Monday, July 30, 2012

Simple Abundance

Yesterday I was reading two different magazines proportedly about "simple living."  One was Real Simple.  I like this magazine because of the pretty pictures (I mean, advertisements) and occassional clever ideas, although it has gotten a bit more pretentious in recent years.  Real Simple included articles about making more time in your schedule, organizing your over-full closet, redecorating your living room, and the perfect bargain shirt (only $100!) for your figure.

I was also reading Mother Earth News.  It talked about growing your own vegetables and how to find deals at the local farmers market.  One article was about how to live in a "tiny home" (these were less than 600sq feet) and another about using solar power. 

I was struck by the difference of these two magazines: One telling how to simplify your life while hanging on to your wealth.  The other telling how to live well with less.

One thing that has stood out to me this summer is the overabundance in America.  Not the American rich but "normal" middle class America, even people who feel like they are hurting.  I can't get over the average size of our houses.  The multiple family cars.  The giant closets full of clothes.  Basements, closets, and storage units for all our extra belongings.  The Chinese middle class would never dream of so much stuff.

It's been easier to live more simply in China.  We have a comparatively small apartment and don't have room for extra storage.  Moving every few years forces us to "purge" a lot.  We don't have (and don't need) a car - we can bike almost everywhere we go.  We buy very few non-consumable items during the year.

Even so, it's frustratingly difficult to live simply.  I came to China with two suitcases and after two years, gave away a bunch of stuff and still shipped 5 boxes.  After a year in the States, Kevin and I came back with 4 suitcases.  Three years and one baby later, we shipped 25 boxes to our latest location.  Where did all this come from?  How do you accumulate so many things without even realizing it?

I've been realizing that it's easy to live a China life with an American mindset.  It's easy to feel that the abundant American lifestyle we are used to is normal, even though it is anything from normal in most of the world.  It's easy to feel entitled to matching towels, cool baby toys, or a dryer, as if wealth is our birth-right.  A change of mindset and a broader perspective are a necessary start.

This past year and especially this summer I have been increasingly challenged to live more simply and and more naturally.  I have also been encountering a theme of generously, which I think is certainly related.  I don't want to simplify so I can be more comfortably surrounded by my wealth.  I don't want to simplify just for my own sake.  By simplifying my life, doing without a little of the "normal" abundance, can I help someone else live a better life or maybe just have the chance to live?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


When I first came to California with Kevin five years ago, I wasn't sure what the big deal was.  I was about as impressed as Kevin was by August in Georgia (he wondered why in the world people live there).  It's desert.  The "trees" Kevin pointed out are more like tall scruffy bushes.  I thought that a lake was supposed to be a body of water, not big expanses of sand like the "dry lakes" around. The rivers are dry most of the year too.  The yards were dirt or rocks (and everybody knows a yard is supposed to be grass).

While I still like trees (real ones), grass, and rivers with water, I have come to appreciate the desert.  For one thing, you can actually see the sky.  Not a tiny patch of sky in between the trees, but a full expanse of sky from east to west.  Kevin's parents' house is situated in the foothills, so it looks out over the whole valley.  They have a view of fabulous sunrises and sunsets and a whole sky full of stars.  We are surrounded by mountains, a couple of hours away from numerous beaches, and near major airports (important in our life), plus we get to have In-n-Out and a lot of good Mexican food.

In our post-marriage California year, I also had to adjust to a more relaxed west coast approach to life. I don't really know if it's California in general or just Kevin's group of friends, but it took me a while to realize the social protocol was a little different.  When I hung out with friends, I usually felt like there was a general time frame for our time together.  If we had lunch together I assumed we would part ways by mid-afternoon.  If we were going to hang out at night, we probably wouldn't get together until at least dinnertime.

So I was confused when we went over to Kevin's friends house at 11am and were still there at dinnertime.  By 9pm I started saying,"Don't you think we should go?  They probably want us to leave now.   They have kids and all."  Kevin didn't understand why I was so eager to leave.

Once I adapted my expectations, I found that I really liked this approach to friendship - casual involvement in each others lives with no set time frame.  I realized they really weren't looking at the clock, eager for us to leave.  I started to feel a little disappointed when my friends would leave after 2 hours.

Now when we hang out with Kevin's friends, who aren't really "Kevin's friends" anymore, I know we'll probably be there for eight hours or maybe twenty-four.  Since it's no longer practical to stay out until 1am, we just bring Juliana's bed and spend the night.  We never get much sleep but it's lots of fun.  Eventually I say, "We should probably go home..." and then we leave five hours later.

Maybe we couldn't do this all the time, but it works great for summer when we have more freedom of schedule and want to spend as much time with friends as we can.

Today is our last day in California this year.  I guess if we miss it too much we can head to the mountains outside of Yinchuan which looks almost exactly like Southern California.  The abundance of Mexican food and good friends, though - that's harder to come by.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Juliana's American Adventures

We're back in the States! Actually, we got back a week and a half ago, but my great blogging plans have fallen to nothing. The trip went smoothly. We thought we'd miss our flight to CA, but after running through the BJ airport, we arrived before the flight even boarded. Juliana slept about 7 hours of the 12 hour flight and spent the rest of the time watching Shawn the Sheep cartoons and saying, “Airplane? Airplane? Airplane!” at least 500 times.

Since arriving at Kevin's parents, we have been busy visiting friends, reading library books, preparing to talk about China, helping Juliana play with all her new toys, buying out the 99 Cent Store... Our time in California is flying by, and we are working hard to arrange all the activities we still want to do like camping, visiting a children's museum, seeing lots of relatives and friends.
With Kevin's Opa on 4th of July - I'm in my blue Thai shirt, Kevin's in his red Cambodia shirt, and Juliana's red, white, and blue outfit was a gift from our Chinese tutors!  Very patriotic.

It's interesting to see the US through Juliana's eyes. After we got to California we took a walk down the country dirt road outside of Kevin's parents' house. When Juliana started getting tired she said, “Taxi? Taxi!”

Juliana has been having a great time just walking around in a big house. Nana bought her a little dolly stroller, and she has spent hours just walking her dolly around and around the house. She also loves walking right the door to get outside – no bother with six flights of stairs. She is used walking outside and seeing tons of people, though. She finds the birdy and doggy sounds interesting, but I think she wonders where all the people are. She does not appreciate car-seats, however, since her only experiences with them have been a few months in the States. She keeps saying, “All done? Stuck! Stuck!” It's hard to explain that being “stuck” is the whole point.

In general, Juliana is having lots of fun with her Gramps and Nana. She has lots of new toys to play with and a whole new house to explore. She also has new friends. When we spent a day with our friends who have three young daughters, I've never seen so little of Juliana! She was so busy playing and being entertained by the older girls she hardly had time to notice I was there.

She is not really enjoying her new sleep arrangements, though. She is still afraid of falling asleep in a strange place, so we're back to holding her until she falls asleep and the sneakily slipping her into the crib. Jetlag was not kind to her – the first few night she was up for 4 hours in the middle of the night. The past few nights she has slept through the night again (yay!), or woken up briefly, but she is still resisting falling asleep at night.
Juliana stares down a hippo

Our most exciting outing was to the San Diego Zoo. It was a long day – 9 hours walking around the zoo and 5 hours in the car, but the zoo was great. Juliana was excited to see all the animals she's seen in books, and she learned how to say “panda” and “polar bear.” She was mesmerized by the polar bear and hippos playing in the water just inches away.

I have plans to blog more as the summer progresses, but I guess we'll see what happens...