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Young Chinese opt out of fierce competition and domestic pressure to pursue global nomadic lifestyle

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BANGKOK — Shortly after China opened its borders as the zero-COVID-19 outbreak ended, Zhang Chuannan lost his job as an accountant for a cosmetics company in Shanghai and decided to explore the world.

“The cosmetics business is miserable,” said Zhang, 34, explaining that everyone is wearing masks during the pandemic. After being laid off, she took an online Thai language course for US$1,400, obtained an education visa, and moved to the scenic city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Zhang is among a growing number of young Chinese who, after living in China for three years under strict epidemic policies, are emigrating to escape the country’s competitive work culture, family pressures and limited opportunities. Southeast Asia is a popular destination due to its strategic location, relatively low cost of living and tropical scenery.

There is no firm data on the number of young Chinese who have emigrated overseas since China ended epidemic restrictions and reopened its borders. But on Xiaohongshu, a popular Chinese social media platform, hundreds of people discussed their decision to move to Thailand. Many received visas to study Thai while making plans for next steps.

At the beginning of this year, about 500 Chinese people started an online Thai language course at Payapur University in Chiang Mai.

Royce Heng, owner of Duke Language School, a private language institute in Bangkok, said about 180 Chinese people a month inquire about visa information and courses.

Part of the reason for seeking opportunities away from home is that China’s unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year-olds rose to a record high of 21.3% in June. The scarcity of good jobs adds to the pressure to work long hours.

For younger workers, opting out is an increasingly popular way of coping with periods of downward mobility, said Beverly Yuan Thompson, a professor of sociology at Siena College in Albany, New York.

“In their 20s and early 30s, they can go to Thailand, take selfies, work on the beach for a few years and feel like they have a great quality of life,” Thomson said. “If these nomads had the same opportunities they hoped for in their home countries, they could go on vacation.”

At one point, Zhang was locked up in his apartment in Shanghai for weeks during the outbreak in China. Even after the lockdown is lifted, she fears another outbreak of COVID-19 will prevent her from moving around the country.

“I value freedom more now,” Zhang said.

A generous severance package has helped fund her time in Thailand, and she is looking for ways to stay abroad long-term, perhaps by teaching Chinese online.

Moving to Chiang Mai means waking up in the morning to the sound of birdsong and enjoying a more relaxed pace of life. Unlike in China, she has time to practice yoga and meditation, shop for vintage clothes and take dance classes.

Amonio Liang left Chengdu in China’s inland western Sichuan province for Bali, Indonesia, a popular destination for digital nomads. His Web3 social media startup was restricted by the Chinese government, while a cryptocurrency trading app he used drew harassment from the police.

Moving to Bali has brought greater freedom and a middle-class lifestyle to the 38-year-old, while his money may be barely subsisting back home.

“That’s something I don’t get in China,” Liang said, referring to working on a laptop on the beach and brainstorming with expatriates from all over the world. “Thousands of ideas are running through my head. I’ve never been so creative before.”

He also enjoyed being greeted with a smile.

“In Chengdu, everyone is under a lot of pressure. If I smile at strangers, they think I’m an idiot,” he said.

Life abroad isn’t all beach chats and friendly neighbors, though. For most young workers, such a stop would be an interlude in their lives, Thompson said.

“They can’t have kids because kids have to go to school,” Thompson said. “They can’t live up to their responsibilities to their parents. What if an aging parent needs help? They end up with a full-time job at home and get called home because of one of those things.”

Zhang said she was under pressure to marry. Liang wants his parents to move to Bali with him.

“It’s a big problem,” Liang said. “They worry about being alone after leaving China, and about the medical resources here.”

In 2020, Huang Wanxiong, 32, was stranded on the Philippine island of Bohol for seven months as air travel stopped during the pandemic, spending his time learning to freediving, which involves diving to great depths without oxygen tanks. place.

He ended up flying home to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, but lost his job at a private tutoring company after the government cracked down on the industry in 2021. His next job is a ride-hailing business driving more than 16 hours a day.

“I felt like a machine in those days,” Huang said. “I can accept a stable life, but I can’t accept no hope, no effort to improve the status quo, surrender to fate.”

Huang returned to the Philippines in February, fleeing family pressure to find a better job in China and find a girlfriend. He resumed his friendship with Bohol and qualified as a diving instructor.

But because there were no Chinese tourists to teach and no income, he flew back to China again in June.

He still hopes to make a living as a diver and may return to Southeast Asia, although he may also agree to his parents’ proposal to immigrate to Peru to work in a family-run supermarket.

Huang recalled once surfacing from a 40-meter (131-foot) dive so fast his hands were shaking from a severe lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia. The lesson he learned was to avoid rushing and maintain a steady climb. Before taking the next step, he plans to use the discipline of a freediver to deal with the anxieties of living in China.

“I apply the calm I learned from the ocean around the island to my real life,” Huang said. “I keep my own pace.”

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