If you choose to travel — or are a digital nomad — you have this privilege.

It’s not money.

Athena Lam
Mar 17, 2018 · 16 min read
Omoideyokocho at night when the stall open. (Tokyo, 2016) — Photo by Athena Lam

Back in January 2014, I left my job because I was burnt out by Hong Kong more than anything. At the time, I knew that keeping my job to make ends meet made me unhappy. Should I just return to Canada? Quality of life was so much better, but it felt like defeat. Eventually, I decided that drifting through places on a shoestring budget of US$25/day with part-time contracts seemed like a good temporary solution.

I began travelling because it was cheaper than living in Hong Kong.

Averaged US$31/day in Japan for 3 months in 2015

Many other digital nomads live abroad now to do freelance work or boostrap their startups by living comfortably with US$1000 in SE Asian countries and Eastern Europe. In contrast, that was 80% of rent to share a flat in Hong Kong. I started travelling to find somewhere to settle that costed less, so that I could comfortably make less.

A 40-day pilgrimage in rural Japan that included squatting on shop stalls. (2015)

But I want to unpack the amount of privilege it takes to say that travelling or moving countries is viable solution. Be warned: This unpack is a longread.

Privilege is more than assets.

When I listed out all the things that empowered me to just buy a ticket out of a city on a whim in search of a new home, I grouped them into these 3 types of privileges. Most people understand privilege as having access, entitlements, or inheritance. Other people have proven that privilege has a way of accumulating, which allows people to get further ahead.

Source: The Clyde Fitch Report

The least obvious privilege is mindset. But it was probably the most influential factor that enabled me to travel for an extended period and bumble my way into becoming a “digital nomad”. Mindset is that positive, affirmative part of us that we are taught to value (and value we should), but should not take for granted. Mindset is the perspective that helps us look for, recognise, and use our resources. Even for people who have access and inheritance, our mindset makes us feel we have permission to do things.

  • Mindset: Crossing borders was always an option. I grew up feeling that the world was a friendly place, filled with connections.
  • Access / Inherited Situation: A first-class passport, visa-free work opportunities in various countries, family connections, and a financial safety net.
  • Accumulated advantages: Funded education, no debt, learned valuable soft skills.

Simply put, privilege is having options.

Whether or how someone decides to use their options or not is up to them. They can sample, abstain, and even share them.

In laying my situation out there, I want to reveal the options people may not have realized they have. At the same time, I want to ask the people who realize they have these options to consider “how we can each use our privileges to make responsible choices and enable others?”

In the rest of the piece, I will go through the things I recognise as either a mindset, access, or accumulated advantage privilege as an example.

I grew up travelling.

Going to watch the pilgrims by the Ganges tributary river. (Kathmandu, Nepal. 2010)

Specifically, I grew up like many other middle class Chinese Canadians flying between my birthplace and my parents’ hometown. The familiarity of another city across the Pacific got me interested in maps, first the jumbo-sized textbooks that still had USSR, and then Google. They also took us back to China, so urine-scented and crap-painted toilet stalls just seemed like a fact of life, which meant I got used to what half the world lives with before I learned to be afraid of difference.

Mindset privilege: Border customs isn’t scary; packing light is easy and not a hassle; “different is cool” was ingrained before I learned to shudder at the “weird”.

Worldwide safety nets.

I began moving in the safety net of my family networks. When I moved to Toronto, I was introduced to 50+ extended family members whom over the years invited me to dinners, helped me move, and offered to house me. In Hong Kong, a family friend hosted me until I had a stable job and a place they deemed suitable to live in. When I got a short-term work contract in China, I stayed with a cousin I’d seen twice before; in Japan, I stayed with an aunt 4–5 degrees removed. In London, a family friend agreed to stored my luggage without ever having met me. My first thought when I want to go somewhere is “who do I want to see” rather than “how will I manage”.

Access privilege: My family has built up up strong relationships that I benefit from and a local foot in the door helps with everything from explaining menus to opening bank accounts. (Will return to this in a later section.)

My freedom is subsidised by my country.

A life-changing trip to Cambodia to spend time with girls in a shelter. I ended up going 3 times to keep a promise. (2011)

Vietnam was the first country I had to apply for a visa to on my own. I was mildly irritated at the paperwork and added fee to get somewhere. I’d gone through through Europe just handing my book to collect stamps.

Then, I started learning about travel restrictions from my Bolivian, Chinese, and Indian friends, which involved two-month application processes, needing to provide bank statements, proof of employment not only for themselves, but potentially parents, endorsements, phone and in-person interviews. A visa can cost US$200–500. After months of bureaucratic procedures and US$1000–2000 just for the application, many are rejected. My Ukrainian friend lost 2 weeks of her school term because authorities delayed her visa.

I can go to Eastern Europe to save money while a friend from India would have to spend a year’s worth of savings to travel there for a week. I might lose a few hours waiting for the visa that I felt entitled to. But my sense of entitlement is only possible because I hold a passport from a wealthy country. Travelling is cheaper for me than for friends in developing countries in relative and absolute amounts.

Access privilege: Going to wealthy countries like the US and Europe visa-free; buying last-minute tickets without any planning; no hassle landing visas.

It was never if or how, just when.

Circling over Miyakejima before landing in Tokyo (2016)

To me, working in Asia was a goal, not a distant dream. I bought a plane ticket after finishing my undergraduate and assumed I could apply for any job (ignorant entirely of work visas). Fortunately, my bubble wasn’t bursted in Hong Kong because my parents are from there, granting me working rights. I didn’t have to plan for years, research how to get into a top-tier school, get English certification, pay atrocious international student fees, or fight for a local job to stay after graduation. In retrospect, there were probably far more qualified international applications that were tossed aside for the same position because they didn’t have residency in Hong Kong.

I felt that I could cherry-pick the places I loved.

Mindset privilege: If I don’t like it at home, I can always go somewhere else. Plus, my parents taught me to consider my own safety rather than defined for me what counted as safe.

Access privilege: 30+ countries for working holiday visas, so I could try places without much risk. With a working holiday visa or other type of residency helps get your CV looked at so you can compete with locals (companies don’t need to sponsor my visa) and edge out qualified international applicants.

Have a degree from an English-speaking institution.

They say a degree doesn’t really mean much these days. But not having a degree means a lot. Having a university degree means that HR departments will actually look at your CV. A degree from an English institution also means I don’t need to take proficiency tests and I can teach English as “a backup” in many countries. Teaching English pays extremely well and often gets sponsored work visas. Teaching English is one of the highest paying professions per hour until middle-senior management in MNCs. The English teaching industry lacks of regulation and charges predatory rates for sub-par teaching standards. Plus, it reinforces the notion that English is the global standard when majority of the world doesn’t speak it on a daily basis. That rant deserves a post.

Mindset privilege: A university degree was a family obligation — at one of the top national universities, lest I shame my parents. Arguing for and applying in secret to art school was a 2 year-long rebellion. But in the end, I continue to benefit from all the resources and alumni networks to this day.

Access privilege: Will be eligible for many positions, given relevant experience. Can teach English overseas without any qualification and get paid really well.

I had time to succeed.

Photo bombing the Development Management group’s last-exam photo. (London, 2012)

I didn’t have to work 2 jobs to pay for university. That means that I had time to study, get good grades, do volunteer work, organise events, and make friends. During undergrad, I built a community (and self-confidence) by doing things. In Hong Kong, I applied those skills to getting a job, organising more events, and meeting new friends. All those skills I applied again and again to find work and make every new home feel accessible and exciting.

It’s easy to be nice when you have resources: money, time, connections, knowledge. I had these resources to give to others: making introductions, treating a meal, helping with studies. I helped because I could. But it’s more accurate to say:

I helped others because I could afford to.

Mindset privilege: I could develop confidence and be myself because I wasn’t worried about a million other life things like how to pay the utilities bill so they won’t cut the heat in winter.

Accumulated advantage: I had time (and money) to do little gestures like mailing stacks of postcards and seasonal greetings. I built up social capital before I knew the term and long before I needed it.

No student loans or debt.

That sentence sums it up. Middle-class Chinese families often pay for their children’s undergraduate degrees. The flip side of the tiger-mom story is that unlike my non-Chinese counterparts, many of my friends and I never even had to consider the question of financing our education. We were terrified of starting from square one when we graduated, but many other people are starting six feet under.

Mindset privilege: My parents also encouraged me to get a part-time job since I was in high school. They encouraged me to save and earn independence, so by the time I finished undergraduate, I had savings to travel for a year (that I didn’t use).

Accumulated advantage: Without any debt to pay off, I was already ahead by the time I finished undergraduate.

No one depends on me.

I started working one day a week when I was 12. I got a formal part-time job when I turned 14 and maxed out my legal working quota. The money I made was mine, since my parents weren’t working 2 jobs to make ends meet. In fact, my parents paid for all my necessities (food, clothes, classes, and a library’s-worth of books). Even without the financial need, there can be a social expectation for kids to pay a percentage of their salary to their parents once they get a job. This is more common in places like Hong Kong, where most kids live with their parents until they’re married (i.e. 30s).

Accumulated privilege: Because I wasn’t asked to contribute back, I had savings that went towards personal goals. Also, treating someone to coffee or even lunch didn’t mean that I couldn’t also pick up groceries on the way home for my parents. This builds into another social capital privilege.

Friendships beget more friendships.

Collecting friends to go to an art crawl in Hong Kong. (2014)

Social capital makes me much richer than I actually am. My network allows me to stay poor. For many places I want to go, I just need to get the plane ticket, and I’m off to another remote office. The reason travelling for me is cheaper than living in Hong Kong is because even in wealthy countries like the UK, half the time I didn’t have to pay rent.

Social capital is priceless for travel.

This does not mean one makes friends as ticket to a free place. But instead it makes me wonder if pursuing curiosity may be a luxury. I was encouraged to be curious about every place, culture, and perspective that differed from my own and had the time to research them or hang out with new friends. People from different backgrounds challenged my world view and we built trust through those candid exchanges during dorm dinners and backpacking trips when we all felt like poor students. Naturally, I grew curious about seeing the homes my international friends spoke fondly of; quite naturally, they also wanted to show me around when I visited.

Mindset privilege: “Risky” and cheaper travel countries like India are instantly more accessible, friendly, and fascinating because of friends.

Accumulated advantage: I can travel rent-free. I have local guides and translators for everything from getting SIM cards to purchasing train tickets.

I can afford a ‘job I love’.

Getting to know the Impact Hub Tokyo community (Tokyo, 2016)

After listening me try to explain for two minutes why I was travelling without a job in sight, an award-winning journalist friend of mine from India summed me up by saying: ‘So, you’re a dabbler.’

It stung, but it was true, because I could afford to be. Though that unemployment period was nerve-wracking, I could stick it out. With savings, a university degree, a laptop, and some work experience, I can get away with trying new things. I could go back to working in retail or behind a coffee bar if I wanted. I could intern to get my foot in the door at an NGO. I could take a token hourly rate in Japan just because I liked the company and build industry connections. I travelled frugally while looking for jobs, but I had the flexibility to accept ones that barely covered rent. I can afford to take on the attitude that “money is only as useful as the time I have.”

Mindset privilege: I was ‘poor’ by choice, not by birth. I was taught to value education, accomplishments, and experiences over material things. I also have the luxury of time to reflect on life and what makes me happy.

Access privilege: If I make less, my passport will let me live visa free in expat-friendly places like Thailand.

If I don’t want to pay, my parents will.

This was what I used to feel most ashamed of. People would ask me enviously how I managed to fly from Hong Kong, to Vancouver, to Toronto, to London, back to Vancouver, then Hong Kong for the summer. The short answer is, I only paid for the Toronto — London trip that time. My parents paid for the rest because I took advantage of stopover flight loopholes that saved money. I spend as little as possible and shoestring backpack even when I have jobs, but my parents still pay for family trips. When I travel with my parents, I do the planning and act as the tour guide in exchange for a free trip and dining options I’d never splurge on myself.

We never talk about these money details, my middle-class friends and I. In some ways, we’ve been brought up to not talk about money, that it’s unseemly, that it shouldn’t be an issue. Even if it was, it wouldn’t be sightly to let it show. Many of us seem to live independent lives, but surely there is some subsidy for the Instagram resort photo when someone is still a management trainee.

Access privilege: The blunt reality is my parents have subsidised many of my trips for years.

Hustling can be a privilege, too.

Listening in on a business model session run in Japanese. (Tokyo, 2016)

Remember that time you taught yourself InDesign before an interview or did your mockups for the first time before doing a pitch? People like us take for granted that we can learn on the fly. It’s just hustling. It’s just pushing that much further, trying that much harder — and hey, we got through! We earned it; we deserve it.

Let me rewind a bit, though. My school had a computer lab back when the world was Apple in the early 90s. Then, we got successive PC upgrades. I learned Java in primary school. My high school had a Computer Immersion program where students brought laptops that started at US$2000 to class. Yes, I built my skills and worked hard, but my achievement is not solely a reflection of raw effort. I am still tempted to say that anyone can teach themselves Google keyword searching, or choose to find remote work, or be more “proactive” (read: aggressive in some cultures) in seeking opportunities. Part of me feels like effort is a function of hunger. But then, there are people who are “distracted” from these goals on a daily basis by real, physical hunger.

Mindset privilege: “Creatively thinking” about solutions (remote work) frames travel as an exercise of possibilities. Researching demystifies the world and searching for travel hacks saves a lot of money and stress.

Accumulated advantage: Teaching myself high-value skills (Check Treehouse if you want to try coding); motivated to stay updated by trying new apps, tools, and methodologies.

Do you know what resources you have to maximize?

Colour options for your paper at Itoya in Ginza, Tokyo.

Money begets money. On a basic level, the global poor spend more for their water relative to income than anyone else. On a more relateable level, the higher your annual income, the more kickbacks you get on your credit card. The more times you fly, the more points you rack up to get that free trip. Many people don’t use a credit card for credit, but rather to get the 1% cashback or the air miles. Just paying the credit card bill on time monthly can already do wonders.

Access privileges: Check your credit cards for benefits if you haven’t already or apply for new credit cards to earn welcome airmiles. And, if you have friends / family in another country, try to exchange currency directly with them to save on the rates. :-)

Parseltongue is useful.

My first two words in English were ‘pee’ and ‘toilet’ — pragmatic words for a 3 year old entering pre-school in Canada. Throughout elementary and high school, classmates thought I was arguing in Cantonese with friends. Once ADSL was introduced, I had a healthy daily diet of Japanese anime as well. I got my Iranian friends to teach me Persian script. If you survived the pressure to speak English or the local language, practice your weird Other language as much as possible. A second language seems a good unto itself, but the highest benefits for me are: 1) having an alternative view of the world, 2) absorbing cultural context that academic learners often miss even after achieving fluency, 3) having a base to learn other languages more quickly.

Mindset privilege: Language barriers aren’t walls, just a gap to cross. It takes days to pick up the basic greetings and counters — just try!

Inherent privilege: Grew up with repeated exposure to 3–4 languages. Dozens of language greetings to make friends quickly. Speaking English is a privilege itself — how often do we find ourselves saying, “They don’t speak much English in [insert country]”, revealing our own hidden expectations?

Tried baked oatmeal for the first time at Happy Baristas in Berlin (2017). Vegan-friendly cafe!

I sat with these uncomfortable realisations for a while (this post took over 2 years to write with feedback from many patient readers). But this is a good type of discomfort, the type you feel after a great workout.

My travel consisted mostly of staying in local neighbourhoods rather than visiting famous sights or signing up for highlight experiences. I subsisted for a few years on part-time and short-term contracts to stay afloat. I made nomadic life work because I enjoy eating at both dusty street stalls and white tablecloth restaurants. We often focus only on the street stall peddlers who may never buy designer shoes. But people in designer shoes may not feel comfortable walking past the street stalls, either. Nor are they likely to have seen or tasted a curry leaf plucked right from the tree, or felt safe eating Keralan rice with their hands in Southern India. Both seem a little less free, one economically and the other one psychologically.

Freedom to me is the ability (entitlement and courage) to taste and embrace the full range of human experience. As one who wanders, perhaps my greatest privilege is that I feel connected to the world, with all its peoples, all its perspectives, and all its possibilities. In writing this, it is my sincerest wish that you can feel this warmth too when you are somewhere that feels impossibly alien from the world you know now.


Thank you for taking the time to read. Please leave me your thoughts and experiences as well. :-)

Some additional context after hearing feedback from readers: I started backpacking 10+ years ago and am mostly a solo female traveller preferring a shoestring budget of <$30/day staying in hostels or couch surfing with strangers. I have never done a round-the-world tour. While I’ve visited cities like Paris, Rome, and Venice, many of the places I’ve stayed in have no heat, no running water, and no stable electricity. I personally find a minimalist life enriching, though it is not the only way to travel meaningfully. This piece was written to highlight possibilities that could make travel more accessible and reflect on how to travel responsibly with the privileges that we have.

Athena Lam

Written by

I share stories about East Asia. CBC. QPOC / Queer Asian. Started www.LGBTQGlassdoor.com and www.b3p0.org for HK. www.thecupandtheroad.com

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