Confessions of a Failed Minimalist

Well, I suppose you could say I haven’t really failed. My wardrobe really is the “capsule wardrobe” type, since that’s all that would fit in two suitcases. The kitchen stuff I currently own—3 pans, 3 knives, 4 bowls, 8 plates, and some silverware—really isn’t that much. And that’s about it, besides stacks of papers to grade (but I get to give those back!). I don’t even have books. Everything else was packed away when we moved to China. The problem is, I want more.

Curtains, for instance. Curtains so dark they don’t have to have scarves hung over them to keep out the light. The scarves work fine, so I don’t need to complain, but it would be nice to simply pull the curtains shut at night and not have to worry about blocking out every last bit of light.

Or pictures and decorating stuff for the walls. If I were a true minimalist, I’m sure I’d sleep in a cabin on someone else’s property (I’m looking at you, Henry David Thoreau!) and have nothing but the clothes on my back and maybe a fire to cook a fish on. But me being me, I want where I live to look nice. Nice does not include completely bare white walls. It doesn’t have to be fancy—but some sort of color would help!

But at the same time I’m thinking how nice it would be to have more stuff, it also seems ridiculous to spend large amounts of money on things I’ll only be using for less than a year. Apparently there’s more than a touch of Great-Grandpa Manthei in me. And when things are priced in yuan, those numbers are just so huge. I can’t bring myself to spend 200 Y on something unnecessary, even though it’s really only around $33.

I’m thankful for what I do have, like our pretty plants that decorate and purify the air (they were cheap too). But it’s easy to get caught up in wanting, even coveting, other good things to have. I’ve been spending too much time lately wanting what other people have: things like a place to stay for more than a year and money that doesn’t have to go to fill the pockets of university staff (seriously, why do degrees and everything cost so much?). Complaining comes easily: thankfulness does not. And I’ve been given so much—there’s no reason for me to not be grateful.

I don’t want complaining to become my default option—discontentment can so easily turn to bitterness and bargaining with God. I don’t want stuff to define me, either by what I have or what I lack.

Life isn’t made up of stuff, but sometimes it’s awfully nice to have. And we’ve been spoiled by having so much within easy reach. I may feel like a discontented failure some of the time—but when I think about it, there’s really nobody I’d trade places with.

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The Adventure of a Lifetime: Shopping at the Chinese Grocery Store

As I stepped outside this morning, I noticed it was the sort of day to open your eyes wide, tilt your head back, and be immersed in the blue of the sky and the gold of the leaves. Autumn at its finest. But I was on a mission—autumn leaves would have to wait. It was time to shop.

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Not the actual store, but it needed a picture.

Faded yellow plastic strips cover the doorway to the little store on the corner. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, only a low building with red paper tacked behind the small, four-paned windows.

I step inside and nearly spill a bowl of soup sitting on a counter. It’s breakfast time, and what better way to eat than to sell things at the same time? Every Chinese woman sitting behind a counter has a bowlful, and I’m not sure what’s in it. It looks brown and full of vegetables, just like the soup my mom always eats for breakfast. They’re talking loudly to each other, and seem unconcerned with my presence in their conversation—I’m a foreigner, so it’s unlikely I can say or understand much more than “ni hao.”

The woman behind the vegetable counter doesn’t even pause the rhythmic flow of her speech as she hands me a small, blue plastic basket to put my vegetables in. I choose from the piles—red tomatoes, fresh broccoli, green beans that aren’t yet tough and full of giant seeds, onions, some spinach. China has so many vegetables that the choice is hard.

Veggies chosen, she weighs them for me, tells me the price. Today it was “er shi si,” or 24 yuan, which comes to about 4 dollars. In America, that amount of fresh vegetables would cost at least $20, maybe more.

The meat counter’s the next stop for me. I ask for beef (the lady behind the counter knows the English words used in her business, though she seems to know no other English words), and she pulls out a large chunk. She takes it over to the counter and gestures with a knife. I nod and point to the ground meat in the case, and she points to the meat grinder. Several nods later, my ground beef is handed over for the price of 80 yuan, or roughly $13.00.

Before I leave, I make a few more purchases, going through the same motions of pointing and drawing on my limited (extremely limited!) Chinese vocabulary. Everyone nods and smiles, helping me out and offering other products for me to buy.

Shopping for things like these is easy in China—fruit and vegetables look the same all over the world. It’s when you start buying packaged food, like milk and flour and salt, that the questions begin. Is this white stuff in a bag salt, sugar, or MSG (yes, they sell it right next to the salt, and it looks exactly the same)? Is this shampoo or conditioner? And what is the weird slimy stuff in the bag that resembles chicken feet? It most likely is chicken feet; they may even be pickled!

So while shopping in China may not be comfortable or “safe,” it is very much an adventure. And we’re enjoying every moment of it.