An Expat by Any Other Name (Is Sometimes a Digital Nomad)

Working from Koh Lanta, Thailand. Photo by AdrienBe.

The rise of contemporary startup culture has already reshaped cities like San Francisco and Seattle. But as more and more tech enclaves sprout around the world, we need to pay more attention to the ways tech workers change communities and landscapes in developing countries too. Jessa Crispin does just that in her Outline piece on Roam Co-Living, a startup that caters to other so-called digital nomads who wish to spend long stretches of time (and non-trivial amounts of money) in places like Bali and Costa Rica. She asks important questions about the possibility of experiencing authenticity in perfectly manicured expat bubbles — and about the fundamental power imbalance between affluent Western visitors and local communities.

More than 230 million people live in a different country from the one in which they were born, far more than at any other time in history. We come up with different words for the same experience, based on whether these people are undesirable (brown, poor, Muslim) or desirable (white, upper-middle class, European). The undesirables are migrants or refugees, the desirables are expats or cosmopolitans.

The difference is in the level of choice, whether the person is fleeing war or abject poverty, or simply boredom and Brooklyn. Western migrants are often portrayed as being desirable because they come with money, but they come with other baggage, too. If you place a large population of transient workers with a lot of disposable income in an urban area, that area will inevitably change. Businesses with English-speaking workers that cater to the affluent class, like boutiques and coffee shops and juice bars, will flourish while businesses that cater to long-term residents, like hardware stores and shoe repair shops, will be priced out and disappear as property values rise.

I asked [Roam founder and CEO Bruno] Haid if he feels responsible at all to the neighborhoods he builds his properties in. He said he wants neighborhoods to retain their authentic nature and not become homogenized. “In a place like London,” he said, “we try to have partnerships with businesses that have been around for 25, 30 years and include them in our city guides. We have Paul the pie man, whose bakery has been around for a long time, he comes in once a month and he teaches pie making classes. So we try to integrate this. We try to give people a unique local experience.”

Read the story