Spurred on by the remote working era, digital nomadism has been gaining popularity as a lifestyle choice. Digital nomads travel freely while working remotely using technology and the internet. With only a laptop and stable internet connection, their work is no longer confined to geographic locations. The growing trend has prompted countries to offer digital nomad visas. There are now over 23 million digital nomads in the US alone, and over 35 million worldwide.
Overwhelmed by the excessive workload in China, more and more people quit their on-site jobs and become digital nomads. These are people between the age of 25 to 35, mostly single females. They work in various fields: freelance writer, designer, illustrators, IT programmer, we media blogger. Most of them are well educated, and some have even studied abroad.
The strict lockdown during the pandemic gave people a chance to reexamine their relationship with work. Many realized that they are not actually happy with a busy and glamorous life in top-tier cities, because they simply do not have time for their interests. Being a digital nomad seems to be the perfect option to experience the thrills of traveling while making a living for oneself. In fact, the biggest rationale for Chinese digital nomads is the possibility of “geographic arbitrage” — earning income in a high-cost region and spending it in a low-cost one. The difference in purchasing power ultimately allows you to save money. To buy a house in Shanghai, one has to pay off millions in mortgages. You also have to bear long and stressful commute hours on workdays. In comparison, living as a digital nomad gives you quality life with a much lower cost. You often get to enjoy the beautiful countryside and fresh food while getting to know the local culture. Additionally, you have the freedom to work as little or as much as you like. You are entirely in control of your own time.
Despite the flexibility offered by this lifestyle, it does not suit everyone, nor does every kind of work lend itself to the lifestyle. First, you need a skill that can be done online, which also means remotely. It can be a skill in IT, content creation, marketing, etc. Second, you need an amount of money to stay financially secure, as working remotely entails uncertainties.
Moreover, succeeding as a digital nomad requires certain personality traits. You need to be self-disciplined enough to ensure sufficient work output while traveling. Many people start off with the expectation of better work-life balance, but end up spending more than they earn and have to give up on the lifestyle. You also need the social skills that will help you connect with new people along the way, or life could get lonely. Moving from place to place often means leaving old friends behind and finding new communities. Plus the nature of digital nomadism is working independently, which means you are mostly by yourself. So the ability to connect with others becomes critical to finding some sense of belonging.
Dali, located in southwestern China, is a city of over half a million. The mild climate and low cost of living has made it the most popular destination for Chinese digital nomads. In 2020, Daniel funded Dali Hub. It’s an off-line space for the community of digital nomads to connect and share experiences. There are shared offices, cafes and gyms. Various activities are organized: hiking, yoga sessions, movie screenings etc. The presence of Dali Hub offers companionship by bringing together people with shared experiences. Similar communities have been created in Dali, leading to the growing trend of digital nomadism.
(Note: All of my interviewees have English names in addition to their Chinese names. I am using their English names for this interview, which they prefer.)
Katherine came to Dali because she is tired of the buzzy life in Shanghai. Here at Dali, she started an online hub and podcast related to digital nomads. She enjoys living with like-minded young people and having meaningful conversations, which is hard to find in big cities. “The kind of elite narrative in Shanghai pushes everyone to climb up the social ladder, creating distance between people.”
Not being able to meet her friends often, Katherine felt lonely in Shanghai. But it is different in Dali: “We can talk about anything and no one would judge you for whatever lifestyle you choose.” She even started a Wechat group to find “meal partners. “When it’s meal time, we text in the chat and go out to eat.” Lately they always go to a vegetarian buffet, where the food is cheap and fresh. After lunch, they often find a cafe and work there for the entire afternoon. For dinner, they like to explore diverse cuisines that Dali has to offer. “It’s a very inclusive city with diverse food choices, and you can also find western style food,” Katherine said.
She also told me that the human connection in Dali is different from a typical small-town environment, because the demographic is mostly young people. In her words: “It’s like a youth utopia.”
While her life is generally positive in Dali, Katherine has had troubles as well. Last month, she was kicked out of the apartment she rented. With tourists flocking to Dali, her landlord wanted to raise the rent. He found fault with Katherine on trivial things, and she ended up moving out.
“Many people here are open and introspective, so our conversations often involve personal development and intimate relationships.” Katherine told me. But a high degree of mobility of people is another aspect of digital nomadism. “People come and go, it’s like you’ve had this friend for one month and suddenly she leaves.”
When asked about challenges that are unique to Chinese digital nomads, Katherine mentioned the pressure of not conforming to social disciplines. The pursuit of stability and certainty stands at the core of traditional Chinese values, as our culture has its origin in agriculture. The general expectation is to find a well-paid job and live a stable life. Choosing to be a digital nomad goes against the social norm, so this choice is often not understood. “You have to be self-assured to withstand the pressure coming from your family and the society. Especially for women, there is great pressure to get married and have a child, otherwise you will be a “left-over woman.”
We also talked about qualities that are important for succeeding as digital nomads. Katherine told me most people have multiple sources of revenue. So one needs to be open to keep exploring new passions and how to make money from them. Life-long learning is also important, because you need to constantly learn by doing. “Even if you started with little skills, you can improve while doing more in that field.”
Mike (UK- Serbia-China)
Mike has traveled to the UK, Serbia and a few cities in China. While staying in the UK, he bought a SUV for 4500 pounds and slept in it at night. During the pandemic, he hit the gym twice a day to build up muscles. Mike met people who have taught him how to use the equipment and right ways of working out. It did not cost him anything, and he learned a lot. This experience let him see the importance of knowledge-sharing, and he started to think about how to teach people most effectively. As a seasoned programmer, Mike does programming work and teaches high school students coding. In his class, he always opens a blank file and does unprepared live demos for students. This is challenging because unexpected bugs appear, so he has to quickly come up with methods of debugging. But students are able to take the most out of his sessions, as they watch a seasoned programmer tackling problems. Mike said he also learned a lot from the questions his students asked.
Then he went to Serbia and stayed in youth hostels there, where he met travelers from different countries. Talking to them opened up his mind to different perspectives. He met an old man over 80 years old who had traveled to more than 100 countries. Mike was impressed by how he gets along so well with young people at the hostel. The old man does not have a lot of money but lives a happy life, which makes him reflect on the utilitarian pursuits in Chinese society. He found other ways to keep the cost down. At a grocery store, he bargained in English and increased the discount from 60% to 75%.
Mike developed good relationships with the students and often went to visit them in different cities. He also considered what he could do in picking up different locations — for example, he would go to Serbia if he wanted to ski. As for Chinese people who’d like to try out digital nomadism, he stressed the importance of learning English well. Being fluent in this language gives you more opportunities and makes life easier. Cooking skills help save money, as eating out tends to be expensive. Lastly, you need to pay attention to security all the time, because it is not rare to get hurt or robbed as a Chinese person overseas.
Mia has traveled to three cities in China. She thinks that moving from place to place opens her eyes as she meets new people, but at the same time these relationships are not long-lasting. So she decided to travel once every three months to new places. For the rest of time, she stays back home in Guangzhou, spending time with old friends, getting nurtured by deep relationships. Another interesting point she brought up was that she finds that men in the group of digital nomads tend to have an avoidant personality. She thinks that while male digital nomads can avoid the mainstream social expectation, they also run away from certain responsibilities. She observes that females are often the ones facing problems in relationships within digital nomad couples. She also mentioned that many female digital nomads do not plan to get married or have children.
Mia told me that some hubs cater specifically to digital nomads. They provide accommodations and organize various activities. To be a member, you either make a monthly payment or offer services and skills at the hub. For example, you can do 6 hours of cleaning per week, or lead a workshop teaching people how to make a speech. Mia has lived in two of these hubs, where she met a girl on her way traveling through all the cities of the silk road. That girl researches thoroughly the culture of each city in advance, as well as ways to make money while staying there. What struck Mia the most was how inquisitive she is: to understand the philosophy of nomadism, this girl visited nomadic tribes in China. She found that people there deal with changes calmly. They do not plan ahead, but live in the present. Mia has had many fascinating encounters like this, which always open her mind to new possibilities.
In terms of the challenges, Mike focused a lot on the practicalities of being digital nomads, like how to keep the cost down, and how to navigate life abroad with English. Whereas Katherine and Mia emphasized the pressure of going against social norms. It might have to do with their identities, because social disciplines impact women more than men. Therefore women need stronger support from the community, to back up their unusual choice.
All of my interviewees mentioned that meeting new people is a big part of their journey. Although short-termed, they gained new ways of thinking from these relationships.
Digital nomads are still a minority group in China, but they reflect the societal reality in the country. After the pandemic, the mainstream choice is now to find an institutional job for stability. Digital nomads choose the road less traveled: constantly on the move, looking for opportunities.
Choosing this lifestyle requires courage and determination, especially for women, as people judge you for being too different. However, digital nomads are better at handling risks and uncertainties, and they have stronger self-awareness, which are valuable qualities in today’s rapidly changing world.