Final summer season, Wei Ziyi’s life fell aside. The 26-year-outdated had spent years stopping to climb the ladder of middle-class Chinese life: Transferring to the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, scoring a advertising and marketing job at a tech company, and dealing grueling hours month after month to provoke his bosses.
“I by no method acknowledged no to any assignments — my efficiency used to be regarded as one of many true,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.
Then, with out discover, it used to be in each set. As China’s economic system slowed amid months of COVID lockdowns, Wei’s employer made a wave of layoffs. Wei misplaced his job, and struggled to search out a brand silent one. Soon after, he had to stride away Shenzhen for a much less dear city nearby. He seemed as if it’d be on a toll road to nowhere.
Nonetheless, one year later, Wei says he’s happier than ever. He has determined to lean into his sense of rootlessness, and embody a “drifting” daily life. He has bought a van, filled it with decks and speakers, and now makes a living by hosting impromptu dance parties at completely different seaside resorts alongside China’s shoreline.
“After I misplaced my job, I seen the meaning of life isn’t about your job or your income level,” says Wei. “I started to re-evaluate the values and goals of my life.”
Wei is mighty from alone. Burned-out after years of COVID lockdowns and sky-high formative years unemployment, many young Chinese are chucking up the sponge and reinventing themselves as “drifters” — living hand-to-mouth while roaming the country aimlessly.
“Drifting” — or liulang — is the most fresh expression of the disillusionment spreading among China’s millennials. For years, many maintain complained of the “involution” of life in the country’s foremost cities: the sense of ever-intensifying competition, as a rising pool of graduates fights over a finite variety of neatly-paid white-collar jobs.
That feeling grew all around the pandemic. With the economic system slowing amid three years of strict virus-alter policies, China’s formative years unemployment reached document highs, surpassing 20% final year. Many graduates — giving up hope of finding to take into accounta good job — began declaring their draw to merely tumble out and tang pingor “lie flat.”
Peter Yang, a Ph.D candidate at the London College of Economics who be taught Chinese formative years actions, says that the identical socioeconomic components are also leading millennials to embody different life cherish drifting.
“Because the job market gets increasingly more competitive, and costs of client items and property continue to climb, even trained formative years are finding the core goals of migration — a stable job, a condo in the city, a sense of fulfillment at work or in life — are consistently beautiful out of attain,” says Yang. “They reject mainstream values and expectations: the tracks that e-book and come what would possibly maybe rule their lives.”
In many strategies, drifting appears to be a 2023 version of the lying flat fashion. Now that “zero-COVID” restrictions are at final over, young Chinese are picking to hit the toll road pretty than leisure at home. It also coincides with a recent model for “particular forces tourism,” the set broke students commute on shoestring budgets by skipping meals and sound asleep on in a single day trains.
It’s unclear exactly what number of folks are drifting, however the Chinese social platform Xiaohongshu is stuffed with heaps of of viral posts by formative years sharing their experiences of abandoning their careers and becoming drifters. Most of them are 20-somethings who misplaced their jobs all around the downturn, or determined to stop to hunch oppressive “996” working cultures.
For Wei, the longing to waft had been constructing for years. At highschool, he recollects devouring Han Han’s 2010 toll road silent “1988: I Are looking out to Talk about With the World.” After starting college, he grew to turn out to be a hardcore digital song fan and dreamed of touring the field as a DJ. He most incessantly felt cherish he and his classmates had been on autopilot — blindly following a route laid out for them by society.
“Loads of my peers don’t know the set they’re heading, or what their futures shall be cherish,” says Wei. “The training we got from our households by no method impressed us to uncover these points.”
Nonetheless it absolutely took some time for him to salvage the courage to open down a completely different direction. After shedding his job, he spent weeks in a daze. “I don’t maintain to work currently, so what would possibly maybe maybe silent I waste?” he most incessantly realized himself pondering.
In the waste, Wei determined to let the universe method to a resolution his destiny. He submitted a few songs to a song contest in the southwestern city of Chengdu, and told himself: “If I derive thru to the next spherical, I’ll stride to Chengdu; if no longer, I’ll care for attempting to search out a job.”
The used to be determined. After his shuttle to Chengdu, Wei came abet energized and willing to open a brand silent life. In December, he characteristic out from south China’s Guangdong province in his van, and he has since drifted the total diagram to Liaoning province in the a long way northeast, stopping in 28 coastal cities alongside the diagram.
At the present time, Wei appears each trot a drifter: He has let his hair grow prolonged, and is wearing a shaggy, hippie-ish beard. “I want to be aware if there are other possibilities for myself, from my appearance to my mentality,” he says.
For others, the resolution to open drifting used to be more abrupt. Li Zi, 25, stop her job at a Beijing advertising firm in January and commenced traveling rapidly after. She has spent the past few months drifting thru Asia, Africa, and Europe.
“Traveling all around the field has been my dream since I used to be cramped,” says Li, who spoke with Sixth Tone the usage of a pseudonym for privateness reasons. “It’s no longer needed to be all ready sooner than you open. I beautiful want to characteristic off off and take a uncover.”
Li loved working in the advertising alternate, but after three years of relentless further time, she felt burned out. “What me even more than the bodily exhaustion used to be the mental stress,” she recollects. “The sparkling living of business politics and conflicts all around the administration team made it impossible to level of curiosity beautiful on work.”
Unlike Wei, Li didn’t if truth be told feel wired after leaving her job. After a short shuttle home to be aware her fogeys, she flew straight out to Indonesia. She has since been wandering from country to country, living off the financial savings she built up while working. Normally, she couch surfs to place money and meet silent folks.
“I maintain never any profession thought or a determined opinion for my future improvement,” says Li. “I believed I would derive impressed while drifting. I will’t exclaim I’ve realized the meaning of life, but I now factor in that life is ready consistently shopping for the acknowledge.”
Xu Dapao had a job that heaps of her peers coveted sooner than she began drifting: a living at a dispute-owned endeavor in Beijing, with its standard hours and iron-clad job security. Nonetheless in July 2022, she with out discover determined that she would possibly maybe maybe no longer stand her unchanging, 9 a.m-to-6 p.m. daily life.
“The job used to be too stable for me to reside. I don’t disclose this set aside of life suits me,” the 25-year-outdated tells Sixth Tone.
The pandemic would possibly maybe maybe maintain been a ingredient. Three years prior to now, Xu graduated all around the principle wave of lockdowns, and so used to be denied the chance to take a graduation shuttle with her classmates — a customary ceremony of passage for Chinese students. After starting work, she increasingly more came to if truth be told feel cherish a caged hen, and at final she felt she needed to separate from.
“Initially, I beautiful wanted to sit down down abet and reside on the toll road for some time,” Xu says. “Nonetheless it absolutely grew to turn out to be unstoppable, and then I grew to turn out to be a so-called drifter.”
Over the past year, Xu has visited around 50 Chinese cities in further than 20 completely different provinces. Incessantly, she ideal stays in one city for two or three days, and then moves on. Her subsequent destination is generally chosen at random. “My chums call me a ‘particular forces tourist,’” she laughs.
On one occasion, she flew straight from Xinjiang in China’s a long way northwest to the tropical island of Hainan — a 40-degree switch in temperature. When she landed in Sanya silent carrying her snowshoes, she felt ridiculous, however the restlessness and aimlessness of her travels also entice her.
“Lifestyles is ready going with the float,” Xu says. “I’ve been thru loads alongside the diagram, but I’ve ended up seeing the most sparkling surroundings.”
For some young Chinese, drifting has already method to if truth be told feel pure. Ye Kaikai, 27, tried getting a stable job as a prepare attendant after college, but gave up after three months. Ever since, she has been bouncing from living to living.
Over the past 5 years, Ye has lived many completely different lives. She has pitched tents on the snowy mountains of Tibet, opened an ice cream store in Yunnan province, and traveled the country as a bassist in a rock band. Along the diagram, she has maintained an everyday income by knitting garments and hand-making jewellery, and promoting her wares on-line.
Ye says she used to be destined to be a drifter. A cramped regarded as one of divorced fogeys, she used to be consistently full of life home and altering colleges from a young age. “I if truth be told maintain fashioned the behavior of altering consistently,” she says. “Folks around me diagram and stride, and I will consistently be alone.”
Currently, Ye has been on a pilgrimage in Nepal. Whereas there, she realized that she would possibly maybe maybe sort beautiful money as a daigou — shopping native Nepalese garments and jewellery, and promoting them to customers in China — and so she determined to reside a bit longer to place money for her subsequent scurry. She rarely ever even considers settling down and starting a profession. In her search for, being completely happy is all that issues.
“The arena is continually altering; so am I,” Ye says. “Lifestyles is short. It’s better to entire one thing fun, waste what you would possibly maybe well maintain.”
Nonetheless for others, their time as drifters would possibly maybe maybe very neatly be short-lived. Li remains to be paying lease on her empty condo in Beijing, and has current that she’ll maybe maintain to diagram abet to her outdated life after one year.
“Without an everyday provide of income, I will not waft prolonged-term,” she says.
Xu also knows that drifting is beautiful a temporary hunch. Her fogeys maintain been supporting her all over her travels, but now they’re urging her to quiet down. Every time she thinks about the future, scare wells up inside her.
“Most folk my age aren’t spending as mighty time having fun outdoors as me,” says Xu. “I if truth be told feel heaps of tension after I specialize in that.”
Wei, on the different hand, is more optimistic about sustaining his drifting daily life. The severance payout he got from his outdated employer, plus the money he makes from DJing, is adequate to care for him for now. He’s also attempting to search out strategies to sort money as a social media influencer.
“The core of drifting is being ready to enhance your life,” says Wei. “You don’t maintain to work, but there would possibly maybe maybe silent be a model to sort a living.”
Wei says he hasn’t dominated out the doable of going abet to work one day, but he’s no longer as anxious as he w orn to be. “I’ve ideal considered a if truth be told, very slight a part of the field,” he says. “I beautiful want to characteristic my bear rhythm.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Visuals from interviewees and VCG, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)