Why Disillusioned Techies Travel to Asia to ‘Find Themselves’
By Jillian Robertson
For any working professional, the allure of running away to an exotic locale is an ever-present feeling. Whether it’s to put aside the daily grind to sip Mai Tais on a beach, or to start over by making a living as a surf instructor or an ‘instagram travel-ebrity’, few of us act on that instinct. And Asian countries are often the backdrop for that fantasy.
Much has been written over the years about the fetishization of Asia as spiritual and exotic. Particularly with the rise of China and India as economic powerhouses, this portrayal seems dated and of course, problematic. Yet the trope of the “mystical Orient” still remains even if all but racist grandfathers have stopped using the word “Orient.”
Many practices that have originated in Asia and date back centuries have been ‘rediscovered’ as ‘new, hot trends’ by westerners. Think yoga, meditation, Buddhist practice, the list goes on. The sheer proliferation of lotus tattoos alone speaks to the surface level appropriation of Eastern culture. So it’s unsurprising, albeit cringe-worthy, when wealthy techies decamp for Asian countries, to “find themselves.” I interviewed two vets of the SF tech industry who went east to escape their jobs and ‘find themselves’ (their names have been changed for privacy purposes).
Amit was “bored and had money” when he decided to leave his mobile tech job behind. A realization at Burning Man that the weeklong desert festival was the first time he truly had time to himself, not beholden to a job or any other obligations, inspired him to impulse-buy a one way ticket to Vietnam. He then spent several months wandering around Southeast Asia, with stops in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia.
As someone who hasn’t impulse bought anything wilder than a Cadbury chocolate bar in the CVS checkout line (because I’m worth it!), this revelation blew my mind. But then again, I’m also not one to be troubled by issues like these:
Amit admitted he’d picked Southeast Asia on purpose to challenge himself. What will happen to me, he wondered, living in places “where running water is not a thing?” “Don’t get sick in Cambodia,” he advised. “You’ll get airlifted all the way to Bangkok.”
The highlight of his international travels came while tripping on acid in Koh Rong, Cambodia. “I went swimming in bioluminescence,” he said. “That alone is dope. On acid, it was fairyland.”
When I asked Amanda what countries she’d been to, she paused. “I’ll have to go back and check Instagram,” she said apologetically. In the midst of what she dubbed the “2018 Amanda World Tour,” her Instagram feed is a riot of tropical palm trees, colorful sunsets, and artfully framed food photography.
If I’m feeling generous, I’d say her photos are beautiful (they are), perfectly framed photos of fisherman standing thigh deep in water so sparkling they almost appear in silhouette, a cityscape beneath a sky full of hot air balloons, a vivid blue picnic table laden with hummus, olives, tomatoes, and tahini arrayed in tiny ceramic bowls.
If I’m feeling less kind, I’d say they look more like stock photos, beautiful travel catalog glossies, mostly devoid of people. The locations themselves are gorgeous, yet the traveler is barely there, occasionally making an appearance, shot from behind, looking philosophically into the middle distance.
These caricatures are easy to lampoon, but that’s just what they are, caricatures. Here’s their stories from a different angle:
Having grown up in India, Amit saw both grinding poverty and conspicuous consumption, and often outright corruption, harshly juxtaposed, long before he moved to San Francisco. His fixation with making enough money, he explained, originates there. Any day it might all go away.
This anxiety has a name — it’s called a “scarcity mindset.” It’s the idea that any accumulated security — be it money, housing, food — may disappear at any moment. The very act of choosing South Asia to travel to was informed by the fact that his money would go farther and the cost of living was so low.
A victim of assault living in the Mission, Amanda saw firsthand the city change and the explosive tensions as the worlds collided. No longer did she feel safe in her lovingly curated apartment, furnished with five years’ worth of cosy Craigslist-rescued furniture and vinyl from her favorite bands. She left that all behind when she lost her tech job and decided to take that opportunity to leave SF and begin her world tour.
As a classically trained artist, Amanda occupied an uneasy space between art and tech as a graphic designer at a variety of tech companies. Though comfortably employed for the majority of her stay in San Francisco, Amanda watched as her artist friends lost their work-live gallery spaces, relocated farther and farther from the city, and took on second and third jobs to keep underwriting their art.
Seeking answers, not apps
There’s something about working in tech that seems to leave people cold. Long hours, burnout, and the very real possibility that your startup is more likely to flame out than get acquired by Facebook, drive people to look for something more.
Add on top of that the rampant income inequality on display in San Francisco, the rise of homelessness, and the “Golden Handcuff” phenomenon — where a tech employee would be wealthy anywhere else, but is chained to their high tech salary, unable to afford rent without it, even if the desire to do more meaningful work has them jonesing to quit.
A common thread in talking with both Amit and Amanda was that self-reliance is addictive. But nowadays in the Bay Area innovation is pushing everything toward reliance on automation. Grocery shopping is replaced with Instacart, doing laundry is replaced by Washio, and going out to dinner is replaced by Seamless or Grubhub. By contrast, when traveling “there is joy in accountability,” Amit explained.
Amanda’s trip, traveling alone as a woman through Southeast Asia, was another victory for self-reliance, but it was also about reclaiming a sense of security in the wake of her being assaulted. “Traveling alone I relearned that not everyone was out to get me. It got me out of comfort zone, but also made me feel safe again.”
I haven’t had the luxury of bankrupting myself on custom suits or cultivating an Instagram account to rival National Geographic, but the desire to put long held insecurities to rest or to overcome trauma are universal.
If it takes leaving home far, far behind to do that, so be it.