on choosing when to work for free

“I’m pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing. Yeah, I’m going straight to the poor house.”

I used that line every time I was on a first date, because apparently, having an MFA degree, no wait, two MFA degrees in creative writing doesn’t mean I’m creative. The men I went out with would generally respond by saying, “Oh, that’s not true,” or, “At least you’re following your dreams.”

Yes. I always dream to be poor.

Back when I was in school, though, my cohorts and I would commiserate on the writers job market. Right now, I’m used to hearing things like journalism is dead (thanks, Huffington Post), the job market sucks (it always has and always will be), and a degree in fine arts is a total waste of time (it definitely is not).

Yet here I am, scouring website after website for job ads that are related to my official training (writing) and unofficial training (photography). 90% of the ads are always non-paying internships, non-paying writing gigs, or non-paying photography gigs, all promising exposure and a possible career in the company. Six percent of the ads offer minimum wage ($9 for California). Two percent of the ads are spam. One percent of the ads offer almost reasonable compensation. Only one percent of the ads are legitimate and obviously I never hear from them after applying.

Free work! Free work for everybody (in the arts industry)!

I saw an ad on Craigslist for a photographer for a party hosted by an organization. The poster wanted experienced/student photographer, and promised a chance to network. The ad included the organization’s website, and I learned that the organization was founded by big names in the medical/pharmaceutical industries.

They earn millions and millions of dollars and they don’t want to spare some to pay the photographers? Even student photographers?

That’s how terrible it is for those in the arts industry. And I understand if the reason is because art is subjective. There are some movie directors whose work I don’t get (Apatow, Anderson, and Tarantino). There are some writers whose work I don’t get (D’Agata and David Foster Wallace… and Stephenie Meyer). There are some musicians whose work I don’t get (Marley, Dylan, Gaga). And don’t start with painters and sculpturers and poets. Poets are the worst. I’m sorry. I have many poet friends, but seriously, poets are the worst.

“Jelly Beans” by Cosimo Cavallaro. Photo by LA Weekly. I totally don’t understand why this is art.

What I don’t understand is when people think that writing (or photography or painting or singing or sculpting) is easy and therefore justifies the nonexistent or meager stipend. This is where the arts become nothing more than just a hobby industry. It’s never going to be taken seriously. It’s always going to be something on the side. No one’s life (except for the artist’s) depends on art.

I mean, have you ever heard a medical doctor or a nurse or a pilot being offered a job but there’s no payment but a guarantee of exposure, networking opportunities, and potential employment?

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

The thing that most people don’t get time and again is that art is not cheap. First of all, there are the basic needs that have to be met: food, shelter, clothes, and in some cases, student loans. A lot of new people in the profession struggle to stay alive and offer something extra in the competition, even if it means undercutting the standard price.

Then there are the tools and equipment. For a writer or a journalist, this means the Internet, a laptop, electricity, books and other research sources. For a make-up artist, this means hundreds of dollars worth of face paint and high-quality brushes. For a photographer, this means expensive DSLR camera(s), expensive lenses, lighting equipment, and a computer with photo processing software. Adobe no longer sells its programs. Everything is now subscription-based with $10 a month for Photoshop and LightRoom in the Photography bundle and $20 a month for individual software such as Illustrator. I can’t even afford to Photoshop the hideous bruises on my arm.

Good writers, good photographers, good art workers of any kind invest in training. They may be talented, but they also need some sort of schooling to sharpen their skills. This training may come in workshops or certification programs or community college or two-year programs or books, but it won’t be free.

You may have read, heard, or even written this kind of complaint before, but here’s another side of the story.

Like millions of other people, especially in Los Angeles, I’m a budding photographer. I have a Nikon DSLR, lenses that are made for low-light conditions because I’m focusing more on performance and social events photography, and photography equipment. I started photographing inanimate objects like my doll and flowers. Then I moved on to animals. Then I started taking pictures of performances and people on the streets. Then I began experimenting with artificial lighting and I had no one to photograph except myself. And that was time consuming, what with setting up the lights, putting on make-up, framing, setting up the timer, posing, then running back to the camera to check if everything was in order, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I realized that I needed a model so I could focus on just being a photographer. So I asked around. I asked my classmates, I asked my dance friends, and some of them were gracious enough to lend their beauty in exchange for the photos that they can use however, whenever, and whichever way the want.

The gorgeous Christine Honer of Whittier Tribal Belly Dance. Click on the photo to see more portraits I’ve done.

Some of my friends declined for whatever reason, which was also not a big deal.

Meanwhile, I’m also teaching English writing skills to immigrants. This is a weekly volunteer job at the Adult Literacy Center at LA Central Library. I don’t get paid for it, but it feels great to share whatever knowledge I have about writing (and English) to these people and of course to hear their stories and give them a chance to write (and speak).

So, here’s the thing: if you want to do free work, it’s totally up to you, but (as a photographer or writer) you have to remember these things:

  1. Undercutting (be it offering free work or for a significantly lower amount of money than competitors) hurts the industry. That’s right. If you want to make money, you have to remember that art is an industry.
  2. Find free work that gives you something else besides money. Volunteer for a local charity group or for a local animal shelter. Take photos of people whom you trust and love. But don’t bully them into giving you work. If they decline, move on.
  3. Know who’s giving the work. Is it a reputable company or organization? Find out why they’re not paying. If you’re sure that “working” there may increase your chance of having a career, go for it. But remember that, again, you’re also hurting the industry. I once did a free work as a copy editor for a start-up online publication that folded after three months. I didn’t get new connections, and the website went offline and took my writing portfolio with it.
  4. Decline if you think it’s not worth it. Maybe the gig is way out there and gas and travel expenses are just not worth it. Maybe the hours are inhumane. Maybe you have something better to do that day. Like sleeping.

I know. You have to start somewhere. We have to start somewhere. That doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat to a company or organization or a person who obviously has the means to pay you but is too cheap to do that, right?

Choose your battles wisely, and remember, we’re in this together.

i dance, therefore i am

Dancing with Lilith the Sword at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta & Dancewave Center's event for Jakarta Anniversary Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2013 . The show is called "Nyai Dasima" and I was the shaman / professional hit man.

Dancing with Lilith the Sword at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta & Dancewave Center‘s event for Jakarta Anniversary Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2013 . The show is called “Nyai Dasima” and I was the shaman / professional hit man. Yes, that’s a blindfold. Photo by Putri Soesilo. 

I started going to the gym after a heartbreak back in 2006. Then in late 2007, the gym opened a belly dance class (I was one of the people who requested it). The instructor happened to be teaching belly dance outside of gym, so I began taking classes from her.

Now I’m part of her troupe called the velvetRAQS in Jakarta where I specialize in Tribal Fusion belly dance. I’m also a member of Taksu Tribal, an American Tribal Style® troupe based in San Francisco.

Dancing keeps me on my edge. It’s a therapy. Whenever I am unable to translate my thoughts into coherent words, I dance. It is through dancing that I found my passion in antique textiles and jewelry. It is through dancing that I found my passion in make-up, which becomes my saving grace. Whenever I feel depressed, I’ll just paint my face and the world becomes a happier place.

everyday haiku: there is no island

there is no island
more beautiful than that of
the one of the gods


*I can’t believe I’m leaving Bali and flying back to Jakarta, and then the US.

Balinese flower

“Everyday Haiku” is updated on random (hopefully more frequent than hardly ever) basis. For the sake of these posts, the definition of haiku is a form of poetry that has three lines. The first line has five syllables, the second one has seven, and the third one has five.

thesis? what thesis?

Turns out, I’m a full-time procrastinator.

Kitty sitting on a pile of books and notebooks. These are just a few books that I brought to Bali for my thesis project. I'm traveling to several cities in Indonesia to document the lives and communities of drag queens and cross-gender performers.

Kitty the Doll sitting on a pile of books and notes. These are just some of the things that I brought to Bali for my thesis about the lives and communities of drag queens and cross-gender performers in Indonesia. 

Thank you, Daily Post, for reminding me that instead of my thesis, this is how I’ve been spending my time in Bali:

Stubby toes vs. the waves of Canggu Beach

Stubby toes vs. the waves of Canggu Beach

It’s a good thing this project isn’t due until next year! Whee! Let’s get naked!

eat eat eat: union plaza senayan

Ah, Union. Where to begin.

Really courteous servers and hot alternative-looking bartenders (yay for tattoo and piercing visibility in Jakarta! Oh, and there was one server who looked like an older, shorter, but hotter and more muscular version of Joseph Gordon Levitt), and I love, love the Dammann tea called L’Oriental that they have. It’s green tea with such a sweet fragrance. The place itself is far from pretentious, although the crowd is more of an upper-class (of course, just look at the food prices. A tad of a rip-off if you ask me), and I love their floor-to-ceiling windows that let in some light (thank goodness the sun was pale today). There are booth seats with sofas, and the tables are well-spaced.

Union Plaza Senayan

It was very crowded, which was unsurprising since today is the first day of the Eid and people dining out to either celebrate or because their maids and cooks had already gone back to their villages. We were asked to wait at the bar for our table (they take phone reservation). I didn’t mind. Like I said, the bartenders were hot (fresh juice, cocktails, coffee, and tea available).

They have very few vegetarian dishes, and again, I had to settle for pasta (I hate salad). I ordered Spaghetti with Roasted Mushrooms and White Truffle Cream. The portion was small (or perhaps I was just hungry), the roasted mushrooms were delicious, but the cream was a little too heavy. My friend ordered grilled salmon and we had to wait for about twenty minutes before ours arrived, while my other friend’s Salad Romaine arrived in about ten minutes.

Roasted Mushrooms, Spaghetti, and White Truffle Cream

The menu said “Roasted Mushrooms, Spaghetti, and White Truffle Cream”

Salad Romaine

Salad Romaine

My friend said the salad was not as good Kitchenette’s (Plaza Indonesia).

I used my sheer will power again to resist desert temptation, but my friends ordered these:

Chocolate Praline

Chocolate Praline

Crunchy Chocolate Tart

Crunchy Chocolate Tart

Now you know why I’m so proud of my will power. I have been and always will be a sugar and chocolate whore, and just looking at these cakes made my mouth water. Furthermore, my friends didn’t even finish their desserts (they said the cakes were too heavy). I had to double my efforts to stop myself from reaching and gobbling down the leftovers.

Crunchy Chocolate Tart texture

Crunchy Chocolate Tart texture

These two chocolate cakes contained liquor.

No further complaints, except for the location of the bar which is in the smoking section (yuck) of the restaurant. Oh, and an obnoxious  girl next to us who loudly greeted her friend by saying, “Oh my God, you’re fucking fat!” (Verbatim quote. Her friend (a guy) was not fat). She continued to be obnoxiously loud (despite our tables being very well-spaced), but thank goodness we were done eating and had enough time to gossip and chat and laugh.

Oh, and Union serves foie gras. Seriously, what kind of backward, monstrously cruel restaurant uses fattened duck liver these days?


Their pasta section is quite limited.

Dress code: Casual
Price ($ to $$$$): $$$$ for main course, $$$ for dessert, $$ for drinks
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, but very limited vegetarian options, nothing vegan on the list
Atmosphere:pinkstarpinkstarpinkstarpinkstar  (family friendly, yet romantic enough)
Location: Plaza Senayan (inside Sogo, next to Starbucks on the ground floor).

so-and-so enters dressed as a girl

Here, come closer. Let me tell you a story.

Have you heard of drag queens? Yes. Of course you have. They’ve been with us for a long time now. You can find them in ancient lores and tales, reliefs and real life. The Romans, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Hindis, all great and not-so-great nations have men who dress as women and sing and dance and recite poems and jokes and make people laugh and cry and laugh again. Do you you know what “drag” stands for”? See this post’s title. So thank you, Shakespeare, whoever you are, for coining the word “drag”.

Now then, have you heard of Islam? Oh, absolutely. Well, I am not here to criticize Islam or muslims. Who am I to do so? It is true that I’ve spent all my life being persecuted by it and other religions, but I digress. What I’m trying to say is that Islam does not like men dressing up as women, and vice versa. What I’m trying to say is that Islam does not like women. Period. Especially her period. Period.

What if I told you that Indonesia had the biggest muslim population in the world? Oh, but it’s true.

Now what if I told you that there are drag queens in Indonesia? Not just in Bali, where Islam’s mighty claws cannot rip and tear them to pieces, but in places like Yogyakarta, where its Sultan called International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Intersex Association (ILGA) unethical and denied its right to hold a conference. Yes. In Indonesia, where even ILGA’s website is blocked, like a porn site, a smut site, an illegal site. Yes. In Indonesia, where protection of sexual-orientation is not recognized and homosexuality and cross-dressing are still considered deviations. Illnesses.

Yet nothing can stop these showgirls from shaving their face, from tucking between their legs. With their paddings and their stockings and their leggings and their heels and their rouge and powder and fake eyelashes and cream and bronzer and gilded microphones.

Nothing can stop these showgirls from receiving adoration from women, men, those who are both, and those who do not want to be either.

Nothing can stop these showgirls from being what they are, for being ahead of their time, for being brave, for being both frank and Francine. For defying death in a country whose main religion still condones stoning and cutting off hands and legs.

Nothing can stop these showgirls from coming, basking in the spotlight, and leaving a trail of glitter.

And that’s all they really ever want. Now go spread the word.

The drag queens of Oyot Godhong Cabaret Show at Mirota Batik / House of Raminten, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photos by yours truly.

The drag queens of Oyot Godhong Cabaret Show at Mirota Batik / House of Raminten, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photos by yours truly.

Indonesia, a country overrun by Islamic idiots.

Indonesia, a country overrun by Islamic idiots. Happy Ramadan and Eid.


Inspired by the Anachronism Prompt from the Daily Post.

let sleeping cats lie


Taken at the same time (well, one after the other) in different parts around the house. From top to bottom: Jerry, Kenji, Chester.

My two other lazy cats are probably somewhere in the back yard, no doubt lounging about, but I’m too lazy (!!) to try to find them.