Why I’m dropping the digital nomad label

A walk-through wandering and attitudes to travelling

Hong Kong Tram — Photo by Athena Lam

Below are notes that extend on a fresh WhatApp rant that a friend unwittingly set me off on. She was talking to business owners in the Balkans, and she had asked for my opinion on what digital nomads would like in a co-living and co-working space. She asked because she figured I was a digital nomad.

Rather than answering her original question, I spent a good few minutes explaining why I don’t like the digital nomad label, never wanted it, and don’t support the idea of catering to digital nomads. This is a longer version of that rant.

To be fair, she had been right. I had 11 blog posts that went into the “Digital Nomad” category. Even my blog tag line had the word “digital nomad”. I’ve since replaced it and redistributed the pieces into other categories. I had made executive decisions for expediency, to get things out rather than accumulate digital dust, but now that I have time to look back, I’d rather spend the time to select what I am representing better.

Around 2014, when I was lost about career direction, I had reluctantly latched on to the term — hoping that the ascent of the “digital nomad” in public consciousness would also float my blog to the top of Google’s search results. I wanted to write, so if I was not getting validation through paycheques, at least I could give myself a tangible goal through SEO. I had taken time out to find answers to questions that felt important to answer: could I take photos and could I write? I still didn’t know what job would satisfy my needs, so I resolved to spend 2015 to find out if I could monetize the things I made, make long-term commitments, and create things while travelling. Using this blog as my writing lab got me an opportunity in Tokyo, and from there, I worked my way into the perfect fit of writing evergreen content that made use of my experience in tech and startups. Now, I live the answer to all three questions in my job tag line: a B2B content marketing professional for tech companies (who requires clients to allow her to remote work). I do well enough, have made a home in Hong Kong and between travelling to visit people, I don’t have time to see new places (or much incentive).

The convenient, but inaccurate, answer to why I am dropping the digital nomad title is because I do not need it anymore (for income or search referrals). The real motivation is because I do not want to be found by digital nomads, nor by people searching for related information.

This long-form piece in the New York Times illustrates my idea more eloquently:

Though I am based in Hong Kong, friends in the city assume I am not in town unless I message, and friends in other countries always start a conversation with the hope that I will be visiting soon. I traversed five countries on three continents in a month this summer — transit that I dreaded and am still recovering from (despite all the places and friends being wonderful). I travel and work remotely often. Am I not a digital nomad, then? Do I have a right to reject the label?

Entrance to a hidden art gallery — Photo by Athena Lam

On the surface, digital nomads can work independent of their location, moving from place to place, as long as they have their laptops and fast enough internet. Some take projects and take extended trips in between. Others have a regular job, but choose to move throughout the year(s). But most of them have these things in common: first world passports and salaries. An Indian national would firstly not be able to get into many European countries, nor afford to stay on a domestic Indian salary. Enjoying the exotic wonders of travel only works one way. Every place we see as affordable will see our countries as expensive.

I have a first world passport, but I did not have a first world salary when I went travelling in 2014. I went travelling with my laptop, and I was in the startup/tech industry, so people started giving me the label ‘digital nomad’, didn’t sit well with me. But labels are convenient for cutting explanations short, and so I started using it out of laziness, and SEO opportunism.

I became “nomadic” because by Spring of 2014, I did not have a flat. I knew what I didn’t want, but I didn’t know what work or life could fit what I wanted. I could not fit into Hong Kong’s consumerism. I not only didn’t enjoy dining out, but fundamentally had an issue with a society that so depended on it, from the breakfast bun down to the late night dinner after overtiming. It seemed that climbing a career ladder wouldn’t really get me anywhere — I would get a raise so that I could go see the doctor for the carpal tunnel that was so painful I could not sleep. What was the point? So I reasoned my way into self-imposed exile.

It is a privilege to be able to say that travelling was the second best option because it was cheaper than living in Hong Kong. I think of my living expenses as my life tuition. I redirected my Hong Kong rent budget to living in Chiang Mai for a month, to see if I would gain life experience more cost-effectively. Travelling makes it easy to “learn” things purely through passive environmental osmosis, but I didn’t really like remote working out of Chiang Mai and Laos because I was just a passerby entirely aware of the poverty surrounding me, yet disconnected from the people who live it. As romantic as the lifestyle seemed to friends, it was just the result of a logical deduction and the best solution for passing time. If I could not figure things out, at least I could go visit friends around the world to see what they were doing, check out their tech industries, and see if I found something that spoke to me. Not having income and not knowing when I would figure things out ate up most of my mental energy.

Wander is a a neglected word. Wandering has an aimlessness that doesn’t fit in this day and age. We think of it as lonely. But “wandering” felt and sounded right and though it was often solitary, it is only then that we notice the people we encounter. I would show up at people’s doors and stayed a while, before moving on. It was first-class homelessness — privileged, but also paranoid. I didn’t always know what the place I was staying in would be like, what the conditions were, what I was able to do there.

I wandered until I finally could settle in a home for a year in Tokyo. The fact that it would only last a year pained me — I wanted it to be forever. I still want Japan to be forever. It feels like home. It is a home, like all the places that I have lived. I don’t think of Hong Kong as my permanent home, but it is my current home and the one I have returned to again and again. I have unfailingly walked through Hong Kong’s streets within 15 months for the past decade. All my other homes have been the place from which I have revolved around — travelled just like other people.

Where a digital nomad often looks for novelty, I savour familiarity. Where a digital nomad looks for the same types of offices to work out of everywhere in the world, I enjoy understanding the wisdom of kitchen designs in different countries and adapting to them. I am not at home in travel (though it comes as second nature); I find homes through travel. I take the local Mumbai trains, walk through slums, buy a bike and get drenched during commutes. I think not about what restaurants to eat at, but what vegetables I can only enjoy fresh here. I sit on frigid floors of unheated family apartments, understanding not a word of my friends’ lively banter with their relations, but content under a thick blanket in the warmth of a local home. Their lifestyles, their lives, are not mine to take. A life, complete with rituals and supportive communities, is something we can only hope to be given access to. The greatest gift, then, is to be welcomed into the lives of others.

Digital nomads are defined by their work, to which they attach the backdrop of the place they happen to be in. Digital nomads see themselves as the masters of their destinies and identities. As much as travellers and nomads say places change them, it is only because they let them, rarely because they are forced to — because, hey, they can always leave if they don’t like it.

The act of travel has whatever meaning we give it, but the one digital nomads give is not for me. My understanding is that being a digital nomad is about freedom based on autonomy and independence. But the reason I go places is because it keeps me humble, vulnerable, and utterly dependent — on the good graces and kindness of family, friends, as well as strangers. I travel because there are people who live in places to whom I want to see and say, “Tadaima” — I’m back.

Butcher in Wan Chai — Photo by Athena Lam

For the digital nomad, the world is their oyster — to be consumed. What will they give back aside from the tossed shell after they’ve finished gorging? Please not their whole, amazing selves. Their hands to clean up the mess is a good start, and good ears are in short supply.

Digital nomads often feel entitled to their travel. The experience is about them — their experience of the world, their fulfillment, their discoveries, their happiness. Digital nomads are a cross-breed of Western backpackers and Western expats — with the wanderlust of the former and the wealth of the latter. That means they retain the same qualities of generally sticking to their own bubble, rarely learning the local language, let alone learn to cook local dishes. The “locals” whom they associate with are the ones who can afford to, which likely means the educated and elite. Few will linger in a place where the cuisine doesn’t agree with them, and many will immediately comment about the level of English in the country they are in.

Of course, not all people who work remotely and travel, or move frequently between countries, are like this. There are plenty of foreigners living or travelling in countries respectfully. These people tend not to let their labels precede them. They will also probably smile and nod if someone introduces them that way, or they may even take on the label to move on to more interesting conversation topics. These people also tend to pick up the local language, may end up in local companies, and often disappear into the places they live, hovering at the fringes of the digital nomad and expat community.

The world should not bend over backwards for digital nomads, nor travellers in general. A place is, first and foremost, the home of the people who live there. While I support cultural exchanges and think the world needs more of them, the world needs less of most types of travel and cultural exchanges available right now. Digital nomads are like mainstream ecotourists or voluntourists who do more damage than good. They parachute into places, usually without context or awareness of history and culture, feeling entitled to (their) “discovering” (of) the local culture as if it was a fish bowl, and equally entitled to prodding people about about their culture (often phrased in ways that reinforce their own stereotypes and assumptions of the world)? Example would be to a queer person in Asia: “But shouldn’t your parents accept you?” “Shouldn’t” and the language of “acceptance” is loaded — with Western assumptions.

I think Bani Amor, a proponent of decolonizing travel culture, has covered the concept in far more angles than I can in a paragraph.

By being in the Balkans, my friend was in a developing country, one that had a huge demographic exodus due to poverty in the 1990s. That country is plagued by vendettas, violence, and a stagnant economy. The country needs all the help it can get to develop, from a concerted effort by the government, to development aid, to entrepreneurial talent. Where does a co-working/co-living space fit in?

My initial response was to say that I fundamentally don’t support the idea of yet another WeWork. I didn’t want the damages that foreigners brought to less developed economies. Digital nomads are often upgraded backpackers who can afford to spend, to party, to do what they like and get away with it in Thailand and Cambodia. I also did not want that country to think that they needed foreign talent in order to lift their economy, that they needed to learn from the West, just as Asia keeps trying to do when Silicon Valley tactics aren’t culturally appropriate for China or Japan. I did not want the co-working/co-living space to become a portal through which toxic behaviour flowed in to warp local dynamics.

What I worry about needn’t come to pass. People should exchange ideas and get to know each other. Spaces, living and working, can help facilitate those exchanges. But it is only when they are curated well that they become places that can serve communities.

Rather than thinking about the features that should go into the space to serve the foreign digital nomad community, I suggested thinking of the co-living/co-working space as a gateway that brings benefits to locals first. What do locals need or want? What types of foreigners can provide that? What do those types of foreigners like? Modelling a co-working space for digital nomads only requires a visit to WeWork, but every type of co-working space has its own thesis. WeWork is built off of sameness coated in “localization”. But the thesis of what creates a valuable exchange for locals in the Balkans is something only the founders can develop.

What do locals want to learn? What do they lack? How do they communicate? Would they value events or do they need internships? The types of foreigners — not necessarily nomads — a place would bring in would differ depending on the answers to those questions. What is the world the founders want to develop and what is their thesis on how an ideal place would be for their own people? That is the type of place they should create — and the foreigners who fit will naturally come.

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Originally published at thecupandtheroad.com on October 5, 2018.

Thinking about the intersection of social justice and tech, with a LGBTQ and POC lense.