How To Be a Digital Nomad Without Being a Jerk About It

Mind your manners, travelers

Ryan Frawley
Jan 24 · 9 min read
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Photo by Peggy Anke on Unsplash

Among the sky-is-falling shrieking that makes up modern news coverage, I recently read the story of Kristen Gray.

Gray was living with her partner in Bali as an American ex-pat when the Covid 19 pandemic swept across the world. With impressively tone-deaf timing, she decided to release a book telling other Americans how to move to Bali and make a living. The end result was that she got herself deported.

Offices don’t make sense anymore. Hopefully soon, the vaccines will do their job. And while Covid 19 may never disappear completely, it won’t always be the issue it is now. The borders will reopen. And millions of people will realize just how far their money goes once they leave the big cities of the world.

Being a digital nomad — if I have to use a buzzword I hate — lets you see more of the world. It opens you up to different perspectives and different ways of living. It reveals the absurdity built into the way we live now. Of buying a house in the suburbs because it’s all you can afford and spending a fortune on a car to drive to and from work, turning the air to poison and the hours to torture five days a week. There are better ways to live. Like Kristen Gray, I’ve lived them.

When the borders do re-open, we may see a mass exodus from expensive cities to cheaper locations around the world. If you can bring your job with you, why live in a closet in New York City when you could buy a mansion in Manila?

But if you are one of the newly office-free and considering your options in this brave new nomadic world, be careful. The cautionary tale of Kristen Gray is a reminder that you can be a digital nomad without being an asshole about it.

Getting rich off global inequality

The reason you can make a life as a digital nomad is because the world isn’t fair. Where jobs are abundant, prices are high. Likewise, where they are scarce, things get cheaper. You can imagine the disbelief felt by many people in Asia or Africa or South America or Eastern Europe when they hear that the average American makes $53,000 a year. Even if those of us who live in the rich parts of the world know that the money doesn’t go nearly as far as you think.

Then again, to those weren’t raised in wealthy countries, the G7 nations (plus Australia and New Zealand) must look like they’re dripping with money. The roads are mostly maintained. Law and order are mostly preserved, and though our rich and powerful are as above the law as their counterparts in the developing world, they don’t flaunt it with quite the same panache.

We can still pretend to be shocked by corruption instead of shrugging wearily and accepting it as par for the course. Even more wonderful, we can turn on the tap and drink the water that comes out, as fresh and clear as a mountain stream.

When I lived in the poorest neighborhood in Canada, I was still fairly safe. The roads were maintained. Clean fresh water came out of the taps. Healthcare was free and state-of-the-art. For most of the world, these things remain a distant dream. Something people hope that their grandchildren might see, but know they will never have for themselves.

One of the things that irritated people about Kristen Gray’s story was her online social media bragging about the luxurious life she lived in Bali. Of course she did. Minimum wage in Bali is $140 a month. To use another term I absolutely loathe, Gray was leveraging her Western privilege. She earned in US dollars and spent in Indonesian rupiah. In a country like Indonesia, even a modest Western salary makes you rich.

It’s this inequality that digital nomads leverage in their favor. That’s what enabled Kresten Gray to show off a fabulous lifestyle on Instagram, tempting other Americans with an endless feed of beautiful food, gorgeous surroundings, and luxurious pleasures. The only reason we get to live so high on the hog is because those other people don’t. Our advantage is a direct result of their disadvantage, and vice versa.

I’m not here to pile on the hate for Kristen Gray. I’m not above reproach on this score either. When travel becomes possible again, I intend to move to somewhere with cheaper housing and higher unemployment. Because I get to take my job with me.

But it is important to remember that the only reason you can live like a king in Indonesia or Cambodia or the Philippines is because the people born and raised there have nothing. Millions of people in the developing world live in a state of poverty that is hard for us to even comprehend. Even our homeless live better. So it’s not surprising that Kristen Gray rubbed people the wrong way.

Don’t be an asshole

Gray and her partner didn’t move to Bali during the pandemic. They were already there when the border closed. Evidently, Indonesian immigration authorities let them in and let them stay. And there’s no doubt that the American dollars they earned contributed to the local economy. Every purchase they made in Bali would have helped local people earn a living.

Presumably, they could have continued doing this forever if they hadn’t been so blatant about it. What rubbed the Indonesian government the wrong way was her growing social media presence and the book she published to encourage other Americans to follow the path she and her partner had taken.

That, and the fact she described Indonesia as queer-friendly. It isn’t. There’s a big difference between being friendly to people and merely tolerating them.

This is a golden rule of any kind of travel, permanent or not. Don’t be an asshole. When you travel to another country, it’s your job to try to understand the local laws and culture. It’s not their job to conform to you.

During my own travels, I lived for a while in an ex-pat community in France. Most people were from the UK, though there was the occasional American or New Zealander. Everybody I knew there was in the process of learning French.

But they all knew someone who wasn’t. They all knew those people who move to France solely for the weather and make no attempt to adjust.

As someone who’s been an immigrant multiple times over, this has always pissed me off. I didn’t move to Canada so that I could live in a facsimile of Britain. I didn’t move to Italy and then complain it wasn’t like Canada. That was the whole point.

If you’re going to move to a foreign country, understand that they are going to do things differently. You may like parts of it. Some of it, you most certainly won’t. But either way, that’s the way things are.

Don’t be one of those leathery British ex-pats living in Alicante for thirty years who never learn a word of Spanish. Don’t be one of those Chinese people who move to Canada and raise a family without ever learning how to speak English.

After a certain unspecified length of time living in another country, you will become part of that country, whether in law or just in practice. But if you don’t want to be an asshole, you should never stop acting like a guest.

Pay your way

Naturally, I’m not privy to Kristen Gray’s financial situation. All I have to go on is what I’ve read online. But there’s some suggestion that she and her partner were paying tax on the American dollars they earned to the US. Meaning they weren’t paying tax in Indonesia.

When I moved to Europe, my UK passport gave me a right to live and work there without limit. This was in the heady days before Brexit closed that particular door.

While freedom of movement is a central tenet of the EU, each country has its own requirements. In Italy, where I first moved, you have to register yourself as a foreign national at the local police station.

It didn’t go well. I didn’t speak nearly enough Italian to make myself understood, and the police in the small town where I lived spoke no English. Instead, I was greeted with five or six different versions of the characteristic Italian shrug-and-downturned-mouth that says, in any language, I can’t do anything for you.

It’s frustrating trying to adapt yourself to the rules and customs of a new place. Often, you’ll waste half a day sitting in the basement of an Italian police station as hot as a pizza oven only to walk away empty-handed and more confused than you went in.

But that was my fault for not speaking the language. It’s not the job of a foreign country to make my life easy.

The green-eyed monster

There’s more to not being an asshole than just respecting local laws and customs, too. I know we’re all supposed to be promoting our brands these days, turning ourselves into quasi-celebrities for no reward other than the narcissistic dopamine spike it produces.

And there’s nothing wrong with sharing your adventures. I do it plenty. But there comes a certain point when sharing becomes bragging. The people back home probably don’t want to hear about it. As they get up in the dark on a wet Tuesday morning to make the long drive to a badly-lit office, the last thing they want to see is you in a sarong, thrusting out your ass in front of a glittering turquoise sea.

Back home, people aren’t looking at that and thinking, wow. Good for you. Many of them are thinking, what a prick.

When I lived abroad, I didn’t have an Instagram account. I wasn’t trying to impress strangers. But I did send pictures of the places I went to my friends and family. For a while, anyway.

Eventually, I stopped. There’s only so many times people can look at a gorgeous shot of the Amalfi coast or a beautiful Berlin Christmas market before they start to resent you and the awesome life that they can’t have.

Because that’s another truth about the digital nomad lifestyle. Not everyone can do it. Working online takes certain skills. But more importantly, it requires a certain mindset.

It requires discipline. It requires being able to motivate yourself when no else will do it for you. It requires good organizational skills and a certain amount of entrepreneurial drive.

Not everyone has those things. Not everyone wants them.

And there are a thousand reasons why other people can’t tell the boss to go kick rocks and soar off to the ends of the earth. Family, for example. I know there are digital nomad families out there. I’ve seen their blogs.

But it’s extremely difficult to raise kids on the road. Plus, the kids don’t get to choose that life. Maybe they’d be happier staying in one place, making friends they know they’ll keep for years instead of ones they’re going to have to say goodbye to in a couple of months.

The same goes for aging parents. Lots of people are caregivers for the elderly and can’t just walk away.

Is it possible to be a digital nomad without being a prick about it?

Only to a certain extent. There’s a reason why, when I lived abroad myself, I chose to do it in wealthy countries. Yes, my money would have gone further in the Philippines or Panama or Nigeria. But the idea of being the richest guy in town doesn’t appeal to me.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of yourself in this life. But leveraging that kind of inequality wouldn’t sit right with me. Still, maybe I’m just splitting hairs. France and Italy are rich countries, but I lived in the poorer parts of them to save money. I plan to do it again, too.

In the end, it comes down to intention. Are you going to contribute to your new location? Are you going to adapt to the way they do things? Are you going to at least try to learn the language? Do those things, and you’ll find yourself welcome around the world. Don’t do them, and you’ll come off like an exploitative asshole.

© Ryan Frawley 2021.

All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Writers On The Run

For those who love to travel, live for travel, and always…

Ryan Frawley

Written by

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

Writers On The Run

For those who love to travel, live for travel, and always have a story to tell.

Ryan Frawley

Written by

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

Writers On The Run

For those who love to travel, live for travel, and always have a story to tell.

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