I adore Christmas. Growing up in China and now living in the U.S., Christmas is the holiday that resembles Chinese New Year the closest – week-long break from school, cold air and warm blanket, comfort food, and hot tea. Christmas traditions spark joy and holiday spirits in me just like Chinese New Year does, even through they are celebrated very differently.
Christmas has carols, lights and a tree, whereas Chinese New year is celebrated with red lanterns, hand-cut window grilles, couplets flanking the front door, and lots and lots of fireworks. The biggest difference between how American and Chinese celebrate their holidays, is the gift giving. Chinese holidays involve no gift. There was not even birthday gifts (yes, you heard it right). Holidays in China are celebrated by the whole family gathering around and having a nice meal together. So understandably, even after 12 years living in the States, I still have a hard time choosing and receiving gifts, both of which give me lots of anxiety.
But nevertheless, the holiday shopping season comes in stronger and stronger force every year. As soon as we took the last bite of the Thanksgiving turkey, this world is all about shopping for Christmas. All the sudden, headlines like “10 gift every husband wants”, “must-haves in 2018 for empty-nesters”, even “the complete gift guide for all the people on your list” are all over the internet. Do I really need to buy gifts for all my girlfriends? What about co-workers? Does Slav really need a cigar box with his name carved on it? And I am supposed to gift myself now? OMG. I feel anxious just to type these words!
The gift shopping and receiving is especially hard for me because I practice minimalism. I am not a minimalist by the strict sense – I do not have a sterile apartment or a capsule wardrobe. But I do follow two self-imposed rules when it comes to possessions:
1. Only keep things we actively use or strongly appreciated; and
2. Never buy a thing we do not need/use, just because “everyone else has it” or because other people/ads tell me that I “should have it”.
These rules are simple, but they take some will-power to follow through. When my parents visited me from China, they were shocked that I, a Chinese woman who eats rice almost everyday, did not own a rice cooker. Their disbelief was so strong that it made me question myself for a brief moment. I was almost convinced that I should go out and buy one. But I soon remembered, we had not had a rick cooker for 7 years! We cook rice perfectly using a regular soup pot. The expectations of following social norms was so strong, that convincing my parents not to buy a rice cooker for me was unpleasant, grinding, and totally made me look like an unreasonable and stubborn bitch. (And when my mother-in-law visited, despite my protest, she just bought one and put it on my counter. Oops.)
We now live in a world that we are expected to own certain things, such as a standard mixer in the kitchen, a big TV in the living room, and a guest bedroom that remains unused 350 days a year. We own them not because we actually need them, but rather “we should have them”. Slav and I have decided that we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t pay for things we don’t use. We shouldn’t live our lives for anyone’s expectations. Therefore, we do not have a TV or a sofa. What we do have, is over 1500 physical books and a big vinyl collection. Because those are what we use and what we love.
On Managing Possessions
A couple years ago I decided to dress with less. Even though I was not aiming to make a 50-piece wardrobe, I did get rid of a lot of pieces. A lot of pieces I held onto just because I had the space. It was surprisingly easy once I set my mind on it. A trick I used for pieces I payed a lot for, or pieces I hoped to wear (but never would), was to put these items into a big bag and tossed it in the trunk of my car. After driving around with them for weeks, I did not miss them at all. So I donated them the next time I passed the PTA. It is a good trick to get rid of things we think we would need without the fear of regret. When I have a hard time to let it go, I always ask myself, “Will another person need, want, or appreciate it more than me?”
After moving into this house, we do face the need of furnishing the space. Slav and I decided to do it slowly – so instead of going out to buy a bedroom set, a sofa and an entertainment center, a dining set, we bought a storage bed, a dining table, and two chairs – the minimal requirement for living comfortably. We want to learn what we actually need, and what will look good in the house. Six months later, we did not feel that we need anything more, and I love how our 850 sqft ranch feels spacious and cozy at the same time.
The surprising side effect of my minimalism practice, is how much I started to appreciate the few things we own. I have only one decorative item on my desk, which is this mouse sculpture. We saw it in the thrift shop for $20, which was not cheap. But I adore it. I work with mice everyday and have scarified hundreds, if not thousands of them for research. I would like to have something to remind me their contribution to science and medicine. Looking at it brings me a sense of responsibility and gratitude towards my work.
Similarly, this Buddha sculpture is the only decoration in my bedroom. It is a cheap find for $2 in the grocery store discount bin, but it reminds me the Chinese teachings I grew up with. I see it every morning when I get off the bed, when this Buddha head is bathed in the morning rays. It makes me feel calm, acceptance, and grace. It also reminds me the suffering the humanity faces, and brings a sense of responsibility of making the world better, which fuels my day.
On Free Time
The most unexpected gift my minimalism gives me, is free time. With smaller house to clean, few dishes to put away, few appliance to maintain, Slav and I have very little chores to do. We are able to focus on things that are important to us: health, hobbies, our dogs, and lots of time for each other. Each day, we spend hours in the evenings to relax and just talk. Through these talks, we learn about each other’s past, passion, and preferences. It helps us every step along the way to realign our priorities as a couple. In fact, that is how we decided to move to Colorado together!
A rule in Chinese ink painting is called “liu bai”, meaning “leave some space unoccupied”, based on the believe that imagination and creativity rises from unoccupied space/time/mind. I find it is very true. By leaving our house most unoccupied, we come up with creative ideas for the space. By leaving our time unoccupied, we discover what we do and do not care about so we can set our priorities. For me, practicing minimalism is all about to reassessing priorities. I apply it to material things, but also to how I spend my time and energy. What do I want to accomplish the most today, this week, and this year? Where should I spend my money/time/attention that is the most valuable to my family, my community, and the society? I set my intentions in the mornings, then just focus on giving it 100%. By the end of the day, successful or not, there is no guilt, no worry, and I am not overwhelmed. Living with intentions helps me to let trivial things go, and focus on making progress on things truly matter to me.
Being a minimalist may be hard, but practice minimalism is simple. Do you agree? What is your own way of practicing minimalism?