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A digital nomad moved to Bali for a better quality of life. He doesn't want to be a gentrifier, but he's sick of America's toxic work culture.

Charissa Cheong   

A digital nomad moved to Bali for a better quality of life. He doesn't want to be a gentrifier, but he's sick of America's toxic work culture.
  • Thomas Manuel was born in Texas and he moved to Bali, Indonesia in October 2022.
  • Manuel has previously spoken out against criticism on his platform about gentrification in Bali.

Thomas Manuel was born and raised in Texas, but he always knew that one day he would leave the US to explore new places.

Manuel, who is now a 25-year-old full-time online content creator, has a love of traveling that's taken him to many locations over the years, including Brazil, Israel, France, and the Dominican Republic.

In June 2022, Manuel made the decision to live in Barcelona, Spain, full-time, staying there for several months before moving to Bali, Indonesia, in October, where he currently lives in a one-bedroom guest house with a shared pool area, paying the equivalent of around $290 in rent per month — just a fraction of the $1,413 he paid per month to rent a one-bedroom apartment back in Texas in 2020, according to a rental contract and payment receipts viewed by Business Insider.

Being an influencer, Manuel posts about his life online, which has at times led to criticism — the trend for American "digital nomads" moving abroad to have a higher standard of living has long been called out for contributing to gentrification as it drives up costs, potentially pricing out local residents.

Manuel says he is against gentrification, but he moved to Bali to escape the personal struggles he experienced in the US. He wants to encourage other people to think outside the box, but be respectful of the local cultures they may move to.

Manuel moved away from the US to escape the hustle culture

@thomaslmanuel Not saying America isnt great but the world is so much bigger and the fact that a lot of people wont be able to see it is heart breaking #travel #american #livingabroad #travelinspiration #travelinspo #digitalnomad #expat #travellife ♬ Sundays - Just Piano Version - FKJ

Manuel told Insider there were many reasons he wanted to emigrate, including the high cost of healthcare in the US, and that one of the biggest differences he's noticed since moving to Bali is that he feels American culture is very money-focused, while in Bali, where there is a large Hindu population, religion and family are key focuses for many people and take precedence over their careers.

Since he left the US, Manuel said the biggest change to his lifestyle has been the way he views his relationship with work.

"In America when I worked, the main focus was work and money. If you didn't have those two things, then you know you really couldn't do much else, and even when you have a decent job or you were kind of getting ahead, the expenses follow right behind you and it's just a never-ending cycle," he said.

Manuel said that in the US, his life was spent "working, grinding, hustling 24/7 just to barely make ends meet. And even then still came up short sometimes."

Meanwhile, in Bali, living costs have been much lower for Manuel. Not only has he saved money on rent, he also says that you can get good healthcare in Bali "for a fraction" of what it would cost in the US.

@thomaslmanuel Here's how much it costs to live in Bali but of course depending in your lifestyle, budget, and preferences #bali #budget #monthlycost #howmuchitcosts #livinginbali #expat #indonesia ♬ Vlog Video work Fashionable BGM(847726) - Tsuyoshi_san

But it's not just a question of money for him.

"My main thing was my pursuit of happiness," Manuel said.

Making the move to Bali has given Manuel a different kind of life, and the content creator, who has continued to post TikToks about his life in Bali, told Business Insider he hopes people watching his content will also be inspired to try something new.

Manuel acknowledged his privilege but doesn't think individuals should shoulder most of the blame for gentrification

In June, Manuel posted a TikTok titled, "Why You Should Live in Bali," where he shared details about his life, including how affordable he said food and living costs are.

Manuel told Insider the response to the video was mainly positive at the time, but it also drew some criticism. In a stitch that is no longer available, a user named Kaechi Lah said "What you all are doing is the textbook definition of gentrification," BI previously reported. Another commenter said that gentrification is "negatively affecting Indonesians."

Manuel responded to Lah in a follow-up TikTok, saying, "Gentrification is a big problem, but I'm not the main issue." While Lah appeared to criticize him for not involving himself with local life or speaking Bahasa Indonesia, Manuel said he does speak the local language and also supports local businesses and does volunteer work on the island.

Still, many argue that the very presence of Western tourists or digital nomads is a problem.

High levels of tourism can "tax the environment and infrastructure of many destinations," according to a 2022 article in The Conversation, written by sociology professor Rachael A. Woldoff and associate business professor Robert Litchfield, who teaches at West Virginia University and Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania, respectively.

"Many of Bali's beautiful rice fields and surrounding lush forests, for example, are being converted into hotels and villas to serve tourism," they wrote.

The buying power of foreign visitors also "increases costs and displaces residents," as businesses change and become more "upscale," according to the article.

@thomaslmanuel Would you move to Bali? If no why not? ✈️ #bali #livingabroad #movetobali #livinginbali #canggu #traveltips #digitalnomad #expat #contentcreator #budget #cheap #costofliving ♬ Vlog Video work Fashionable BGM(847726) - Tsuyoshi_san

Manuel told Insider he thinks large companies and investors who are developing businesses and villas are more responsible for gentrification in Bali than individual travelers. He emphasized the importance of tourists investing in local businesses, and said he tries to recommend this to others.

"I'm against gentrification in every way, and although I may not be able to completely eradicate it, there's a lot that I can do in my personal life that can help combat it," he said.

As a remote worker who earns in US dollars and who doesn't currently pay taxes in Indonesia, Manuel acknowledged he has "somewhat of a leg up" on local people, adding, "I am a little bit torn on it, but at the same time, I don't feel guilty because yes, I am blessed. A lot of people are blessed in different ways, however, I make sure that I do my part to help and uplift anybody around me in whatever way I can."

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