The digital nomad: lonely, white, male

This was originally published on Tech in Asia on Sept. 3, 2015.

Jon Yongfook, a British-Singaporean software engineer, had enough of his day-to-day routine and decided he was done being the cog in a corporate wheel.

“I didn’t want to keep building stuff for other people. I wanted to build stuff for myself. And all I was doing was just waking up in my ridiculously expensive apartment, making breakfast, going to Starbucks, going home, making dinner, and going to bed. And I was just thinking, why? Why would I stay here?” he tells Seoul-based journalist Do You-jin, in her upcoming documentary about digital nomads.

So Jon quit his job in Singapore, left his ridiculously expensive apartment, and became a digital nomad in 2013 to bootstrap his own startup, making beaches across Asia his home. Since then, he has developed and sold two businesses, and is working on his third.

“Why did it take this long for me to realize that I could be doing this from Thailand or anywhere? It all seems so obvious in retrospect,” he says. “If you think it’s too difficult to work remotely, then you’re probably overthinking it.”

Jon is one of the uncounted masses of vagabond techies who traded out the cubicle for exotic backdrops. Their presence has transformed cities like Chiang Mai and Bali into major tech hubs, luring them with their tourist-friendliness, cheap living costs, and paradise weather.

But You-jin, who herself turned into a nomad, knows the lifestyle is not all roses as many YouTube videos would have you believe. Much of the content features the bright side of things – but she argues these are designed to sell a facade and promote ebooks or online courses on how to escape from the cubicle life and join the nomad lifestyle.

“All they are saying is, ‘Look at me, I’m drinking my cocktail, I’m working on my laptop on the beach. My life is amazing, look at me. Your life fucking sucks in your cubicle,’” she says.

You-jin’s documentary film project, dubbed One Way Ticket, explains the opportunities and hardships that come with the territory. She asks people like Jon questions that those nomad gurus on YouTube shy away from: What causes them to become nomads? What leads some to give up? Is this movement spreading the wealth to developing countries, or is it a new form of gentrification and colonialism?

“This is not about selling lifestyle bullshit. This is not only talking about positive stuff. This is going to talk about both sides – the bright side and dark side – and all the problems happening right now,” she says. “I’m proud I’m not talking bullshit, and I’m showing exactly what’s going on.”

Single, white, male

Not everyone finds it as easy as Jon Yongfook did to pick up and go. When Korean couple Jeon Je-woo and Park Mi-young sought to swap the office grind for the nomad life, one of the most important things they had to do was earn their parents’ approval.

“We are married but until we were, the people that I spent most of my time in life with were my parents. They know me best,” Je-woo, the husband, says in the documentary. “If I can’t convince the people closest to me, who would I be able to convince at all?”

They are not alone in their struggle to break free of the traditional lifestyle. You-jin believes that Asians’ deep-rooted hierarchy, traditions, and importance of family keep them from jumping into the scene. For the Korean couple, they had to deliver a presentation with precise plans and budgets until Je-woo’s mom conceded:

“In the beginning when they first told me over the phone […] I was so shocked, I couldn’t even speak,” she says. “So they showed me all the projects they were working on. They had such plans and were in the process of working toward it already, I couldn’t find a solid reason to oppose them […] As a parent, I didn’t feel it was right for me to get in their way.”

The couple’s story inspired You-jin to investigate the digital nomad life and set off on this project. But other than them, she has met nary an Asian nomad on her journey. Women are highly underrepresented, too. Instead, most of the nomads she meets are single white men.

Part of the reason that Asians haven’t jumped into the scene, she believes, is a lack of dialogue about this kind of lifestyle. Even in her interviews with salarymen in Seoul, most said the remote working idea was absurd and impossible.

Then there are excuses her peers would make – nomads must be super smart and speak English well, or they would never be able to compete. Yet You-jin believes finding jobs as a nomad is easier than vying for positions in big Korean companies, which sometimes require their own standardized tests that are as competitive as college entrance exams. Nomad developers in particular are in strong positions to negotiate, no matter where they’re living.

These misunderstandings drove her to keep filming. No, nomads are not from special or elite backgrounds like her compatriots believe, she says. The only difference is they had the chance to realize this kind of life was possible.

“The reason some people can work remotely is not because they’re particularly brilliant. They are not geniuses, they are not unique. They are just normal people who work hard,” she says. “But somehow they had a chance to maybe travel or study or work overseas.”

Nomads likely come from Western cultures that have accepted the idea of telecommuting. “Most of them are from well-developed countries, and hold a passport with amazing visa options,” she says. A European Union passport holder, for instance, can get a lot farther than a Vietnamese one, who constantly faces the huge possibility of their visa application getting rejected. So is that a limiter on who can adopt such a lifestyle?

“Maybe this location-independent lifestyle is only for privileged people from well-developed countries who have amazing passports. That is one of the questions I’m asking.”

Nomad havens

The biggest nomad herds seem to be flocking to Southeast Asia, which has seen its GDP grow by over five percent every year for the past decade – to the amazement of many from the West who are enamored by the region’s relaxed lifestyle and cheap living costs, You-jin believes. Yet the region is struggling to accommodate the changes.

You-jin sees co-working spaces in Bali filled with foreigners calling themselves digital nomads, and prices skyrocketing in Chiang Mai because of a massive influx of nomads – pushing out the local population.

And she argues that in many countries, the legal infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the nomad phenomenon, leaving many to abuse the visa system. In Southeast Asian countries, the visa debate is overshadowed by a history of sex tourism that they want to eradicate. The thing is, she says, nomads don’t want to be in an unstable visa situation, but they don’t have much choice if they want to work in the region.

But change is coming, and countries like Spain, Chile, and Germany are at the forefront of welcoming this lifestyle into their planning. Estonia offers the world’s first e-residency program for “world citizens” to do everything online from registering their location-independent business in 18 minutes to declaring Estonian taxes. Soon nomads will be able to “window-shop” for the best infrastructure and quality of living as countries seek their taxes and innovation, she says.

You-jin believes that although Asia is behind in the trend, some people like Amarit Charoenpan (above), co-founder of co-working space Hubba and a key voice for startups in Bangkok, are pushing for entrepreneur visas as they believe in the long-term impact that nomads can make.

“They can be some of the most amazing people to talk to,” Amarit says in the documentary. He notes that nomads can be fun-loving cultural and educational ambassadors who are willing to get plugged into the local community. “Once that happens, I think the movement will really erase some of the image that has been built over the years.”

Still, the flip side is hard for You-jin to ignore.

“But the gentrification, I keep thinking about it.”

Lonely hearts club

The nomad life certainly isn’t for everyone. You-jin has found that many rookies give up under the stress of taking on too much at one time. They get overwhelmed by living in a new country and adopting a new lifestyle, not to mention the risks of running a business.

“Changing your lifestyle to location independence is already a risky choice,” she says. “But there are people who think it could be really easy […] and after a few months they come back to their home country with their tail between their legs.”

Yet the biggest reason nomads give up on the lifestyle, she says, is not these outside pressures, but the inner battle with loneliness.

“That’s what I’ve been asking to my interviewees. I thought it would be traveling because logistics can be a huge pain,” she says, but there are virtual concierge apps to handle that. “It turns out, many of them are also talking about emotional pain – like relationships, and people around them who can’t understand why they live like that, why they don’t just buy a house somewhere with a mortgage, why they don’t want to settle down.”

Nomads struggle to find like-minded partners, and many feel isolated from their friends and family back home who can’t accept their lifestyle. Relationship forums among nomad communities are detailed with the pains of breaking up with a partner who didn’t want to join in the nomad adventure or of not being able to find someone who understands them, she says. But it’s one of the hardest things to get people to talk about for her film.

“They’re saying it’s really hard to meet someone – not just a one-night stand, not just Tinder stuff. It’s really hard to find someone who can be in a long-term relationship,” she says. “I think having a person who can really understand you, who’s going to be with you, is really huge.”

Unfortunately, there’s no app to cure a lonely heart – or is there? We spotted Date a Nomad, a social networking service for single techie vagabonds.

A one-way ticket

You-jin hopes she will do her part to help others understand the lifestyle. The nomad community has been behind her efforts to increase awareness of this way of living, with remote-friendly startups like Buffer and Toptal backing her with small donations (you can, too, through her crowdfunding page).

“People are totally excited about this idea, and I’m really thankful for that,” she says. “They’re really excited that maybe because of this documentary, they won’t have to explain to their loved ones that their life is not crazy.”

She aims to wrap up filming by year-end. With a run time of 60 to 90 minutes, the film is scheduled to be released online for free in March or April next year on all channels from torrents to YouTube, as well as at festivals, conferences, and seminars.

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