You hate your job.
I mean, it’s not so bad. It pays the bills and it fills a spot on your resume. But you hate it nonetheless.
You want to be happier but you aren’t sure how. That new 70 inch TV you got didn’t seem to make a difference. Some days you hardly watch it, others you spend hours staring into it. It doesn’t change a thing — on all days, it does nothing to alleviate your stress, boredom, and general sense that your life is not your own but one that someone else pick out (rather haphazardly) for you.
Sometimes you see other people on the internet and they’re happy. They make more money than you, they work at exciting startups, they live in cool places. That’s what you want. To work at Google, to be the CTO of your own startup, to live somewhere warm and beachy. Preferably all at the same time.
Of course, that’s not possible. You’d never get past the coding interviews at any big company; if you did, it’d be through luck and they’d see right through your facade as soon as you started working. And you’ll never be able to work at a fast paced startup — you don’t have the “work ethic” (ok, more like naivety) to work weekends, evenings, and late nights because you believe so much in the “mission” that your company is going to “change the world” (not unlike every other startup).
No, that’s not you.
But warm and beachy? You could do that. You see lots of people posting selfies on Thai beaches, sipping sugary cocktails while they work on their startups. Selfies of people posing with temples, monks, jungles, beautiful sunsets.
Maybe they’re in Thailand, maybe they’re in Singapore, maybe they’re in Nepal. You’re not really sure; you’d be hard-pressed to label these countries on a map. But where they are doesn’t matter so much as the fact that they’re happy. Smiling, tanned, attractive, slightly drunk, and very productive.
You hate your job.
You think this to yourself as you are stuck in traffic on your hour long commute.
Fuck it. You’re not going to work today. You pull off the freeway and circle back to your overpriced apartment.
You call in sick and your boss gives you shit for it.
You spend all day reading travel blogs, digital nomad blogs, entrepreneur blogs. All of these beautiful people in these beautiful places have one thing in common. They’re smiling. You want to be smiling too.
That night, you once again tell yourself “Fuck it”. You buy a one way ticket for next week to Thailand. You’re going to Chiang Mai. You’re going to be a digital nomad.
The next day, you pack up your stuff, call your landlord and clean up the details of your lease. You drive your cat to your parent’s place, go shopping for some swim trunks.
When you get home, you have a smile on your face. You’re not even in Thailand yet and you’re smiling. It’s a good feeling, knowing that you’re free.
In the week leading up to your plane ride, you decide you’re gonna have to get some things figured out. You sign up for a couple of digital nomad forums and social media sites. You ask for advice and get plenty of replies.
First thing’s first — you buy a Macbook. Your old Windows computer is not gonna cut it as a digital nomad. No digital nomad uses Windows. Besides, it’s too bulky anyways. Your Macbook is expensive (kind of nauseatingly so), but at least it will be easy to carry to the beach.
Another thing you need to figure out is money. Living in Thailand is supposed to be cheap, but unfortunately, it still costs money (bummer). You decide to start with the basics and go with the advice you’ve been hearing other digital nomads talk about: create an online course and start a blog. Your blog will be a travel blog and will help build your “brand” (though you’re not really sure what that means). The course will be a course on how to drop everything, move somewhere beautiful, and make money online. You figure that in the process of creating the course, you will solve these problems of making money and living somewhere beautiful.
Today’s the day. You stumble through customs. You’re pretty hungry, but the only restaurants in the airport are fast food places. In some ways, fast food is a proper last meal in America: what’s more American than a frozen burger covered in processed ketchup cooked in 60 seconds flat?
The plane ride is okay. You spill your pretzels on the ground. And the lady next to you is asleep, making it difficult for you to get up to use the bathroom. Still, not the worst plane ride you’ve been on.
When you arrive, the heat hits you. It’s the kind of sudden heat you feel when you open the oven too fast; suffocating and dense. You knew it would be warm, but it’s actually flat-out uncomfortable. Sweat is already sticking to your back.
You’re staying in an AirBnB for the first month. You want to rent an apartment, but crashing in an AirBnB is easy and safe and you can look for a real place while you’re here. Although it’s pretty expensive. In fact, it’s pretty much the same rent you paid back home.
Your host is pretty nice. He says that he usually rents to digital nomads. They like his high speed internet and air conditioning, he likes their bank accounts. He doesn’t tell you that last part but it’s implied.
You spend a couple of days relaxing, getting used to the scene here. In the morning you hang out on the internet. You check out some of the nature in the afternoon, some of the bars at night. You meet a few other travelers and digital nomads. Lots of web developers, marketers, designers, and college kids.
Thailand is great. It’s hot, and right now it’s not actually cheaper than your apartment back home, and you miss some of the food you like, but overall, it’s what you expected. Beautiful wildlife, cool bars and clubs.
One day, a guy you meet at a bar (who wrote an ebook about marketing that you politely declined to buy) convinces you to come rock climbing with him. He’s okay, not great but okay. He’s the kind of guy who would buy you a drink if you forgot your wallet, but he also is the kind of guy who would show up unannounced at your apartment. He evokes a mostly neutral response in you: he’s fun and social, but also loud and kind of obnoxious.
Anyways, you decide to come along because you want to get out more and experience real adventure. You’re not sure what “real adventure” means, but rock climbing probably fits the bill.
On the drive, you pass by what looks like a large village comprised mostly of huts and tents. Separating the road you’re driving on from the village is a tall barbed wire fence, and there are armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter. You ask your mediocre friend what this is.
“I think those are the Burmese refugee camps”, he says.
You mull that over for a few minutes, but don’t respond.
Rock climbing is pretty fun. It’s draining, but it felt real.
When you get home from rock climbing, you look up the refugee camps that your friend (not that he’s really your friend) mentioned to you.
Apparently there are almost 150,000 Burmese refugees living in camps in Thailand, and they’re not allowed to leave the camps or work. The article you’re reading is about all the violence and abuse going on in the refugee camps.
You read about how Thailand has a pretty violent history. Apparently they’ve had a dozen military coups in the last 75 years. That’s just about one every 6 years.
You feel a little sick to your stomach. Similar to how you felt looking at your Macbook’s price tag, except more abstract and heavy.
To be fair, America has some messed up political happenings too. The idiot in the White House scares you. He might launch a nuclear missile on any day, maybe just because of some schoolyard tussle or because his chef is out of his favorite kind of yogurt. Not to mention the fact that America is not exactly known to be humane with political prisoners, refugees, and prisoners of war.
“At least it’s not just Thailand”, you think to yourself. Not that this is a very comforting thought.
A few months pass by.
You blog about the cool beaches and temples you see. Your blog doesn’t get very much traffic, but some of the other digital nomads you know check it out. You mostly read digital nomad blogs, your blog is mostly read by digital nomads. So it goes.
Your course was just launched. The content is mostly about how to find freelance work, or create an online course, or cultivate a brand. It got about 10 preorders over the last week, but you’re hoping the launch will spur up some more excitement. Most of the preorders were from people you met hanging out in Chiang Mai, other fresh and eager faces new to the city and looking to make some quick cash.
You’re thinking about dropping a couple grand on some promotions for the course on popular digital nomad blogs and forums.
One night, you head to the bar and meetup with some other travelers. Two of them are developers who freelance, one has his own company, and two more have books and guides and courses online. One of them tells you about his most recent expedition.
“I drove up a few dozen kilo’s to this temple, a really beautiful place”, he says, and describes it as “really calm and peaceful” and “a great place to rejuvenate”. He’s thinking about asking the monks there if they would let him bring weekly tour groups there in exchange for a cut of the money he’d make.
You hear lots of stories like these: yoga retreats on beautiful (formerly) untouched beaches, meditation journeys in the depths of a now defunct monastery. You like yoga and meditation, but these stories depress you.
It seems less and less like these people are “digital nomads” every day. The only thing “digital” about them is the junk they hock on the internet. And they are only nomads in the loosest sense of the term. They’re closer to early settlers than to wandering Bedouin — they seem to have come to point and laugh at everything here, to suck this country dry of its culture.
You found a cheaper apartment and moved in, but it doesn’t have air conditioning and the internet is pretty bad. You mostly work from coffeeshops, but you’re considering paying for a desk at a coworking space. You would probably be more productive with a better work environment, and maybe you would meet some cool people working on cool problems.
Still, the expense is something to consider. Although a lot of things are cheap here, your bank account isn’t looking too great. Like an aged Disney child actor, you can see that although it once had a lot of potential, it’s now mostly empty on the inside.
You miss your cat.
Today you try to read an article about Thailand on CNN, something your mom sent you in a fit of motherly anxiety. To your surprise, a weird error message pops up from the Thai government, talking about how the article you tried to view was against the morals of Thailand. You look it up and apparently Thailand is ranked pretty poorly for Internet censorship — news sites that discuss Thailand (like CNN and BBC), Wikipedia articles about Thailand, WikiLeaks, The Internet Archive, and even YouTube are all blocked.
You’re upset by this, so you try to read more about Thailand’s politics by using a VPN and the TOR browser to get around the internet censorship. You read about the assassinations of dozens of human rights activists over the last few years, and the extrajudicial killings of thousands of civilians suspected of being involved with drugs. Peaceful protest is illegal. Anything that insults the government is illegal, and almost 500 people every year are jailed for that.
You hate the other digital nomads around you. Everyone is selling you some useless shit. Yoga retreats, meditation classes, tours of religious temples, psychedelic journeys, ebooks, online courses.
It makes you feel nauseous when you think about how you are doing the exact same thing.
Not that you’re doing it particularly well. The money from your course still isn’t even covering rent, let alone food, travel, and entertainment. You try to do some freelancing work but most of it is extremely low budget. Anyone who wants freelancers in Thailand can just pay locals practically nothing. For the rates you would like to make, clients could just pay someone back in America.
It’s one giant cycle. “Digital nomads” (the term has begun to bother you, thus, the quotes) come to places like Thailand. They post selfies of cocktails and beaches and their suntans on social media sites and their blogs. They sell useless shit to each other and glorify their lifestyle to keep a constant stream of wealthy suckers coming to Thailand to buy their crap.
Ugh. Maybe you should have studied for a job at Google, or sucked it up and worked too many hours at an exciting startup. But if you had done that, you would probably be thinking analogous thoughts about how terrible everything is and was and will be.
A few days later, you buy a plane ticket back home. You don’t bother saying goodbye to anyone because you aren’t that close to anyone here. Nobody seems to notice you’re gone; you don’t get any messages asking where you went.
When you get home, you stay with your parents for a while. They are very happy to see you. Your cat is also very happy to see you (or, as happy as one’s cat can be, which is to say, mostly indifferent).
Your parents are very excited about all the pictures you show them, and the stories about adventures you had, and your suntan and your course that made some money.
You didn’t strike it rich, they say, but at least you had a good time.
Except you didn’t. Your year abroad quickly became the same as any other year. It’s almost like the world around you, your reality, was constantly shifting to line up with your worldview, with who you are. What a depressing thought.
It’s late. You can’t sleep. You go downstairs and your cat follows. You open up a little can of tuna for her. She purrs and rubs your leg as you scoop it into her bowl. She’s happy. She doesn’t need money, or to be beautiful or sexy, or tanning on a warm beach. She just needs you to open this can of tuna for her.
You can’t believe you spent a year in Thailand. It feels like a dream.
Then again, so does this. It’s late, it’s dark. For all you know, this could actually be a dream.
The thought makes you smile.
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