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Digital Nomad in China
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel in China. It was a month long trip and was a mixture of pleasure (sightseeing) and personal (my partner’s family is from there). Given that I recently joined my company and due to the length of the trip, I did not have the luxury of taking too much time off. I love a challenge, so I decided to work west coast US hours from Asia. Yes, you read that right. For a month straight, I worked from 12am - 8am every weekday. In this article, I want to share a little of what I saw there, and also offer some tips if you want to do the same.
I am fortunate to work for a company (Redesign Health) that values flexibility and allows full-time WFH. Given this opportunity, I am fortunate enough to be able to do these things. So the first bit of advice I have is to verify your company is ok with you doing this! Even if your company allows WFH, it may have policies that prevent you from traveling in this capacity. I used to work for Amazon and this would have been a hard “no” for them.
First Stop: Tokyo
Truthfully, I did not actually work from Tokyo. I was only there for a few days because we were en route to China (Beijing specifically). I imagine working from Tokyo would have been easy. The internet was fast, and it had a great metro system. Something that surprised me about Tokyo was how inexpensive it was, and Tokyo is actually one of the most livable cities now. Despite how populated it is, it did not feel stuffy and the city is very clean. People are also polite, nice and civil. The hardest challenge of working from here would be the time difference, but that exists for all of Asia.
Second Stop: Beijing
Beijing was where I spent my first working week. Due to all the excitement of having never been in Asia before, this week was not too bad because I was able to power through the crazy schedule through sheer adrenaline and excitement. Upon arriving though, one thing you will notice quickly is that the internet does not work the same way that it does in other countries. The Great Firewall is very much real, and excludes most western companies. That means if you do not prepare yourself, you will have a bad experience. Before you go to China, if you need to work I suggest the following:
Ensure your cell phone service provider will work. I have Google Fi and with the Unlimited Plus subscription, I had cell phone service throughout my entire trip and was able to access service outside of the firewall. This way, I was able to use my hotspot for much of my trip. I can comfortably say that Google Fi saved me many times throughout my trip.
If you want to use wifi anywhere in China, you will be under the firewall. The VPN service I use in the US (ProtonVPN) did not work in China. One service I found that worked was this one - just be aware you will need a translator to use it. I had to pay a small amount but it was worth it. Even with this though, some websites still did not work well and I had to go back to my hotspot.
Download WeChat and get a friend to send you an invite. If you want to pay for a meal, a museum visit, or rideshare, WeChat makes things much easier. I even used it to download my Covid health declaration documents when I arrived. China pretty much runs on this app.
During the week, on Monday I would usually take a short nap from 7pm - 11pm and work from 12am - 8am. Following this, I would spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon seeing the sights and eating delicious food. Around 3pm, I would go back to my hotel and head to sleep, doing it all again the next day. The biggest challenge was having to go to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, because it is going against your body’s natural cycle.
Beijing has many to see, but one piece of advice I will give is try to avoid rush hour if you can. Beijing is incredibly populated, I have never seen so many people in my life. I live in NYC, and NYC feels very manageable after Beijing. You will be crammed on the trains and pushed around. It is best to avoid it if you can. Additionally, the city is very spread out so anywhere you go will probably take a while to get to.
Third Stop: Hangzhou
I spent the second and third week of my trip here. We stayed with family, so it was a bit more comfortable in terms of living space. This city is home to many technology companies in China (Ant Group, Alibaba Group) and is similar to our Silicon Valley.
At this point in my trip, the excitement was wearing off and the realities of the schedule were setting in. Therefore, we did not do much sightseeing because we needed to be able to get through this marathon we were putting ourselves through. However, it was well worth it. Coffee was a big help, as it always is. I also suggest finding a room without windows. Looking outside into the dark for most of the workday does not lead to feeling super productive. My most productive parts of the day happened at the end of my workday when it began to get light outside.
Final Stop: Shanghai
We took a bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai and spent the last leg of our trip there. As tired as I was at this point, I loved the energy of Shanghai and caught a second wind of energy at this point in the trip. The vibe in Shanghai was very different from the other two cities, it felt much more international and worldly. It is more condensed than Beijing so it didn’t take long to go from place to place, and the food was amazing.
Conclusion: List of Tips
If you are considering trying this crazy work schedule, I recommend you take the following actions:
- Check your company policy and ensure they are ok with you traveling and working from China.
- Ensure you will have phone service. I suggest Google Fi’s Unlimited Plus subscription.
- Get a VPN service that gets you around the firewall if you wish to use wifi. I used this one.
- If you are not a native speaker, download a translator app such as Pleco, Ace Translator or Google Translate.
- Download WeChat and have a friend send you an invite.
Also posted on Medium.