In the beginning, it all seemed to make sense. When Yuan was laid off from her job in late 2019, the idea of combining work and travel came to her while walking along a beach amid the sea breeze in Malaysia.
She had read many posts on social media describing the perfect life of digital nomads. It was a short step from there to using her redundancy payout to start her own online business offering career advice.
She first moved from Shanghai to the neighboring city of Kunshan, where she found the pace of life slower and the rent cheaper. However, after a year, the excitement of her new lifestyle began to fade. She bounced between a monthly income of 30,000 yuan ($4,238) to stretches of little or no income at all.
“When my income and my situation went downhill, anxiety outweighed the enjoyment,” 30-year-old Yuan tells Sixth Tone.
Three years ago, Chinese millennials considered “traveling while working” their most desirable career choice. During the pandemic that normalized “working from home,” young people quit full-time jobs and found they could earn a living online.
They often moved from destination to destination, exploring settings from rural life to beachside surfing. Some even relocated to visa-friendly countries in Southeast Asia and South America.
Digital nomads are typically depicted on social media as enjoying their lifestyle, but few are forthcoming in discussing how much it costs to maintain themselves or how to cope with the emotional burdens of a footloose life.
Yuan discovered she had difficulty managing her time and self-discipline. What seemed at first like the perfect situation for work-life balance often veered more to leisure activities than her online business. “Every day, as I sat on the sofa enjoying the sunshine, I felt happy,” she recalls, adding that she was exhausted from her previous work.
Yuan also struggled with chaos in her routine. She slept until noon and began working at 3 p.m. Her clientele was not stable, and she ended up having no new clients. The paradise of an idyllic lifestyle evaporated, and Yuan plummeted back to earth last March.
“Being a digital nomad was not as good as I thought,” she says. “It seemed great that I could go out and have fun while everyone else was working, but it was accompanied by uneasiness and anxiety.”
According to data collected last September from 348 members of the Digital Nomad Anji, a nomad community in the eastern province of Zhejiang, 65% were nomads for less than a year and 19% were jobless or students.
Daniel Huang, the co-founder of Dali Hub — a co-working space for digital nomads — tells Sixth Tone that successful digital nomads either have a stable job in a company allowing them to work remotely or are entrepreneurs. Therefore, only a small number of people can sustain such a lifestyle for long.
“A lot of young people come here because they may still be in an exploratory phase or in a gap period,” Huang says. “Mostly, they just want to experience the lifestyle of a digital nomad.”
But many of these young adventurers remain shackled to social and parental pressures. It’s common for Chinese parents to expect their children to have a stable job with a steady income, and then get married and have children. However, the lifestyle of digital nomads runs counter to such expectations.
In August 2022, without the knowledge of her family, Wang Dingke quit her job as an operations executive in the southern city of Guangzhou and decided to see the world as a digital nomad. She tried to earn income through online activities or social platforms, but her attempts were unsuccessful.
“I didn’t figure out a stable online revenue model,” 26-year-old Wang recalls.
When Wang’s savings could no longer support her journey, she was forced to find part-time jobs to fund her adventure. In October 2022, she worked at a teahouse in northwestern China, where she handled the venue’s operations. After saving up enough money she set off on her journey again.
However, four months later, she found herself short of money again, so she worked as a homestay housekeeper in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The two part-time jobs paid Wang 5,000 yuan per month and provided her with food and accommodation.
“I didn’t care if I had a fixed income or not because I felt I could survive no matter what,” Wang says. “I really enjoyed that kind of life — traveling alone and wandering.”
Wang’s family were kept in the dark about the true nature of her lifestyle. Her parents expressed concerns and urged her to get married and settle down.
After 439 days — yes, she kept track — she gave up the life of a digital nomad and found a mainstream job in November. “I feel I have to fulfill my parents’ expectations,” she says. “I have to get a proper job, have a stable income, find a good guy to marry and have kids.”
But it’s often hard to return to life as it once was. When looking for full-time jobs, Wang and Yuan both say they encountered obstacles. Wang deliberately avoided discussing her time as a digital nomad during job interviews, but some employers spotted the gap on her resumé.
“They told me that I had been out of the ‘company system’ for more than a year, which made them worry about whether I would be able to knuckle down and follow the company’s rules and regulations,” Wang tells Sixth Tone.
In the end, Wang had to settle for far less pay than she was earning before she hit the road, and in Yuan’s case, her salary was cut in half.
“It is the lowest paycheck I have ever received,” says Yuan. “But I guess that is the price of freedom.”
Fu Ye, a pioneer of the digital nomad lifestyle in China, has been “on the road” for five years. She has traveled to over 20 countries, working as a freelance writer, blogger, and other money-spinners.
Fu says she understands the issues digital nomads face, including time and emotion management, and changes in social and work patterns.
“People consider only the positive aspects,” she says. “Some are impulsive, resigning from jobs and announcing that they want to become digital nomads. Usually, they have no idea what lies ahead.”
Though she has returned to a mainstream job in e-commerce, Wang says that she plans to resume her life as a digital nomad once she has saved up enough money and expanded her skill set.
Yuan, however, says she is satisfied with her life. As a content operator, she says she is grateful for the sense of stability and security.
“I don’t have so much stress because I know I have a fixed income every month,” Yuan explains.
Her physical and mental states have improved, she adds, even though she has to get up at 6 a.m. every workday for the 50-kilometer commute to her office.
“I think that inevitably requires me to have a regular routine,” Yuan says.
(Header image: Ascent Xmedia/Getty Creative/VCG)