turns out, the Hong Kong assignment is a hand-me-down that another journalist had pitched to my editor. When my editor accepted it, this journalist then used that acceptance to move the Hong Kong tourist folks to organize and underwrite a press junket. Getting approval to visit China, even when the destination is the more accessible Hong Kong, is an ordeal that makes the convoluted path to canonizing a Pope into sainthood look like applying for a hall pass to use the bathroom. This journalist had passed through this gauntlet; but when it came time to book the flights, she balked.

The PR agency facilitating the arrangements on this end was faced with either going back to the Chinese, hat in hand, and reporting that all of this prep work had been for naught, or finding an unsuspecting rube as a substitute journalist. That's where I come in.

Because this trip is scheduled to begin on January 31, I had no opportunity to really mull the idea over. The PR agency and my editor were on a mission to quickly find a replacement who could be successfully vetted by the Chinese and be on a plane in two weeks. I had to make a snap decision. Red wire! No, wait, blue wire!

I worked in Hong Kong about 11 years ago when I was with Discover America. I was there for a week trying to get enough footage to cobble together a 30-minute video. It was one of the most miserable work experiences of my 10 years with the series, and probably my life. Even though we were there at the behest of the communist government and had a tourism liaison assigned to us, the level of cooperation was ridiculously low. Everything was a tooth pull. Permits to shoot a particular location were so specific that we had maybe 60 minutes to get what we needed. If traffic or some other unforeseen calamity delayed us, the permit could easily expire before we even arrived at the location. This happened at least once. A couple of other times we had to make do with 10 minutes out of the hour permit and settle for two set ups when we needed eight or ten. By the fifth or sixth day of this nonsense, I was ready to step in front of a tank.

Furthermore, I'm not a fan of the cuisine. I'm a meat-and-potatoes guy. They eat some strange stuff over there. If you think because you go to the Canton Garden once a week for the fried rice that you like Chinese food, you are greatly mistaken. They eat stuff over there that I wouldn't feed my cat; and if I did, she probably wouldn't eat it. If it wasn't for a Ruth's Chris Steak House half a block from our hotel in Kowloon, my videographer and I would have starved.

I tell you all of this as a less-than-subtle way to say, Hong Kong isn't at the top of my list to revisit. I haven't been sitting at home jonesing to go back. So, accepting this assignment wasn't a "gimme." I wasn't given any real time to reflect on it. Additionally, I was in the middle of some interviews for a story I was doing for another editor and my thoughts were with that. I did what my long-term view dictates, I accepted. I also was hoping that somehow I could fly Delta and pick up some serious Sky Miles.

It wasn't until the following day that I realized the trip was scheduled to return on February 6. February 6: Why does that date sound familiar? Oh crap! It's the Super Bowl. Well, the game is played in the evening; I should be back in time. Yeah, right.

I received an e-mail yesterday afternoon from the PR agency that included the proposed flights for the trip. Despite the fact that I offered to make the 2.5-hour haul to Atlanta in order to fly Delta, the flights were on Cathay Pacific and whatever regional airlines it uses here. Cathay Pacific! Evidently this is the airline that the Chinese tourist people have a contract with. Drat, no Sky Miles. Twenty-four hours traveling each way and no Sky Miles out of it. Even worse news was that they had me getting into Greenville at 11:45 PM on February 6.

Now I haven't sweated bullets over the Steelers all season to be on an airplane and miss them playing for the national championship. Whether or not they will be playing in the Super Bowl will be decided this Sunday. If they don't prevail in their contest against the Jets, it will be a moot point. But I can't take the chance. I didn't confess to the PR agency why I needed to be back, just that I did.

My request to get back five or six hours earlier was met with an emphatic, no can do. There is no set itinerary for my time in Hong Kong. Evidently they are going to dump me at a hotel and I'm on my own until I get back on a plane to come home. If I return a day early, it won't upset some grand plan. So, that's what I proposed. Bring me home on the 5th rather than the 6th. They didn't exactly enthusiastically embrace the idea, but they finally worked it out.

One small victory for democracy.


  1. Be sure to have some octopus when you are there.

  2. BTW, it doesn't taste like chicken.

  3. When you are on the street at 7 AM video taping and you see a restaurant's daily supply of pork, duck and chicken, uncovered, piled up in a mini mountain of flesh on the sidewalk outside its front door, it makes eating anything other than rice nearly impossible.