The ancient word “tramp” originally referred to those without land to cultivate, displaced and wandering. Now, with the prefix “digital”, it has acquired a new connotation – specifically denoting a lifestyle reliant on the internet and mobile devices for work, free from the confines of a traditional workplace, unbound by limitations of time and space, and earning income online.
This novel way of working and living grows increasingly popular among the youth. The “2021 China Travel and Vacation White Paper” by Mafengwo Tourism shows over 60% of young people aspire to become “digital nomads” without a fixed office, enjoying life while working.
Can “nomads” find poetry and distance after leaving the traditional workplace? Where will their income come from while traveling? How do they confront loneliness amid their newfound freedom? What will the digital nomad look like in China’s future?
The World Becomes a Tranquil Isle – Depart the Office in Search of Poetic Vistas
“Didi Answer – Didi Answers –” At 4am in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a small hostel bed, the phone alarm sounds. Yeye rolls over and rises, boots up her computer, dons headphones, and clicks to enter a video conference. On the other side of the screen it’s 5pm in Beijing – the internet bridges Yeye and her China-based colleagues across the vast Pacific.
From the Eurasian landmass to South America, her work and life in 2018 span continents. While many toil 9 to 5 in offices, she works just 4-5 hours daily, no fixed abode, traveling after work, changing cities weekly and countries every 2-3 months.
Yeye typically returns to bed after her 20-minute morning meeting to catch up on sleep, eventually waking to handle work before venturing out with her backpack in the afternoon.
She once defined her life as slow travel through South America as a backpacking worker on a computer. Later she realized she had unknowingly become a digital nomad.
Previously, Yeye was a standard white-collar employee. After graduating college in 2016, she worked at a social enterprise in Beijing, renting near the 2nd Ring Road and commuting 10 minutes to the office on 3rd Ring Road. The open culture and amiable colleagues provided good pay, yet she always felt something was missing.
In 2018 after resigning, she bought a plane ticket to Bogotá, Colombia. Shockingly, her intended vacation became an extended sojourn lasting three years. While working, she traveled extensively across South America – Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru… Her work and income comprised both full-time and freelance roles. She worked remotely as a project manager, marketed overseas education projects, coached English lessons online, and occasionally sourced jewelry or freelance wrote. Her total income was about 20-30% less than in Beijing, but monthly expenses rarely exceeded 5,000 yuan, leaving her with savings.
Working, traveling unhurriedly, learning Spanish along the way – such an “almost perfect” lifestyle made Yeye feel she never wanted to return to a traditional workplace.
In 2021, she relinquished her full-time job to become a digital nomad lifestyle promoter, creating content as a social media influencer. She also co-opened Dalihub, a digital nomad co-working space in Dali, with friends.
Yeye jokes, “The current cost of living in big cities requires at least 30,000 yuan per month. If some company offered me 100,000 yuan monthly, I might consider returning, but obviously that won’t happen.”
Building a Home for Digital Nomads
“Nomadic life” has its downsides, occasionally hazardous. Yeye’s phone was stolen thrice and she was robbed once in South America. She encountered strange men in India – on a train, after buying milk tea, a middle-aged man sat beside her and refused to leave even when she returned his change. He kept leering, forcing her to yell, “Go away! Bye!” As a precaution in India, she carried two boxes of contraceptives in her bag for “self-defense”.
Loneliness ambushes you when least expected while journeying. In 2019, after returning from South America, Yeye stayed at a youth hostel in Xinjiang. While other tourists planned camel rides and sandboarding, she worked 7am to 9pm daily. “At that time no one worked alongside me, though any digital nomad’s presence would have cheered me up. That moment I felt very lonely.”
As a veteran digital nomad of over a decade, Xu Song found a solution to loneliness. Xu Song and his wife have backpacked through over 20 countries since 2004, publishing travelogues like “America Walk and See” and “West Asia Walk and See”. They later settled in Dali amongst transplants from across China, embracing varied lifestyles in a community of familiar faces. New forms of communal bonds are the antidote to loneliness.
In 2021 Xu Song and his friend Ade launched the DNA Anji Digital Homecoming Commune in Hengshan Village, converting an abandoned bamboo factory into shared work and living space tailored to digital nomads’ needs. The dorms offer shared rooms for 2-6 people and double beds in shipping containers, ranging from a few hundred yuan to 2,000 yuan monthly. Shared kitchens and a canteen provide meals, or food delivery via mobile apps. The office area, conference room and cafe enable digital vagabonds to stay, work, socialize and share anytime.
Illustrator Jun Feng has been fully freelancing since 2019. He came to Anji hoping to befriend interesting digital nomads, and it has greatly changed his attitude toward socializing.
Once aloof from social activities, after going freelance Jun Feng twice rented a co-working space, each time staying 2-3 months yet interacting little. To avoid isolation and depression, he often forced himself to attend knowledge and experience exchanges.
After over a year residing in the commune, Jun Feng rediscovered meaningful human connection. Bonding blossomed naturally through shared interests, and all warmed each other. One night, accidentally cut in the dorm, he walked down the chilly corridor to the hall for a bandage. A gust of wind made him shiver and tremble uncontrollably, rendered speechless. Those around rushed over, massaging him, covering him with clothing, firing up the gas stove, and bandaging the wound.
“People drawn together here share common traits like craving freedom. Shared experiences cultivate emotional ties,” says Jun Feng.
The Future of Digital Nomads
Since its 2021 pilot launch, over 400 have joined DNA. Two-thirds are engaged in cultural and creative fields – editors, translators, illustrators, designers. Most of the remaining third are programmers, along with some uncertain youths trying to find their path.
In late 2022, Ah Lu, who had rage-quit her corporate job, began sampling the digital nomad lifestyle. Previously her life was meetings at 9 and 11am, frequent overtime, decompressing with lavish weekend spending, and regular psychologist visits. At the outset nomadic, jobless and lacking steady cash flow, her monthly spending dropped from 15,000 to around 5,000 yuan, and inner turmoil gradually abated.
Ah Lu started studying literary theory and psychology, trying her hand at fiction writing, and conversing with different digital nomads. She doesn’t want to return to her former work routine, and plans to launch a business with partners serving digital nomads and amplifying their value. She also aims to participate in cultural tourism or rural revitalization projects.
For over a year now, Jun Feng has taken on diverse new projects: presenting real estate company catalogs as handbooks, drawing portraits for Anji Creative Design Center’s celebrity wall, creating original white tea pamphlets. Parts of his income are comparable to big city rates. He has also joined early research and planning for external rural revitalization projects.
In fact, when Xu Song and his partner A De first established the digital nomad commune, they associated it with rural revitalization – gathering youth to the countryside. This model has garnered increasing attention.
With the commune running smoothly, Xu Song and partners began a new rural revitalization project in Yu Village, Anji – planning, spatial design and more. Construction is underway and it is expected to open on a trial basis in March 2023. Meanwhile, villages in Jiangxi, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and elsewhere have also expressed interest in collaborating.
“When an MIT grad gets job offers from Silicon Valley and LA, isn’t it natural for him to choose Silicon Valley? What if first-rate villages emerge in China, and Beida and Tsinghua students also get offers from Anji and Shanghai – mightn’t he be willing to live in Anji?” muses Xu Song. Gathering kindred nomad partners, dividing their talents like cells, jointly promoting the digital nomad lifestyle and rural revitalization.
“Nomads usually settle in a place 6-18 months, deeply connecting with it. As the digital nomad ecosystem develops, dozens or hundreds of nomad hubs across China and thousands worldwide become conceivable. Might nomads marry and have children on the road in the future? Will new educational needs and learning models emerge from this? Will a generation of world citizens be born nomadic?” Xu Song said.
The origin and development of digital nomads
The concept of “digital nomad” was first proposed by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners in the book “Digital Nomad” (1997). They predict that the development of mobile and portable technologies will promote a new way of life, people can get rid of the restrictions of working time and place, and reconstruct the relationship between work and leisure.
Today, “digital nomads” have gone from fantasy to reality. Jarod Zhang, founder of the domestic digital nomad tribe, pointed out that digital nomads can enjoy the dividends of “geographical arbitrage” (roughly referring to earning wages in developed countries/first-tier cities and spending in developing countries/fourth-tier small cities) and move freely around the world. Jarod also proposed four quadrants of “digital nomad cash flow”: remote work, freelancing, Internet entrepreneurship, and online investment. He believes that freelance jobs such as copywriting, design, translation, and programming are one of the entry points for transition from traditional work to the digital nomad lifestyle with the lowest threshold.
On Nomadlist.com, a world-renowned digital nomad information website, the development of digital nomads is divided into four stages: the
first stage is 2007-2013. Improvements in Internet technology have made remote work possible, and the first early digital nomads have emerged in the past few years.
The second phase is from 2014 to 2020. In the gathering place of technology companies marked by Silicon Valley, remote work has become routine, and technology workers have led the second wave of digital nomads. During this period, many digital nomad centers (that is, places where digital nomads gather more) have sprung up around the world, such as Chiang Mai, Bali, Medellin, Budapest, and Lisbon.
The third phase is from 2021 to 2028. During the new crown epidemic, more and more people adopt the way of remote work to complete the work, which provides an opportunity for digital nomads to enter the mainstream view.
The website also predicts that 2028-2035 will be the fourth stage of the development of digital nomads. It is estimated that 1 billion people will be away from their homeland for part of the year and “nomadic” around the world.