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

After “lying flat” and “letting it rot,” young Chinese around the world are turning to digital nomadism as a lifestyle choice. 

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.

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.

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