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Where Is Home for a Digital Nomad?

I’m sitting here in the living room of my parent’s house in Los Angeles, writing this. I look around and realize that I haven’t called this house or Los Angeles my proper home for at least 16 or so years, even though I was born and lived for a decade in this city. And yet this was the first place I ran toward, after returning from three months in Europe and O’ahu.

Mostly because, right now, I have nowhere else to go.

Okay, so let’s back up for some context: I don’t stay in one place for very long. After some thought, I realized that I never have, even as a kid.

In the last 15 months, I lived out of Airbnbs and sometimes in the homes of gracious friends in over a dozen cities around the world. But before that, I lived in Boise for two years. Then before that, I had moved a half dozen times in the Bay Area…after I had moved from my childhood home in Los Angeles (which is actually different from where my parents are now). Follow so far? K, cool.

I didn’t formally acknowledge it until recently, but this is the life that I’ve chosen to lead: the life of a “digital nomad.” 

Basically, think of me as a very mobile remote freelancer (but cooler sounding), who doesn’t need a set location to work and build my life. Since I’ve been fairly nomadic for seemingly my entire life and have no family of my own to care for, the logistics of going from one end of the planet to the other and back are easier for me to navigate than it is for others.

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Top of Koko Head in O’ahu.

At this point, getting everything prepared to head out for months at a time is butter-smooth. Ask me and I can tell you exactly how I go about deciding, planning, and booking my lengthy trips. I can tell you how to quickly adapt to the food environment of the city and country you’re in to eat well and not gain weight. I can tell you how to work out to stay in shape.

But ask me, “Where is your home (when you’re not traveling)?” and it’s like you’ve asked me, “What’s the square root of gazillion?”

Uh, I don’t really know, I’d start to say.

The answer to that question is as messy as tangled earbuds that have only sat in your pockets for, like, 20 seconds. The easy answer is that when I’m not out there somewhere, drifting from city to city, I go back to my parent’s house in Los Angeles.

But it’s more complicated than that. I’m here physically, but really I treat it like my “home base”, a place where I send all of my mail now; a main thoroughfare that welcomes me back out of convenience and obligation until I set off for the next thing. So when it comes down to it, I’m actually homeless…but obviously not in the sense that I’m a hobo huddled under five Amazon.com boxes. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to have internet?

The upside: Of course, I couldn’t be more happy to be here with my parents while they’re still around (I know I’m just a beam of sunshine now), and also to settle down after having been away for most of 2016. I’m pretty sure my parents want me to stay put–maybe get married and feel exasperated over why they always have to hoard so many damn boxes and plastic bags.

Unfortunately for them, I’ve already killed all their dreams and expectations.

While we spend time having dinners and talking like Asian families do (which is to say we eat in silence), an elephant-shaped feeling of unease hangs over us. Because my parents and I both know that, at some point, I would take off again.

I’ve done it to them many times now, and what’s left of my soul flakes away a teensy bit more every time I see that sad acceptance in their eyes. Saying “see you I-don’t-know-when” again and again is one of the most heart-wrenching parts of coming home and taking off again.

Again, that’s just the life I’ve chosen to lead.

The first time you leave to explore the world is like wearing xxxtreeemmeee!!! beer goggles: you’re full of butterflies and any doubts, fears, and ties to people and things are overridden by thoughts of “Holy shit, I’m going to be LIVING all those Instagram pictures that I liked!” By the second, third, etc, it starts to feel like you need to drag your 10-year-old self out of a toy store and repeatedly promise her that she will get that toy, if she’s good and just does this one thing, as she cries bloody fucking murder. And then you leave the store and everything is fine.

Then there’s the coming back part, especially the first time, that is surprisingly hard.

I remember how anxious and afraid I’d felt returning home after nine months of traveling solo in Asia. I should’ve been super duper excited to go back, right? On one hand, I was. I was thrilled to see loved ones (and finally have a change of clothes). On the other, I was downright scared that I’d find myself a stranger in my own microcosm of family, friends, and routine that I’d left behind. I look back now and see that this irrational fear came partly from thinking that, in other people’s mind, I had become that person who just…leaves your life.

In a TED talk that deals with this very subject of “where is home” (hat tip to reader Krista for pointing me to this talk), Pico Iyer quotes the French author Marcel Proust:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new sights.”

Note that the original quote was not meant to be in the context of travel, but Iyer uses it to point out how seeing more of the world tends to change your way of looking at the world, including your own home. “And of course, once you have new eyes, even the old sights, even your home, become something different,” he says. His talk doesn’t quite speak to people who choose to continuously displace themselves, but I understand what he means. Once you’ve had a taste of life where you chase experiences and novelty, the “normalcy” of settling down never quite lives up to your now broadened horizons and lust for something more.

At the same time, you don’t realize how great it is to have a place to come back to, kick off your travel-worn shoes, snuggle under blankets and bed sheets that you know for sure have been washed, and drift off to sleep where your last waking thoughts are “home sweet home”, until you don’t have one. But if you’re going to be a nomad, it just doesn’t make sense money-wise to rent or buy if you’re only going to pick up and go again.

It’s quite a pickle.

As I’ve pointed out in a Lifehacker article before, nomadic life has its fair share of ups and downs. The ups are great and can make you a more confident and humble person. The downs are hard and can make you question WTF you’re doing with your life sometimes.

Still, when someone asks me if I intend to “keep doing this” (I assume they mean travel around), as if I’m merely in a holding pattern until real life can really begin again, my answer is still yes. For as long as I can. Some digital nomads, like Mark Manson, have finally settled down after many years on the road. But for sure, nomadic life changes your outlook on anything that could “tie you down,” including relationships, for better or worse. It also tears down the whole box of how people think a fulfilling life can be lived.

The way I see it, life isn’t meant to be static, or black and white. This nomadic lifestyle is an ebb and flow. Sometimes you want to go on long stints abroad and take in the world. Other times you need to surround yourself with familiarity and loved ones and take a break from being out there in the world. One side cannot really be sustained without the other.

I liken these shifts between staying and going as a nomad to the fitness goal of getting a six-pack. You can sustain a super rigorous training and dieting schedule only for so long before you need to take a step back and do something else. But you know that you have the ability to easily get in that “mode” again if you wanted to. That, too, is an ebb and flow. Just because you’re trying to get into killer shape in this brief instance in your life doesn’t mean that’s what defines the rest of your life.

Currently, I’ve parked my butt in Los Angeles to basically take a step back because the last couple months have been trying on my health and focus. My current travel plans for 2017 are up in the air. I only know that I will be going to Toronto in May for a couple of months. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe Thailand. London and Japan again perhaps? New Zealand seems cool, too.

For now, though, I’m content to be “home.”

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