Editor’s Note: This is a post in the series, Simplicity in Action.
Mine is not a story of voluntary simplification.
I’m 45 years old, I have a house, two cars, two part-time jobs, and two college degrees. I can’t make ends meet. The bills are piling up, the utilities are getting shut off, and the house is in foreclosure. Something drastic has to happen.
I didn’t win the lottery, no matter how many times per week I bought tickets for the big, multi-state lottery jackpots, I couldn’t get an interview for any of the job applications I submitted, any freelance work I tried didn’t pay enough to fill the gaps. Something drastic had to happen.
So I moved to China. I submitted application materials for a job teaching English at a Chinese University and within an hour had an offer. Whoa. Three months later I found myself in a sparsely furnished apartment on the other side of the world: bed, desk, wardrobe, wood couch and chairs with no cushions, chopsticks and a couple of bowls in the kitchen. There were other amenities, but you get the idea: this was extravagant living for China, but by American standards, this was simple living like I’d never seen.
Of course I had to move out of my house; the bank was taking it after all. I crammed a mid-sized storage unit with everything I thought I couldn’t live without, or couldn’t replace upon my return. My theory was that most everything could be replaced, but wasn’t worth paying to put in storage for a year. The problem with theories is that when faced with real life choice, things become muddy. Emotions get involved. Memories leap to the surface. There is either apathy for the things accumulated during a comfortable life, or there is agony over seeing it all being left behind.
My house was stuffed full of junk I didn’t need or that could be replaced if necessary. I lost probably ninety percent of my belongings when I moved.
So I come to China and am faced with a whole new take on personal possessions. I brought over a hundred pounds of clothing, towels, and miscellaneous items I thought I’d need based on what I believed about what could and could not be purchased in China. In some ways I was spot on, in some ways I missed the mark. If I had to do it over again I’d pack differently.
I also, however, needed to make very different decisions on what to and not to purchase while here. Temporary living conditions, even if they’re for a year, shed a whole new light on decision-making. Comfort becomes a big factor. Sheets, electric heaters, cooking utensils: yes. Cute little figurines to remember my stay: no. I bought a bedside lamp for reading, but passed on the extra blanket once I bought the heaters. I bought a sieve, but passed on the liquid measuring cup. The butcher knife provided by the college makes a perfectly adequate means for peeling vegetables.
What this experience has done has made me acutely aware of what is and is not important for daily living. When you can’t transport home everything you’ve bought in a year, you tend to change the way you think about your purchases. Everything I buy now is basically rented. I’ll leave it all behind. So, do I really need to spend forty yuan on a mixing bowl when I can manage with the bowls provided by the college?
I reflect back on all that I lost in the move and am both heartbroken and relieved. I had too much stuff. Unnecessary stuff. But I’m also grateful for the lesson it taught me. Living simply, even when forced, creates an opportunity to make better decisions, creates a cleaner life, becomes a means of evaluating what is important to daily life versus what we surround ourselves with in order to make us think we’re comfortable.
What I want to do now is cling, instead of to all the unnecessary junk, to the question: do I really need this, or is there a simpler way? I don’t know what will become of me when my year in China is over, but I hope that if I get the opportunity to set up housekeeping at home, I think back to my time here and remember how good it feels to live simply. From now on, I want simplicity to be voluntary.
Kathi is working on a book about her experiences of living in China, but in the meantime, check out her blog about her adventures at Meeting in the Middle.