Talks in Thailand: The digital nomad

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

Mr. A explained to me over a Skype call that he wasn’t sure how he would declare his taxes in his home country of Costa Rica. Many countries haven’t yet caught onto this trend.

A growing number of people are supporting themselves with online freelancing. Working online means they’re not locked into any physical location, allowing them to live in a country with a low cost of living while receiving their wage in a strong currency, like the U.S. dollar.

There’s no official name for them yet, but many call them digital nomads.

“I tried to explain what I did to an accountant and he didn’t know. He told me the laws are outdated and don’t apply. Costa Rica doesn’t have the legislation to deal with it yet.” he said.

He had just arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was his first dive into full time life as a digital nomad, though he had tested the waters during a stay in Hamburg, Germany.

Mr. A did market research. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so he gave me an example.

If an American chocolate company wants to get into the Mexican market, they’ll want to know how much demand there is for chocolate, what the competition is like, what local buying power is, and so on. If they can’t find that on their own, he’s the guy they come to.

He started his marketing career as a typical employee at a typical company, sitting in a typical cubicle and working typical hours. He would try to earn beer money by working for private clients he met online in his free time.

When a client offered him a temporary job in Hamburg, Germany, he jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to break out of the norm. Do something new. Have an adventure!

But after he arrived, the job fell through.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

With a two month lease on his apartment, plenty of time to spare, and a need to find income, he decided to turn his free time freelancing hobby into a full time job. Mr. A had just accidentally become a digital nomad.

His story sounded a lot like my own. It’s a story that I found many digital nomads share. The story of stumbling into this lifestyle.

I started publishing articles after I got home from work because I wanted to make the career jump from teaching to writing. I wrote without pay for over half a year, just to build a portfolio.

While teaching English in South Korea, I found paid gigs on Upwork. I began with low end jobs, just trying to build a reputation on the site. And in the field of writing, the low end jobs are as low as low gets. Clients from India were outsourcing work to me.

Slowly, it built to better work. Very slowly.

As my year long contract in Korea came to an end, a buddy in Arkansas told me I could move in with him until I got myself figured out in the States.

He asked if I’d need to find a job or if I could support myself from freelancing. I laughed and told him my writing wouldn’t even come close to paying the bills unless I was living in a small town in Thailand or something crazy like that.

When we ended the call, “something crazy like that,” was all I could think about. Within a month, I had moved to a small town in Thailand. Somehow it didn’t feel crazy at all.

I met a shockingly large number of other people from all over the world doing the same thing. Writers, programmers, English teachers, and marketers from Hong Kong, Italy, Colombia, and Israel.

There was a meetup group at the cafe outside my apartment. There were so many digital nomads in Chiang Mai that a new type of hostel started up called a “Workspace,” which was a mix of hostel and computer cafe.

The point is, this digital nomad thing isn’t a couple people working remotely. It’s a culture developing in a few particular cities across the globe: Chiang Mai, Medellin, Ho Chi Minh, Budapest, and so on.

The number of digital nomads is growing. A few of them believed we were the pioneers of a revolution that will use the internet to change the fundamental structure of labor. A few of them were dreamers.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

I asked Mr. A how he defines a digital nomad. It’s such a new thing, everyone seems to have their own definition.

“To me,” he said, then thought for a moment. “Someone who moves around and makes their living online. I guess if you look at it, if you want to get really specific, it’s someone who self funds their lifestyle.”

That’s the unifying quality I had seen with all the digital nomads I met. They were people who refused to sell hours of their life to a company, waiting for the end of the shift to relish the sliver of time they had free. Instead, they started the lifestyle they wanted, then found a way to fund it.

Digital nomads may be unified in that aspect of lifestyle, but they’re not unified as far as the name that labels them. In all the digital nomad social media groups I joined, there were always debates about what term describes their lifestyle. A lot of them saw “digital nomad” as silly at best, and derogatory at worst.

Personally, I didn’t see the problem with it. They work online and they travel. Digital nomad seemed appropriate. But Mr. A had another perspective.

He said the term makes it easy when you’re trying to explain what you do to someone who doesn’t even know that lifestyle exists. However, he believes there’s dissention about the term because there is a group of digital nomads that the others would like to distance themselves from.

He said that often the digital nomads who are most outspoken about their lifestyle are those who do “dropshipping.” Dropshipping, as he explained, is buying bulk of a product sold cheap in one area of the world, then selling it in another area where it will make a profit.

Years ago, a good friend told me about someone who made his living buying Oreo cookies and selling them in China. In Thailand, I met a friend who told me he knows someone who only works one day a month because he does dropshipping.

Mr. A said that they’re often the most visible digital nomads. In reality, many of them don’t make much money dropshipping, but they do tons of publicity for courses they sell on how to dropship. The courses become the primary income for many of them.

“The whole lifestyle is about trying not to work,” Mr. A said, explaining why some digital nomads want to distance themselves from the title, which is too often associated with dropshippers. “From an economic perspective, at least for me, it doesn’t add much value.”

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

He told me that he got the travel bug when he was young. He travelled a lot with his family, but decided that’s not the way he wanted to travel. He didn’t want to sprint through a place in a week, stopping for selfies at all the same tourists sites that every visitor stops at. He wanted to take his time and know a place

I felt the same. I taught in Korea for years. During that time, I took a few week long trips to Japan. I saw some cool sites and it was great, but I understand nothing about Japan. However, I have a deep understanding of Korea because I loved and hated and fought and accepted its culture over the years.

That’s what I want from travel. I don’t care for seeing the famous sites and taking pictures, which look exactly like the pictures I’d see on Google Images. Instead, when I travel, I want to understand that country. I want travel to expand my understanding of what human life can be.

You can’t get that understanding in a week trip. You only get it by walking down to the same food stall on the corner for months. Experiencing the same frustrating cultural difference with many different people many times. You begin to pull apart what is cultural behavior and what is purely human.

Still, Mr. A said there are things he misses about a traditional workplace. We both agreed that we miss the social aspect of working with a team, despite the fact that we both identify as introverts.

He said that as an introverted digital nomad, it’s easy for him to fall into a lifestyle of never seeing people face to face for days on end. He has to make an effort to meet people, which feels unnatural as an introvert.

Whatever that urge is to go out and make friends just for the sake of making friends, I don’t have that either. I met most of my friends while doing something. Volunteering, living in a college dorm, gaming, writing groups, and so on.

Work was one of those reliable ways to get in my obligated socializing time. Without it, even I got to a point where I was spending too much time alone. It got to the point where I remember struggling through some conversations like a toddler having to think about which foot to put forward next.

I was even more socially awkward than usual, which is a hell of a thing for someone like me.

Mr. A added one more thing he missed about a traditional job. When you work from home as a freelancer, the actual work is the easy part. The hard part is finding the work.

He said that even when he finds regular clients, he needs to continue looking for new clients so that the pipeline of work doesn’t dry up. If you haven’t been searching for new work and a client doesn’t offer you another project, you better hope you have some savings. The pipeline has dried up and you’re about to go hungry.

Despite the challenges, Mr. A believes, like many of the dreamers, that the digital nomad phenomena could be the start to a new way to make a living.

“It could be something that’s just starting,” he said. “You’re documenting it at the start. It’ll be interesting to see this five years from now and say, ‘This is how it all started.’”


Pictures: Masha Kudrina
Words: Michael Smit

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