When You Live With the Assumption that Everything Will Have to Go

I recently read the popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Kondo Marie-

Oh no, don’t tell me that you’re joining the Konmari cult!

Why would it matter whether or not I am joining the Konmari cult?

Because if you join the cult, you’ll repeatedly use the phrase ‘spark joy’. Are you going to do that?

No, especially since I suspect that it is an imperfect translation of the Japanese word tokimoku anyway (just as this comment claims that the English verb ‘tidy up’ does not quite convey the Japanese cultural concept Kondo Marie wrote a whole book about). I’m willing to completely avoid the phrase ‘spark joy’.

Phew.

I suspect the real reason this book is such a bestseller is that it is fun to read. Even if you have zero interest in tidying up your own space, it is worth reading for the humor. Kondo Marie has visited hundreds of messy homes and offices; she has anecdotes.

However, this book did not just make me laugh; it also prompted me to think about my life in Taiwan (as well as ultralight backpacking philosophy, but that is for a different blog post).

I don’t think that was the writer’s intent.

She does encourage readers to think about their lives, but it certainly wasn’t how I expected to react to the book.

In the book, she claims that 90% of her clients need to learn how to discard things AND learn how to put things away, and that 10% of her clients only need to learn how to put things away. When I lived in Taiwan, I was definitely in the latter 10%.

I consider my tào​fáng​ in Taiwan to have been very messy (except the day I moved in and the day I moved out). I was very bad at putting things away in an organized manner. A lot of things ended up being stored on the floor because of my laziness.

When I moved out of Taiwan, I was impressed by how much I ended up throwing away in the trash – and entire 1.5 trashbags worth of stuff. However, after reading this book, I realized that this was a very small quantity of stuff to throw away during an absolute clearing out of a home, and I now feel less ashamed.

I believe that, if I had tried to use the ‘Konmari’ method on my clothing collection in Taiwan, I would not have discarded a single article of clothing (and I couldn’t use the ‘Konmari’ method on my clothes in San Francisco because I was on the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean). I only brought a few sets of clothing with me when I moved to Taiwan, and if I exclude shoes and small items such as socks/stockings/hats/etc., I acquired less than 10 items of clothing during my three years in Taiwan. That meant that every piece of clothing (except for one coat that was only for special occasions) got used heavily, and were indispensable. I wore out a few pieces of clothing to the point that they were no longer useful as clothes, and those were the only articles of clothing I ever put in the trash. This meant that dealing with my clothing collection when I was leaving Taiwan was really easy – I gave away that one coat for special occasions, but all of my other clothing either came with me during my travels in Japan, or was shipped to the United States. Clothing did not take up much space in my luggage, nor did I spend much money shipping clothes.

This is all in spite of the fact that I like a lot of Taiwanese fashion, and probably would have enjoyed buying more clothes in Taiwan – if I were not aware that any clothes I bought would have to be carried on my person, shipped across the Pacific Ocean, given away, or thrown away.

Sara, you’re a real bookworm. Even if you didn’t collect much clothing in Taiwan, you must have had quite a book collection.

Actually … I didn’t. I was pretty active about re-selling any books I had already read to the used bookstores. I did have to make an extra push to re-sell books when I was preparing to move out, but I had generally kept my book collection relatively small while I was living in Taiwan.

But you’re such an wuxia fan! Didn’t you decide to ship a whole bunch of wuxia novels back to the United States?

Nope, I only sent 1 wuxia novel back (if you’re curious, it is 寶劍金釵). Most of the books I shipped from Taiwan to the United States were Taiwan memorabilia. Though I occasionally pull one out and read it, I use them more as mementos than as reading material. For example, I have a book about a small town in Taiwan which I may never read, but it’s worth keeping just so I can browse through the photos once in a while.

What small town is that?

Beipu, in Hsinchu county.

Kondo Marie says that having a small book collection makes it easier to focus on and appreciate the books she reads. Comparing my experience as a reader in Taiwan to being a reader in the United States … I think she is onto something. I think there are benefits to having a large book collection and being able to pull out one of many books on a whim and just having a sense of being surrounded by books (here is an essay about the value of having lots of unread books). But I think it is also beneficial to have a tight book collection with a high turnover. When I was at home in Taiwan and looking to read something I had not read before, instead of being distracted by the possibility of reading twenty different unread books bursting from the shelves of my home EVEN WHILE I was reading whatever I was reading, I could either read one of the 1-3 unread novels I possessed at any one time, or read some of my unread comics (which I never had much of either), or read some nonfiction material on the internet (I did not read many nonfiction books in Taiwan, unless one counts reference books for learning Chinese). In Taiwan, I also tended to read books as soon as I got them, and read them while I was still excited about reading them, rather than letting them pile up and not getting around to reading them until after the excitement was gone (if I even got around to reading them).

Besides, the fact that I tended to sell my books back to used bookstores as soon as I was done reading them meant that they got into the hands of other people who wanted to read them fairly quickly, rather than languishing for years or decades without being read at all.

Wait, are you arguing in favor of large book collections, or small book collections?

I think every bookworm needs to find their own balance (though some bookworms do not have the means to have large book collections even if that is their preference). Speaking for myself, though I do not want to go all the way back to the extreme I had in Taiwan, I think I do want to make my book collection here in San Francisco tighter and higher turnover.

Don’t tell me you didn’t get any useless junk in Taiwan.

Even in Taiwan, I managed to accumulate junk that was not useful to me. Some of it was in fine condition, but simply not as useful as I expected. Some of it was useful until it broke, and then I was slow to dispose of it.

Are you trying to present your life in Taiwan as an ideal of not-owning-material-possessions?

No. My lack of material possessions was sometimes an inconvenience in Taiwan (for example, I did laundry more frequently than I would have if I had had more clothing). I probably missed the opportunity to get some things which would have increased my happiness. And I don’t want to go back to that low a level of not-owning-material-stuff.

So you regret having so little stuff in Taiwan?

Not at all.

Huh?

During all of my years in Taiwan, I had the mindset that all of my physical possessions were going to be discarded unless I took them on my person when I left Taiwan (expensive in terms of labor, and very limited) or paid for international shipping (expensive in terms of money). Thus, my default was that everything was going to be discarded, and the things I keep would be exceptions.

And my expectation that all my physical stuff would have to go turned out to be 100% accurate. Thus, I have no regrets! I do not even feel too bad about accumulating a little bit of not-so-useful stuff since I don’t think I could have perfectly predicted my material needs in Taiwan in advance.

Yet you don’t want to do this in San Francisco?

My reality in San Francisco is different. Life circumstances (such as a house fire) could force me to part with material possessions against my will, but I could also theoretically keep most of my durable material possessions until I die. I might decide to move, but if I did, I would probably be moving to somewhere else in North America, so I would not be sending stuff across the Pacific Ocean. And my home in San Francisco has more than enough space for any physical thing I would want or need. In other words, the cost of keeping material stuff is lower, so some things which would not have been worth keeping in Taiwan are worth keeping here.

So what does this have to do with the KonMari book?

The mindset that everything will go away unless it is specifically chosen for keeping IS the mindset Kondo Marie encourages for people who want to ‘tidy up’. This mindset stopped me from acquiring many things I probably would have otherwise acquired. It did NOT stop me from making a mess of the physical possessions I did have in Taiwan, though it was very helpful in reducing the work I did when I moved out. (I was a classic example of someone who needed to do very little with the ‘discard’ part of the KonMari method, but could have benefited from the second part of the method in which stuff is organized).

Yes, I believe her and her fans when they say that using this method can substantially reduce how many material possessions one acquires, because the ‘everything will go unless you choose to keep it’ mindset stopped me from accumulating things in Taiwan. I think I would have been more skeptical of some of the ideas in this book (such as the idea that having less books can improve one’s ability to read) if I did not have the experience that I did in Taiwan. And generally, my experience in Taiwan definitely helps me understand some of the things she says in this book.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “When You Live With the Assumption that Everything Will Have to Go

  1. Hi Sara K., I’m writing you here because I found some interesting older posts by you about Wuxia novels. I’m a China Daily reporter in Beijing and am writing a little story about what foreigners can learn about Chinese culture and history by reading Wuxia. I’d like to talk with you if possible. I’m at the email I entered in the details sheet for posting comments.. Thank you, David

  2. Pingback: For Whom Do We Tidy? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.