Monday, August 27, 2012


The first couple of years after I came to China, I remember people returning after the summer talking about how nice it was to "be back home."  I thought they had to be making it up, wanting to look cool and well-adjusted, because obviously this was not home.  I didn't return with home-like anticipation - my thoughts were more along the lines of, "Why did I come back??" 

Over time, though China has become increasingly more normal, more homelike.  The past few summers upon returning to America I think, "It's so strange here!  So normal and yet so strange.  I kind of want to be back in China where everything is familiar."  I have a similar feeling when I come back to China - I suppose it's only natural to feel a slight disorientation when jumping across the world.  I notice all the stares and remember how foreign I am.  I stumble over the simplest Chinese phrases.  I remember how ugly that bathroom tile is and see those roaches I managed to put out of my mind.  But after a few days, the strangeness fades and life goes on as normal.  We are surprisingly adaptable. 

What actually bothered me this summer is how easy it was to adjust to America, and more particularly an American mindset I hoped to leave behind.  After the initial strangeness, America is so pleasant. It's so clean and pretty and people eat so much cheese.  It's so normal.  You almost forget that most of the world isn't like this. 

It is easier in China for me to look in my closet and think, "I have so many clothes!  Especially since I wear the same things over and over again anyway..." but it didn't take long for me to think, "But wouldn't a new shirt be awfully nice?  It's not all about necessity.  Aren't I entitled to some variety?"  It was easy to envy other people's beautiful bathrooms (including almost every public bathroom I went in) and think, "It sure would be nice to have a bathroom that was so pretty like this."  It was easy for the big houses and the cars and all of the daily wealth to seem so normal.  It was easy to compare myself to other Americans, to think of the luxuries I rightfully "deserve."  The rest of the world seemed far away. 

That is not to say that everyone who lives in America is selfish and unmindful of the rest of the world, but I think I could easily become that way, when the rest of the world isn't constantly getting in your face and forcing you to see a small taste of what "normal" really is. 

I really like America, and it will always be my home.  When I got married I felt sad because I thought I had to give up the sense of home I felt in my childhood Georgia home.  I was afraid I would never have that security of my own home.  But now I realize that home isn't just one place.  It is my parents' peaceful country home.  It was the Pasadena apartment for those 8 months after we married.  It was the Weinan apartment where we got to live for three years, where Juliana spent her first year.  It is our comfortable 6th floor apartment where we get to live for one more year.  Instead of having no home, I actually have home everywhere I go.  In fact, few people will get to have as many homes as I do. 
I miss my home, but also, I'm glad to be home.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Small Steps toward Natural Living

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been thinking a lot about how to live more simply.  I have been wanting to take steps toward more natural living as well, and I think the two can definitely be related.

I find living simply to be difficult because it involves not having everything you want and stepping out of the comparison cycle.  But in general simple living seems pretty...simple.  It's easy to figure out what to do; it's just hard to follow through with it.

Living more naturally, however, seems a lot more challenging.  When I read about eliminating processed food or canning I think, "Oh man, that sounds like so much work!  That's anything but simple."  This is perhaps because I have been confusing simple with convenient, when they really aren't the same thing at all.  Many of the choices we make for convenience are because our lives are so jam-packed we don't have time/energy/money for simplicity.

I hadn't thought too much about natural living until recently.  Really it is through reading "natural parenting" blogs and information that I also came across a lot of people interested in natural living as well.  I guess it makes sense.  But while my natural parenting tendencies seemed to come naturally, other natural choices have been more of a struggle.  Probably because I really love convenience.  And I really love boxed Mac N' Cheese.

I also find natural living to be rather overwhelming.  People talk about growing their own foods, home-making condiments, avoiding processed flour, or using solar power and I think, "I don't know how to do those things!"  I tend to pick up on the slightly more bizarre ideas ("Ooh, cloth toilet paper!  That's such a good idea.").

Some things are trickier in China. When it comes to food, I have no idea where our meat comes from.  I know our milk is local, but I wouldn't be surprised if the cows and chickens are pumped full of steriods, antibiotics, and hormones. We buy all our fruits and vegetables from the small sellers at the vegetable market.  They could either be organic, covered with pesticides, or grown with "humanure." I really don't know and I have very little control over it.

Some things are easier in China.  It's easier to stay away from pre-packaged foods because there aren't as many.  I love the convenience of a can of cream soup, but when you can't get it you discover it's not too hard to make a close-enough approximation.   We can buy local honey (probably from the bee-keeper just down the street) and local yogurt, although it includes plenty of sugar.

So between the things I can't do, try to avoid doing, and aren't sure about, living naturally can seem overwhelming.  Therefore, I have been trying to think about small steps I can make to live a healthier, simpler, more natural life.  Just because I will never live on a self-sufficient homestead doesn't mean I should give it all up as a lost cause.  I think once I start making some small steps in the right direction, some bigger changes will be easier to put into effect.  Here are some small things I'm doing:

- Making some of my own bread - less processed, no preservatives, and more whole-wheat flour than the vaguely-wheat bread we can buy.  And it's really surprisingly easy.  The rising and cooking take a while, but that actual hands-on time is 15-20minutes.

- Made reusable produce bags.  I always use reusable grocery bags (or rather, I usually put everything in a large backpack to carry home) but we collect tons of small produce bags since we buy small quantities of produce every few days.  I bought a $1.50 sheer curtain from Goodwill and sewed up some quick bags.

-Cooking with more tofu and beans and less meat.  I like meat and don't think meat is essentially unhealthy.  I just think we tend to rely on it too much.  Also, tofu is about 1/5 the price of meat (at least in China) and beans are much cheaper as well.  As students, this has become more important to us.  When I do cook (which I'm trying to do more of - baring this summer when I'm doing NONE!), I try to use less meat and add more veggies instead.

-Plan to use cloth diapers next time around.  I really hated how many bags and bags of diaper trash we went through.  It's not at all hard to imagine filling up the world's landfills when you see how much trash is produced from one child in diapers.  I also dislike how much we spend on diapers every month!

-I've started using vinegar as a household cleaner.  Vinegar has natural antibiotic properties (and the smell goes away when it dries).  I have still used bleach for some things (like persistent mold), but I'm glad to be inhaling a few less chemicals.

-I just bought my first Dr. Bronners all-natural soap.  It is organic and fair-trade with natural scent.  It's also very concentrated so a little bit lasts a long time.  It has a large variety of uses but mostly I'm planning to use it just for soap.

Now I'm not saying, "Yay me, I'm so progressive and I can't believe you still use soaps with chemicals and eat store-bought bread."  (snooty nose sniff).  I'm not trying to brag or act miss-natural-ier-than-thou.  Partly because snooty people are abnoxious and partly because I'm not very natural at all.

For example, I really like drinking coke even though I know full well it has no redeeming qualities (except caffeine, which I do consider a redeeming quality).  In fact, I have a weakness for all kinds of processed sugar.   I definitely ought to cut my sugary/corn-syrupy calories down again.  I also just bought a tablet computer, and even though its to replace my old laptop, I'm pretty sure there is something in the definition of "tablet computer" that says ("Warning: This product is 100% not natural and guaranteed to make your life less simple.  It will, however, make Facebook that much more accessible.")

So it's a work in progress.  Hopefully next year I can tell you about more natural choices I'm making.  What are some things you do to live more naturally?