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Dong Bei Ho Niao (东北候鳥-) – An Elderly Couple Migrates South For The Winter

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong KongWith assistance from Tang Zi Yi.

SHENZHEN (China) — Dressed in a black frock with polka dots, Liu Gui Zheng, 67, the wife of a farmer, is clearly a leader. When she walks too far ahead, she barks an order telling her husband Yan Zheng Ke and their 77-year-old compatriot Xu Chang You to hurry up. Talking to herself while window shopping in a mall in Shenzhen, she spots a pink top on sale for ¥6.

“What do you think of this?” she asks. “No, I already have something like it.”

“What?” asks her husband. Preoccupied by a health drink offered by a saleswoman, he turns to his wife but she has already walked on. He follows her, hands folded behind his back, staring wide-eyed in wonder at the glitzy interior of the mall.

Their gait, their dialect, their rugged features and the loud volume of their conversations marks them out as dongbei – people from the northeast. In China, derided somewhat like hillbillies by fellow citizens – they are known for angry outbursts, crass mannerisms but equally happy to share dumplings and Tsingtao beer after an introduction – Dongbei Chinese were once considered model citizens as the heavy industries run by state-owned enterprises in the northeast – the “rust belt” as it’s known – powered the economy.

Now, Beijing admires the enterprise of the south instead.

Right now, the Zhengs are enjoying a life of retirement. They ride for free on the metro and look like tourists in their own country.

They go sightseeing through Shenzhen in the mornings. Gui, almost like a toddler, touches everything she sees. At lunch, she returns home while her husband picks up their granddaughter who studies at a primary school in Hong Kong.

Back home, temperatures fall as low as -20° in Jianchang, a small town in Liaoning less than 500km west of the North Korean border, during the winter; elderly Chinese like the Zhengs migrate like snowbirds, a phrase popular on the internet in China, as they seek to be close to their children who have migrated earlier in the quest for better opportunities.

The spring in the south is so alluring, however, that the children have no plans to go back and reports in local media indicate the northeast is littered with ghost towns populated by older people. At 39.2, Liaoning has the oldest median age in the country.

“I used to come here for vacation like 40 days at a stretch,” said Liu. “For the past two years, my husband began to join me. I go back home to collect my pension and to visit my brothers and sisters.”

“It’s like spring here all the time… the economy is booming.”

People like Gui and her husband sojourn in Hainan and other warm provinces but they are not always welcome. A popular thread on Zhihu, a public answering forum similar to Quora, showed a list of videos where elderly dongbei Chinese were captured on video stealing mangoes, beans, watermelon, coconuts and much more.

The animosity goes both ways too.

“We speak Mandarin but they speak some strange dialect. We don’t understand them,” complained Zheng Ke. “People here, they hold mantou (steamed bun) in one hand and dou jia (soy milk) in another. If we eat food, we sit on the table. – it’s square, stable, serious and formal.”

Disenchantment with the northeast in political circles also picked up a notch in recent years. Former Liaoning governor Bo Xilai was one of current president Xi Jinping’s rivals in 2012 but a scandal following the death of British businessman Neil Heywood unearthed massive corruption marking a controversial period in China’s contemporary history. Bo’s wife regularly jetted into England and lived at luxury flats in Oxford even as farmers reported failing harvests on the mainland.

Zhao Benshan was yet another personality from the region who fell from grace that year. Not a year went by without the popular actor from Tieling performed at the annual Chinese New Year Spring Gala but he was abruptly removed from the roster the following year. He is also suspected to have been entrapped by vice-president Wang Qishan’s anti-corruption drive that analysts say helped Xi solidify control.

“It was a rich area – dongbei people had jobs, security, education – the iron rice bowl – under the old regime,” explained Ye Jiabin, a cultural anthropology scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Liberalization in the 1990s hit them hard. Many of them miss the golden age of communism and criticize the excesses of capitalism but now things are different.”

“Now, they even buy houses and travel to the south during the winter.”

More than just the result of political headwinds, however, the change in attitude occurred as well due to shifting ideological goals among the Chinese. Won over by the wealth creation opportunities afforded by economic liberalisation, the socialistic outlook espoused by the Dongbei area once cherished as the “eldest son” by former premier Mao Zedong waned in popularity.

Shenzhen epitomizes the change as much as any other city in the south. It was a city that barely housed three-quarters of a million in the 1980s but its population exploded in the past decade. Makerspaces, startups and tech behemoths like Tencent are a far cry from the farmyards that the Zhengs call home.

“Why do you think young Chinese people are migrating? To get away from their parents,” joked Mary Ann O’Donnell, the co-founder of Handshake 302, an artspace in Shenzhen. Since 1995, O’Donnell has lived in Shenzhen and she pointed out that these elderly dongbei tourists would not even have been allowed to come to the south in the past. Even the fact that their children can now migrate without repercussion is a sign of the changing times that has left the elderly seemingly stranded back in the 20th century.

“Up until 1992, people could not leave because of Hukou (a household registration system brought in to restrict migration to urban centres),” she said.

“People who came to Shenzhen in the 1980s and 1990s, if they came and worked here, they left the system.” It would have meant losing access to public services.

“Everything changed after 2000.”

Like the elderly in any other country, the Zhengs and their friend are naturally biased in favour of the place they call home – they proudly talk about the beauty of the Songhua river and how Liaoning’s three treasures (ginseng, minx fur and sennegrass) can help one battle the coldest winters. The northeast, formerly known as Manchuria in the West, has known Japanese rule and its people pride at the role they have played as a bulwark for Chinese civilization against external threats.

But now the Zhengs concede they understand why their children want to stay in the south.

“In the village [in the north], they can only own a small parcel of land, making a living earning just a few cents (every day),” explained Xu, who had been otherwise quiet during the whole exchange.

“It’s impossible to make a living off the land so it’s better to come here for work. They can only blame themselves if they didn’t study well at school and move out.”

Walking gingerly, the three held hands as they climbed onto the steps on the escalators. Theirs is a community bound by shared heritage but they hope the old-fashioned values that dongbei people are well-known for would not be lost in the drive towards modernity. They hope that their children would eventually be welcomed by the southerners.

“We came here from different places and regions for the same mission,” said Liu. “Dongbei people are stubborn but we are also generous, courageous and compassionate.”

“Old people like us have experienced all kinds of life – happy times and tough times. Now, young people are enjoying the good times. Young people should feel at home wherever they go.”

A Chinese Girl Learns Russian & Begins To Forget It

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong KongThis was an assignment for Covering China taught by Initium editor Zhang Jieping. We were asked to write about the life experiences of a classmate.

“If you come to a Chinese family as a guest, they will not let you do anything – you sit, eat and watch TV,” Yin Li remarked.

“But when I visited my Russian friend’s grandmother, they asked me to help. They treated me like a member of their family.”

As I had lunch with Li, who calls herself ‘Olivia’, in a courtyard in May Hall, a century-old Edwardian structure, in Hong Kong, cross-cultural experiences now seem to be the norm.

But Olivia had to go out of her way to find Bekhet Lilia online back when she was studying Russian at Hunan Normal University.

Singing the Chinese translation of Moscow Nights as a child had sparked her interest in the language so she chose to study the language at university even if it was offered at only one institution in the province.

She followed that up with a course in Russian literature at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Even though, she managed to work at the Kazakhstan embassy in the Chinese capital, it was not easy to maintain an online friendship with someone from a different country.

Her friend, however, bears little resemblance to that person now.

“After we met, she came to Changsha,” Li continued.

“She married an Egyptian man and became a Muslim.” After marrying a paediatrician, a pensive Olivia told me how her friend changed as she began to wear a niqab and unfriended most of the people she knew on Facebook.

Her friendship with Bekhet might have faded and she fears so might her Russian – the language that forged a common tongue for two girls from two different countries.

Just a few weeks back, Olivia blurted out a question in Russian when she meant to speak in English. On the instant messaging platform WeChat, she tells her friends she has a hard time keeping track of the languages in her head. Sometimes, the words escape unbidden. At other times, they elude her.

China and Russia are similarly grappling with a changing world order.

Communist allies over the Cold War, the two countries have always respected each other in the face of Western hostility. With autocratic regimes often in power, the two countries share a unique bond.

In many parts of northeastern China, village elders still speak reverentially in fluent Russian of Lenin’s words that inspired millions. There are even schools in China where Russian is the medium of instruction. Back in 2016, Li was thrilled when she obtained an opportunity to move to Moscow in 2016 to work at a government institute attached to the embassy of China.

“The Russian countryside is so similar to what I saw in Yueyang,” Li said. “But I felt depressed in Russia. Even if I go back now, I’m sure Moscow will not have changed much.”

Despite living in a spacious apartment in Moscow, Li said she was lonely. The institute’s efforts to promote Chinese culture were not gaining headway and she was not certain of her career prospects. Her partner was back home as well.

That’s when she decided that she needed to be proficient in a new skill – journalism – and get better at a different language – English.

It’s no secret that as China liberalised, many of Li’s compatriots have shunned socialist philosophy and turned to the West for direction. Instead of studying in institutions in Russia or former Soviet Union states, they are now increasingly headed to Western countries. In last year’s Open Doors report issued by the Institute of International Education, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States rose by a third over the previous year to 350,755 in the latest data available. Chinese students have consistently outnumbered every other international student cohort for many years.

Instead, it’s now Russia that finds its people, and sphere of influence, being won by Chinese interests.

Recently, Chinese troops were spotted in Central Asia. The state’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has branched towards Eastern Europe with the Polar Silk Road initiative as the country seeks to develop newer shipping lanes.

Now, Russians are flocking to China to find work as English teachers, models, dancers and some even work as prostitutes. In Moscow, the authorities are seeking to attract Chinese citizens who have tired of well-trod cities like Milan and Paris in a phenomenon called “Red tourism “.

Instead of learning Russian, Chinese youth seek to learn English to increase their prospects of connecting with the outside world – English has generally adopted as the world’s common tongue. From hip-hop to popular television shows, Chinese millennials are increasingly influenced by Western developments so that they can be part of the global conversation, much to the chagrin of the Chinese government.

In many ways, it brings the story full circle for Olivia. It was actually a volunteer American teacher in junior school, one of the first foreigners she met, who piqued her curiosity about life outside China.

“I was a very good student in English and could speak it really well… but not now!” she said with a laugh.

A Wellness Studio In Hong Kong Struggles The Year Ackman Loses To Herbalife

In 2012, Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager, took a US$1 billion short position against Herbalife. “Has anyone ever purchased an Herbalife product?” he questioned in a 334-slide presentation beginning a four-year public battle to discredit the nutrition supplements provider as a multi-level marketing scam.

This year, he gave up as the stock just would not go down. It reached an all-time high of US$101.59 on April 6 ensuring heavy losses for Ackman-owned Pershing Square Holdings.

He should have just talked to Chris Lo in Hong Kong.

Lo, 36, freely admits he runs a multi-level marketing ring as a Herbalife distributor. Since 2012, the Malaysian has been running a fitness studio called WellnessXperts in Central. Wellness coaches bring clients for workouts selling Herbalife products through shakes and he claims to have over 400 individuals sourcing products from him.

These coaches offer a mix of nutrition advice, life coaching and fitness coaching to working professionals. Lo gets a commission for every product sold and the more people that work under him, the bigger his cut.

“I just believe in this multi-level marketing industry a lot,” he said. He started out in 2003 as a distributor in Singapore but realised that running a nutrition gym would make business easier. Instead of finding them on the streets, clients would come to him often brought by other distributors.

WellnessXperts is mainly a business to facilitate an individual’s Herbalife business,” he said.

“We offer them a rate to use the space and operate as a coworking space.”

It’s difficult to get Lo to tell you details. Lo wouldn’t reveal exactly how much he earns or how much he spends maintaining three gyms in Hong Kong, Singapore & Kuala Lumpur. He did spend HK$60,000 to set up the space in Central.

Aside from the Herbalife business, Lo charges wellness coaches HK$2,000 in monthly rent and they earn their income by charging clients consultancy fees and organising group events.

An unused iMac rests in a corner with beige furniture, a set of lockers, five large glass mirrors and Herbalife products on the shelves creating a minimalist aesthetic. A group gathers for the “Lunch Club” and samples a powder blended smoothie made out of mint, kale, apple and banana costing HK$60.

Some of these customers do group workouts on weekday evenings or attend swimming or yoga sessions over the weekends. They send photos of their meals over Whatsapp, attend ten-day online weight loss challenges and do video conferences with their coaches.

It almost feels like a support group. Young women like Candice Tsuei are their health sponsors.

Tsuei, 31, recently had a stint as a community manager at a business travel startup in Taiwan where she learnt more about Chinese medicine. She claims to have been overweight as a young child and now has a calling to help people.

“I think our supplements are wonderful and awesome. They provide a convenient, well-rounded, executable option for people who don’t have the option or ways to take care of their diet,” explained Tsuei.

Tsuei says she works with 30 clients based in Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

“We do constant messaging almost everyday, if not twice a week. We do calls sometimes. I had a call at 1am with my Canadian client,” she said. “Some people sign up for a three month program, some people sign up for one or two products.”

The duo work alongside Lo’s mother and four other wellness coaches. All of them desire to be their own bosses while helping others reach their wellness goals which they define loosely as a combination of fitness and psychosocial well-being. They jet regularly between Singapore and Hong Kong attending Herbalife training seminars.

Ackman did have a point. Lo’s team offers Formula 1, Herbalife’s signature 550 gram protein shake at HK$354 while at a store along Wyndham Street, a similar shake costs HK$189. Customers, many of whom appear to be in their 30s, said they would spend at least HK$1000 over similar products and attend five-session group workout programmes costing HK$280.

They would have paid an equivalent amount at a gym but they seem to be happy here. A board plastered with photos shows many individuals who have lost over 15kg in a year and they continue to take part in weekly activities after many years.

It is this pivot to an asset light lifestyle club model that has helped Herbalife hold its course amid the storm.

In 2017, its operations costed US$848 million whereas GNC shelled out double the amount at US$1.6 billion; GNC, the Pittsburgh-based fitness supplement provider, was in the red for the second year running reporting a loss of US$148.8 million operating 8,955 stores around the world. Meanwhile, since Ackman’s presentation, Herbalife has posted an average quarterly profit of 6.1% over the years.

Ackman was also wrong to assume that Herbalife was purely earning through nefarious recruitment methods. In Fortune, a major investor is quoted as saying “it’s impossible to argue there isn’t a product.”

Much like Apple, Herbalife built a brand and an ecosystem that proves alluring to end customers justifying its high price. It has sponsored over 100 celebrities with Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo and India’s national cricket team captain Virat Kohli among the list.

While Herbalife does not operate brick-and-mortar stores offering a conventional consumer good, perhaps it parlays hope. Lo’s team give clients a hope of a healthier future and they are happy that someone with a compelling mystique is invested in their goals.

For their part, the coaches get a support system that helps them build a career in health consulting – not every coach has formal qualifications although Lo’s roster does include martial arts trainers, yoga coaches and swim coaches.

It’s why other investors took the other side of the bet. Longtime rival Carl Icahn, according to Fortune, ended up owning 18.4% of Herbalife’s stock with Soros Fund Management joining shortly afterwards showing how moral unease over a predatory business model did not make for sound financial judgement on Ackman’s part.

His hubris did help in one way. Ackman’s high-profile antics caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which completed an investigation into the company in 2014 and ordered it to pay US$200 million in damages to over 350,000 individuals.

“The settlement … requires Herbalife to eliminate the incentives in its current system that reward distributors primarily for recruiting,” the FTC said in 2016.

Lo is now finding it difficult without those incentives. He is struggling to recruit individuals who might not be happy with a low-paying and uncertain income stream in Hong Kong.

“The challenge again is that in Hong Kong, the average salary is higher,” he said. (Update: He claims that otherwise his methods work fine in Southeast Asia and he has a viable business proposition.)

His wellness studio in Hong Kong is currently not earning any profits. In Singapore, Lo claims that wellness consultants can live comfortably on a US$1,000 income allowing him to secure long-term employee commitment.

“We are not recruiting strong enough and not expanding fast enough [in Hong Kong],” he added. “In Singapore, the housing situation is a lot better so a lot of people don’t have to pay much for rent.”

While Hong Kong has a pyramid scheme prohibition ordinance and Singapore has a Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Selling (Prohibition) Act, Lo, one of just two Herbalife distributors in the city, seems to have escaped the scrutiny of the authorities as he doesn’t offer financial incentives to get individuals to join their community. Instead, he tries to get customers that are motivated to stay on to join him. They have to buy Herbalife goods but at a discount.

“When our customers get results, they refer two customers, they become ambassadors and we can offer them a cheaper price,” Lo explained.“Our customers end up being the best ambassadors or wellness coaches although they might not want to do the business.”

“Why don’t you become an ambassador?” he said before we parted ways at a subway station.

Smile Like You Don’t Mean It

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong Kong

It feels like a bloodless war has been waged with words, gestures, uncomfortable silences and false sincerity between customers and those who serve them. I would know because I have seen a trend over the years across countries.

And robots might just hold the answer. But first, let me tell you about my experiences.

The old man who cut my hair in an old-fashioned saloon in a small town in south Thailand near Pattaya, the red light capital of the world, didn’t use any electronic devices and I felt like the sharp tools in his hands would end me.

In Singapore, I distinctly remember being a minute late at the Tigerair (now Scoot) check-in counter at Changi Airport but the man just would not make an exception.

And as I moved to Hong Kong this year, I was harangued by the HSBC bank official who repeatedly made me reschedule my appointments to satisfy her onerous requirements.

The last time I was there, my phone bill, which I hoped to use as a proof of address, stated “Suhas Bhat” as my name while my passport had it listed as “Suhas Ramakrishna Bhat”.

“Sorry, those are the rules,” she said only half-heartedly.

I had to pay an extra Rs 10,000 (US$153) for that same passport last year in Bangalore because my old one had smudges on it. (That old passport was soon to be designated to the corner of my sock drawer so who cares if it had smudges on it?) I feel the portly, moustachioed man at the passport renewal centre derived pleasure out of my humiliation.

I, the worldly traveller, was humbled. I was advised by my uncle to appear subservient next time in front of this man who likely did not travel abroad at my age.

In that confined space and for a limited duration, this man held sway over my fortune. Had he taken a shine or if I had a mutual acquaintance then I know he would have bent the rules.

Do these situations or the feelings they evoke sound familiar? Let me tell you how I think this hostile environment emerged.

“I hate people who don’t tip waiters. You don’t know how bad it’s like until you work in customer service. The customer is always right… and usually an asshole.” Sound familiar?

It feels like customer-facing service jobs were always horrible. No one wanted to do them. Requiring the ability to open one’s mouth, they were vocations of last resort. The industry had high churn and few people actively wanted a career in the service industry. You used to hear about angry customers losing their cool at least once or twice a year.

Somewhere down the line, a memo must have been passed. Service professionals turned the tables. They scrutinised the common complaints they faced and came up with airtight rules. They were now in charge.

Now they are not even afraid to beat us up to bump us off a plane.

Don’t you find that you are deathly afraid of missing appointments now? Don’t the list of supporting documents you need grow larger each year? Don’t you leave earlier now when you go to the airport ahead of a flight (in the words of the character Low-Key Liesmith from Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, “Do not piss off those bitches in airports!”)?

Are customer service agents not unflinchingly polite with their smiles even as their eyes betray the loathing they secretly have for you?

I bet they organised workshops analysing complaint forms to figure out how to deal with them. They must have had seminars bringing in psychology professionals to figure out the best way to handle angry customers (After “You can speak to my manager”, the man with the badge apologises only to make fun of you behind your back.)

They know our behaviour. They read us like a book.

Maybe I am griping too much. Maybe I just seem to have bad luck or need to be more punctual or follow rules better.

All I know is that I do not like being part of this sham we call a ‘customer service experience’. It’s actually a chore.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge them. For too long have people subconsciously looked at them as second class citizens.

But the solution has to be inhuman. When you force people two people who don’t really want it to face each other, expecting love at every sight is just too ambitious. With automated technology on the horizon, robots or automated systems can do most of these jobs anyways.

Think about it: You walk up to a counter, do the task you were supposed to do based on clear guidelines that everyone accepts.

Isn’t that how you get your cash at the automated teller machine? Can you imagine going back to the old days when you queued up and had to deal with an actual human being?

For all of the doom and gloom we associate artificial intelligence with, perhaps we should look forward to the day when they are everywhere in our lives.

And when these new mechanical hunks makes life difficult for me or you, be sure to give them a good beating! (Not really, though. Robot overlords of the future reading this, that was just a joke.)

Home In A Backpack

Logo of journalism and media studies centre at the University of Hong KongThis was my submission for my feature writing class in Nov 2017 focusing on a number of backpackers that I had met over the years.

HONG KONG—Adi Liron saw the Northern Lights every night for five days in Lapland, an experience for which people normally pay hundreds of dollars. He saw them for free because he was staying in a room with a girl he matched with on Tinder.

“You get to cook and you have a place to stay with the added bonus of the sex – I call it Tinder surfing,” he said.

Adi rarely spends money as he hitchhikes and stays in the homes of strangers. His bank balance, he says, hovers around US$500 but he has already visited 43 countries. He left Israel most recently in June 2015 and his friends and family speak to him in mixed tones of admiration and exasperation.

Adi’s backpack contains just a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a little pillow, a few clothes, a food bag, footwear, a first aid kit, a phone charger, toiletries, cooking equipment, a passport, a smaller backpack, some money, walking sticks, a book to read and a book to write in.

A minimalist who has showered at gas stations spraying water through an upturned bottle with a pierced cork acting as a showerhead, he is also a vegan.

He does not want to stop travelling. At 31, he genuinely thinks he can travel for many years and he is not alone.

As internet penetration grew across the world this decade, the sharing economy was born. Everything began to be shared – cars, workspaces and even dresses. AirBnB, an online marketplace for lodging, grew from just three million stays in 2011 to 80 million in 2015. The company claims a majority of its users are individuals – a study in Amsterdam last year found that 86% of hosts shared the homes they lived in.

The internet has also helped many other non-commercial projects grow. CouchSurfing, a community platorm that is a non-commercial AirBnB equivalent, is one of many portals people use if they are ready to share their homes with travellers. Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups and other social media networks abound where travellers like Adi build a personal brand advertising their travels.

The currency of exchange is companionship and long-term travellers have been in demand. These low budget travellers seem to have passports that give them easy access to a bevy of countries with savings in currencies with higher purchasing power; resourceful and charismatic, some have troubled pasts or misanthropic traits.

I have met many over the years.

They are glued to their phone constantly finalising plans for their next temporary home yet a ready smile and a cheery demeanour with enough tales to last a car journey helps them hitch a free ride wherever they go and they get treated to a variety of experiences that would otherwise be hard to obtain for free.

“Very weird, very eccentric and like an old punk boy” is how Adi describes Oleg Lapenko, a liquor baron in a small Russian town who took a liking to his dreadlocks. Alongside two other girls, the Russian flew them across the country to Kamchatka and they saw glaciers and canyons from a helicopter.

They parted ways after two months. “I was pretty tired of travelling with him, pretty tired of his personality,” explained Adi.

The son of a father who works in construction in Rishon LeZion in Israel, Adi, in a former life, was a security guard. He has now hitchhiked across the United States, Europe and South America. Most recently, he worked at a factory manufacturing tricycles in China.

Along the way, he says he has bedded over a hundred women, many of whom let him stay for a while, and he says he has slept in even more homes.

In faraway Dijon in France, Sonia, on the other hand, says she has found peace. She did not want to give out her last name.

A Pole from Gdansk, Sonia was at the home of two retired French teachers and is now rebuilding her life. Her boyfriend, the chef and the owner at the Italian restaurant she worked at in Australia, gave her an hour to pack after their last argument. She then travelled for four weeks in her car in tears and decided to go back to France in July.

“The weather is very beautiful because all the leaves are golden and the sun is really warm and when I was drinking my coffee, I looked outside and it felt like God was smiling at me through the leaves,” she said in a phone interview.

Sonia has hitchhiked, backpacked and couchsurfed in 73 countries and has tales of unexpected turns of kindness from strangers who offered their homes and their kitchens. She calls it travelling ‘professionally’ and began the hobby eight years ago. It would have been more difficult before the internet.

“Without the Internet, it is less convenient,” admitted Adi. “You can sleep on the street corner or shower in restrooms, create a little commune and build yourself a kitchen but it’s not the same.”

Both Sonia and Adi have a strong desire to see the world following a wanderlust that is part of a storied tradition – Sufis or wandering dervishes in the Middle East, freight-hoppers in the United States, sadhus or holymen in India and perhaps even the colonial adventurers of old discovered distant lands for themselves in this fashion living a nomadic lifestyle not really caring about the usual concerns of a careerist.

People like Adi and Sonia who I have met over the years also dislike the rigmarole of a life build around the workday.

“I was sick of working like a slave and I wanted an adventure,” Sonia stated. “I wanted to be like an Indiana Jones in a skirt.”

Living off the benevolence of others, however, often causes strain. Constrained by their budgets, such long-term travellers are seen as freeloaders.

Darrell Johnson is 57 and lives in Montreal. He is among the many people that host such travelers that I contacted; he is also a psychologist and says he has seen two different types among the long-term travelers who have stayed at his home over the years.

“I might call one group ‘compassionate children of the world’,” he said. “They resemble a blend of hippies from the 1960s, Peace Corps workers from the 1970s and the social justice warriors in the previous decade.”

“They like people, are adventurous, and value experience above ownership.”

“[Some of them are] ‘entitled children of the world’. One young man mentioned how well people had ‘taken care’ of him and met his needs and was charming, talkative, and entitled.”

Elvis Lam, a guesthouse manager in Guilin and a frequent long-term traveler on his own, does not think such backpackers pose a threat to the tourism industry in developing countries which are often where they flock to. But he does feel such travellers take advantage of the people they meet.

“I know people are good to hitchhikers and outsiders in China even if they are not very rich,” he said.

Meanwhile, Adi just strongly feels that he is on a personal mission to see the world. He spends most of the time on his travels hiking and not necessarily staying at people’s homes.

“I know that for most people, this is like a fantasy,” he said while we were talking on the rooftop of a four-storey building admiring the skyscrapers that seemed to touch the roof of the world in Central in Hong Kong.

“You should strive to make your dreams a reality but all these people telling me they want to see the world are not doing anything.”

It does get lonely on the road, Adi admitted late into the conversation. With each passing day, the distance, both physically and emotionally, gets wider with friends and family. Adi also feels that time may eventually run out on his trip.

“That thought scares me like what if I get cancer but I can’t live life by it,” he said.

As he walked with an easy swagger along the streets of the central business district, many eyes in the crowd darted towards him. In any other era, his tearing pants and fading shirt might mark him out as a delinquent.

With a smartphone, an internet connection and the widespread cultural acceptance of long-term travelers, he evokes a different image now.

“Being homeless by choice is not so hard anymore,” he said as he continued his journey for the 892nd day.