From Overtime Worker To Digital Nomad: Young Chinese Seek ‘Slow Lifestyles’ Abroad

It was 2018 when Tori Zhao found herself living the Chinese dream. Or, so it seemed. The software engineer received sought-after job offers from companies like ByteDance and was extremely busy working for an up-and-coming start-up in Beijing’s tech hub — yet, things didn’t feel right. 

“I worked 996 hours,” the Guangzhou native says. The “996 lifestyle” is a term used to denote the harsh 9am to 9pm, six-day work week grind that has become a reality for many young Chinese working in white collar jobs, especially those in innovation and tech-related fields.

“I couldn’t handle it,” Zhao says. She feared she was heading towards burnout. And it’s not only Zhao — 76% percent of Chinese respondents aged under 23 surveyed for a recent employment report said they were willing to become digital nomads and not be tied down to any location. 

Buzzwords like “lying flat” have given way to new trends such as “let it rot,” which means living a slower lifestyle and doing the bare minimum to subsist rather than just submitting to the grind. The phrase gathered over 93.2 million views and searches on Xiaohongshu late last year.  

Finding freedom

In 2019, Zhao quit her job to go freelance. Over the next few years, Zhao managed a roster of clients while taking time off to travel and refresh between major projects, traveling in and out of cities like Hong Kong, tropical islands like Bali, as well as sleepy towns across rural China. 

With an affordable cost of living and fast internet speed, Bali has become a hot destination for digital nomads. Photo: Shutterstock

She considers her resignation a blessing, as many of her peers lost their jobs during the pandemic. More importantly, Zhao was able to dodge some of China’s stringent lockdowns.

Once the pandemic hit, Zhao, who had previously studied in Vancouver, returned to the city, where she mostly stayed until this spring. She then headed back to China to see family and tick off more places on her wishlist, including Ho Chi Minh City.

Most of the Chinese digital nomads she knows are software engineers, according to Zhao. 

“When I first got started, it was mostly men, but more women are catching up with it,” she says, adding that the digital nomads she encounters include writers, journalists, programmers and other creatives. 

A tale of two nomads

Mo Zhou is a relative newcomer to the digital nomad lifestyle. Formerly based in Shanghai, Zhou runs her own digital media, marketing and advertising agency out of Vancouver, though she travels frequently across the US. 

Zhou made the lifestyle switch in 2021, when she was locked out of China mid-pandemic. The Shanghai-based company she was working for allowed her to continue working from abroad. 

However, the time zone differences took a toll. 

“I was the only one working remotely from another country,” she says. “I did that for a year, but I had to wake up at 9pm in Vancouver, and stay awake until 5am everyday. So, my schedule was flipped, and I barely saw any sunlight … I ended up quitting my job.”

Unable to return to China, she started her own company. “It has allowed me to work with different clients remotely,” she says. 

Running her own agency has enabled Zhou to work in multifaceted ways. From livestreaming to promoting product reviews and dabbling in Web3-related marketing and other innovations, she and her business partner work on what they call the “creative side” of tech. 

Recommended ReadingWhat China’s “Lying-Flat” Trend Means For Luxury BrandsBy Juliette Duveau and Sophia Dumenil

New groups on the scene

According to Robert Litchfield, a business professor at Washington and Jefferson College, whose area of research is creativity, innovation and the future of work, including digital remote work, the term digital nomad has been around since 1997. 

Digital Nomad, written by David Manners and Tsugio Makimoto, was a book that talked about how technology would give power to humans to revisit an ancient choice which was whether to be settlers or nomads,” he tells Jing Daily

Litchfield’s study of digital nomad culture around the world has been published in his recent book, titled Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community and Meaningful Work in the New Economy, co-written with fellow academic Rachael Woldoff. 

Among other sources, he cites Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week as a major influence among nomads. “Among the digital nomads we studied, I would say it was their Bible … it was the template [for their lifestyle],” Litchfield says.

Fast forward, and Miriam Webster dictionary added “digital nomad” to its list of new terms late last year. 

“It defines a digital nomad as someone who performs their occupation entirely over the internet while traveling. Especially a person who has no permanent fixed home address. This is how we conceive of digital nomadism,” says Litchfield. 

And the pandemic has accelerated digital nomadism as a lifestyle choice among young Chinese around the world. Full-time workers were “jettisoned out into this world,” says Litchfield. 

“People didn’t like all of the forced office stuff, all of the overwhelming and annoying corporate culture, all of the overbearing micromanaging. All the unnecessary inflexibility,” he explains. “That’s what the digital nomads quit on years ago — they had had it with that kind of craziness.”

“People didn’t like all of the forced office stuff, all of the overwhelming and annoying corporate culture, all of the overbearing micromanaging. All the unnecessary inflexibility.”

Tori Zhao, the software engineer, acknowledges her lifestyle is not the norm, especially compared with her peers. 

“I grew up in Guangzhou, in the south, where we were exposed to Western culture and listened to K-pop,” she explains. “People I got to know in Beijing were so different; they often grew up in smaller towns across northern China and spent much of their lives studying to pass their college exams.

“996 is nothing to them because they’ve been doing it since they were kids — 12 hours of study per day since the age of 11.”

Zhao says her experience made her realize she wasn’t in the majority. 

She grew up in Guangzhou, a first-tier city, where she had access to more resources and opportunities, whereas many of her start-up peers came from smaller cities that feature less social mobility. 

Passport privilege 

People who grew up with relative privilege in China have had an easier time hopping on board this new lifestyle, says Tori Zhao. 

For instance, her parents are relatively liberal and “don’t have much of a reaction” to her choice of career. “I have a lot of freedom compared with other young Chinese,” she admits. 

According to Litchfield, in addition to what he calls the “human capital advantage,” passport and visa privileges play a part in the extent to which young Chinese are able to engage in this lifestyle. 

“For numerous people who we interviewed [for our digital nomad study], their employers made efforts to try to retain them [when they tried to leave their full-time jobs]. These were high value employees, who were quitting their work and going into digital nomad lifestyles with human capital advantage, or the knowledge and work skills necessary,” he says. 

The second big advantage is passport privilege, Litchfield explains. 

“If you’re from a Western nation like the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, you can go wherever you want … But for people from other nations, such as China, there may be issues depending on where they’re coming and going from,” he adds.

Chinese residents who hold foreign passports, such as Mo Zhou, the digital creative, believe that social media has helped propel the trend into the spotlight for many young Chinese. 

Chinese digital nomads (数字游民) post about their experiences working from beaches and cafés around the world. Photo: Xiaohongshu

“With the growth of social media, more people are open to living this lifestyle now,” she says, citing digital nomad influencers in China. “If your job allows you to work remotely and you have the courage to do so, then yes, it’s easier to get into becoming a digital nomad nowadays.”

“My favorite part about this is just being wherever in the world I want to be,” she says.



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