Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Let’s talk about these “digital nomads”

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Recently, I’ve seen a few articles describing a new trend. They’re about so-called digital nomads. They are people who travel the world, jetting from one place to another, doing work that requires simply a good WiFi connection. They might be web designers, graphics artists, app developers, or freelance writers.

What they do is location independent, not needing to punch into an office. Some do like shared office spaces, in Bali for instance. Many are freelancers. And all they need is a computer and the Internet to communicate and to transfer the work. They don’t make huge amounts of money because it’s freedom they prioritize. Southeast Asia is a hub for these nomads because this region is cheap, well-connected when you want to move on, from Vietnam to Thailand say, but still possessing coffee and WiFi.

I’ve never tried this kind of lifestyle. I work from Beijing, from where I contribute China-related journalism to various publications around the world. Sometimes they are articles that aren’t contingent on the fact I’m based in China. This is an example — I could have written that from anywhere in the world. Journalism isn’t a hugely well paid gig, especially when you’re freelance. I’ve mentioned numerous times how living in China helps as things are cheaper here, but, the truth is, Beijing, and the many enjoyments it offers, makes it only slightly better in that regard.

I’ve sometimes done travel + journalism. I went to Burma and tried it. I’ve done freelance in North Korea (somewhat undercover I guess). I’ve jetted to Thailand, where I’ve scribbled down ideas while sipping on some tropical drink. These are all opportunities that were fun and edifying — but always eventually I returned “home”, to Beijing, and was glad of it.

The nomad life does appeal. Journeying around southeast Asia, earning while you go, meeting all those new people, appeals. I would have to make certain sacrifices though. Let’s list them.

Sacrifices I Would Have To Make In Order To Go Full Nomad:

  1. I would need to get rid of, or find somewhere to store, all my clothes
  2. And books, and other “important” possessions
  3. Would have no root anymore in Beijing, NO ACCOMMODATION
  4. Wouldn’t have a friendship circle
  5. No regular landmarks and easy places to go
  6. No stability and sense of progress

Now let’s examine each of these in turn —

  1. Actually clothes can be important to some people and I would definitely need to find somewhere to stash all the shirts and jackets I’ve accumulated over the years. Of course they are just things and not that important. But having a limited set of clothes can make you feel pretty hobo. And I hazard that not shopping for clothes and not having those sartorial options would be mentally affecting. But you would adapt.
  2. Having somewhere to put some important possessions gives you a sense of security. I, for example, like having a place to put all my books, my own personal library. Once again, you’d adapt.
  3. Having a place to call “home”, a physical place that you’re familiar with, is a fundamental need. The fact you have somewhere to return to, after a sojourn, is deeply reassuring. Especially when you’ve built that place, turned it into a home. Which is what I did with Beijing. This point is an important one, and one to which we will be returning.IMG_0331
  4. One of the unmentioned but deep needs for having a friendship circle is so that you have a base group on which you can compare your own progress. When you live in a city associated with either ambition or expats (London/New York/Beijing…) the friends you have sometimes serves as a group into which you can project your own desires. You tell them about your own progress — in relationships, housing, careers — and they in turn tell you about theirs. It sounds shallow perhaps when you bluntly spell it out, but there’s nothing wrong with it. The desire to communicate with people, who you know well, or well enough so that you have a pretty good idea of where they are in life, and from whom you receive regular updates, is an anchor that especially anchors people when they live in a foreign city. (And when you are in your 20s). I would be able to forgo this.
  5. I know Beijing well enough so that I can compartmentalize my time and needs and match them to physical locations. When I want to get wildly drunk, dance like a loon, and maybe hook up with someone — I know where to go. If I want coffee and productivity time I know a good place. It’s this mental geography, which you’ve carefully built, and which you proudly think is your own, that is a deeply securing thing. Not having it would be a small devastation. If I went to a new city, I would first of all need to know where a good cafe is (with WiFi of course) and then find out local information sources, and root out potential stories. This point (number 5) is fairly important, but not so much that it would affect your activities. You’d adapt. Although every so often moving on, you’d need to make a big adaptation every time. But I guess that’s one of the challenges, and fun things, about being a nomad.
  6. No stability and sense of progress. It is this point that is most important, and where we step off this list…

Digital Nomadism is a cool concept, I think we can all agree on that. Travelling and working while we travel is the dream isn’t it? But I’m not sure it’s exactly like that. Unless you’re a travel writer of course, and then that opens up a whole lot of misconceptions (as any full-time travel writer will tell you).

But being a true nomad isn’t something possible I believe. It’s mentioned in one article, in half-jest, that these nomads “spend 16 hours to fly to the other side of the world to sit in Starbucks”. Which is all the more funny for being kind of true. But, rather, I think it’s more about establishing several “homes” around different countries and cities. I’ve said before how a desire of mine is to have a handful of bases spread throughout Asia. But to afford the regular amount of time visiting all those bases is not cheap. Flights in Asia do not compare to the cost of air travel in Europe, which is ridiculously cheap.

They become your “homes” because people still need to know where to go within these places. You will want to know where a good bar is, where the best beach is, where’s a good hang-out spot. Knowledge and the price of having it means permanency in some form. Temporary living, going from one place to another, is only afforded by those with lower ambitions and lower ties to the people around them.

But, still, it would be interesting to give up the albatross of having to pay rent on my place in Beijing, and just going around China, writing while I go. Doing it in southeast Asia is an experiment that perhaps I’d like to try. But maybe it’s one of those things that you do in your head, and not in reality. Fun, without huge risks.



Traveling + Writing

Freelance Journalism: Adventure & Travel (Getting to know Asia)

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia


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