Touring stuff with my best friend in the Arusha Market, Tanzania.
As someone who has moved multiple times to multiple countries, I have found accumulating stuff to be especially stressful. I once stared down piles of boxes that I hadn’t seen in a year, and near tears, thought I was about to lose a thankless battle. But with the necessary help of a friend, I persevered and sent most of the stuff in those boxes to a second hand charity shop before I had to get on a plane in another direction.
I feel comfortable knowing I now only have a couple of boxes with my most precious items stored for me with family. These boxes mostly consist of childhood treasures, and special souvenirs from my travels. Oh, and a box of shoes and boots… Couldn’t let that one go just yet…
There is a fine balance to be had when it comes to settling into a new country. How much stuff should I buy? How much can I live without? I want to be comfortable and to feel at home here. But I don’t really want to buy things unnecessarily only to have to give them away in a year. For someone that owes as much money as I do to the bank, these questions become even more poignant.
Certain necessities take priority: bed sheets, blankets and pillows are obvious yeses. But the mattress-top to avoid the shockingly hard sleep on a shockingly hard bed takes a second thought. Is it worth it? In this case, I also said yes. Picture me, in my first week here, riding through the winding streets of Taiwan at night, clutching a huge mattress cushion (bigger than myself) behind me on the back of a scooter, whizzing by the lights and traffic of winding roads at the whim of a new friend driving me through my new city toward my new home.
My apartment came ‘furnished’, but other random things I’ve also said yes to here include: a broom, a mop, a pot, a lemon squeezer, a ladle, a phone, a scooter, boots (that are too tight), flip flops, some clothes, teaching supplies, decorations for holidays, speakers, a table cloth, and a lawn chair.
But what about an oven? I miss having an oven… Or even a big toaster oven. This is my most current internal struggle that I am negotiating with myself at the moment. To buy a big toaster oven, or not to buy a big toaster oven?
When you finally deem an item worthy of purchase, seeking it out is never an easy task when living abroad. Especially living in a small city in a country that uses a different language for both speaking and writing.
Almost every one of my above items involves a story of frustration, exploration, confusion, extensive dialogue and discussion, and disorientation. Thankfully, when said item is finally found and purchased, a real sense of triumph and success can also be found.
This is just one (of many) reasons to make friends as soon as possible when you move somewhere new. Local friends are great (for so many reasons, but today I’m reducing everything to talk about ‘stuff’). They can help you navigate the city and search for your needs, even if they don’t really understand why you feel your ‘need’.
Expat friends are also important, as you can help each other through a broad network to find the most basic things that your local friends just really don’t have on their own radar. You don’t have to feel stupid asking, “where in this country do I buy [insert mundane household item here]?” Because chances are, your new friends either a) don’t have a clue, but understand your concern and thus offer grave sympathy; or b) have conducted the search themselves already and will happily delve deeply into a discussion about where [mundane household item] might be located.
Contrasting this to living in Canada where I understand and exist within the dominant culture, and speak the dominant language, there are a few good things that can come from such a different take on ‘stuff’.
Creativity Skills are Enhanced. I think outside the box a lot more when I’m living abroad than if I easily had access to everything I wanted.
I have discovered I can be more artistic than I had ever remembered. I once lost the search for little party hats for my kindy class, and after visiting three different potential stores (yes, I actually tried three in very different parts of the city!), I gave up, went home, and took out the scissors, some pom poms, and coloured paper, and made them myself. I also recently discovered I have the capability (as I think my grade four self once did), to make paper mache. With a lack of piñatas for Halloween floating around my city, I was determined to provide one for my kindy class, and one for my friends at a party later that weekend. Thus, a bat and a spider were born, and my dexterity skills were reborn.
Beyond amateur artistry, I have learned many ways of doing many things. I even managed to roast eggplant with my mini toaster (that only has a toaster setting), and since it’s so small, I also skewered eggplant on a fork and held it over a gas hob until it cooked. This works!
Become observant. Instead of just heading down a store’s aisle with tunnel vision, like an arrow toward a target, seeking and grabbing the exact thing and the same brand I always buy, I now take better heed of my surroundings.
It’s pretty much out of necessity, because I don’t actually know where anything is; but I have developed a fresh sense for registering my eye to brain connection a little better. I might not want a certain thing now, but perhaps I (or another friend) might find a desire for it in the near future. Besides, I’m curious! What are all of these different looking things all around me?
My eyes have closely inspected almost every little jar and package in my local grocery store. For the vast majority, I can’t understand the writing on the packages. But often I can figure it out, or guess at its contents. Users be warned: based on such a guess, I accidentally bought stinky tofu (yes, that is what it’s called) instead of regular tofu to make a stir-fry. Thankfully the moment the package was opened my senses were warned before I added the stinky stuff to my beautiful vegetable mixture already simmering. This serves as just a reminder to try to be more observant next time I purchase tofu. Or anything.
Granted, I take a pretty long time to go for a simple grocery shop now, but I think being more aware of our surroundings is a wonderful way to really get a sense of what our surroundings actually consist of.
“The best things in life aren’t things.” Seriously. The more times I travel, the more times I am struck with this reality. We can own as much stuff as our hearts and our credit cards desire. But we can also open our eyes to the realities of the harmfulness our over-consumption really does cause. Not just on ourselves, but also on our planet. We can take a step back and pause to really appreciate what ‘things’ matter most in our lives.
I do appreciate the adventure that seeking out, enhancing, or creating physical things can offer. I appreciate the joy that can come when giving and receiving things. I even appreciate the endorphins that somehow are heightened after a successful shop. But I would also rather be the type of person that places a much higher value on appreciating my relationships and the wonders our world has to offer us.
In short, I refuse to stare down a pile of boxes in distress ever again.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine described her experience of witling her entire belongings down into what could fit into one backpack. She was making a move from Canada to tour the world before settling into another country with her boyfriend (now husband). I wondered how she could fit all of her things into one bag. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but the essence has stayed with me. She described that it might’ve been hard at first, but she felt really good about it. Liberated even. I know she’s settled into her new country with her lovely beau, and they have undoubtedly accumulated things again as they build their new home there. But I hope a lesson can come from that moment she found herself able to pick up and move with the love of her life, unattached to any ‘thing’, and able to explore and enjoy the wonderful things that aren’t actually things that our beautiful humanity and world have to offer.
On this subject, I remember the revelation Jennifer Connolly’s character had with the junk lady in Labyrinth (1989). In the end, it really is all junk. We can enjoy it, but let’s not let it become ourselves, nor let ourselves become it.
Want a good read? Check out one of my favourite author’s books, Twelve by Twelve in his struggle to find a more meaningful life with a smaller footprint on earth.