Living with Less in China – Hannah

If you’ve had longer than a 15 minute conversation with me in the last 6 months, you’re probably familiar with my recent minimalist manifesto. Overwhelmed by the pure excess of a typical American life – too many clothes, belongings, items on the to-do list, commitments, goals, social networking accounts, etc. – I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to streamline my life and belongings into activities and items that serve to bring me joy and utility. A secondary effect is usually having a smaller impact on the environment, simply by buying and wasting less, but of course, if I emphasize travel as my activity, well… who knows where my ecological footprint stands. The point is to just minimize distractions and be present with what you are doing and what you have. While it’s definitely a challenge–in no way do I claim to be a pro at it–I’m feeling like I’ve made some major steps in the last year to own less and be more proactive about doing that which is good for me.

One of the things I really like about travel is that it forces you to live a minimalist lifestyle. I brought to China only one large carry-on backpack full of clothes and supplies + my overly-large purse full of my computer and miscellany. I did a bit of construction-type work in Mongolia before I started my internship in Beijing, so my few items of clothing are generally multipurpose; i.e. my black office pants are technically outdoor Columbia gear, and most of my shirts happen to be dri-fit. I’ve done my best to not buy TOO many things while here, though on occasion I’ve found that I just might benefit from having a pair of scissors, or a towel, or a set of silverware – those little things, which I intend mostly to leave with people here who can use them. (Oh, also a couple of pieces of clothing because I realized that despite being very utilitarian, my outfits were completely unfashionable in a company that employs a lot of architects and urban designers–like I said, I’m definitely not a pro at this.) Unfortunately, China seems to be the land of single-use stuff. The towel I bought was a minimal investment, yes, but by the time I’m done using it after two months, it’s probably going to be falling apart.

This leaves me boggled by Chinese consumption. I’m finding that people here do not own much, which I think is pretty great. The clothes line I walk by on the way to work has the same few dresses on it every few days and the people at work often wear the same shirts several days in a row (GREAT for people like me who own just a few shirts… take a moment to think about how weird it is that we don’t do this in the U.S., even when they’re perfectly clean). However, most of the belongings people have are still pretty cheaply made and expected to be replaced at some point – they’re just not made to last. Obviously that means production is cheap, the item is cheap, great for people who don’t make a lot of money. But if you’re constantly buying items that are built for only a handful uses, you reinvest repeatedly, and that is a LOT OF WASTE. There is a LOT of trash here. People buy a LOT of bottled water and a LOT of this low-quality plastic stuff and there are a LOT OF PEOPLE. Not all that different from America, but there are just a lot more millions of people making a lot of waste here.

On the other hand, people here don’t use very much space. I live in a dorm building and there are families living in what I imagine are the same-sized rooms to what I have. When you need to fit 22 million people into one city, inevitably each person gets a lot less space than the we’d find in the average American single-family detached home. One of my colleagues is currently a graduate student in the school next door to CADG, and she is in a dorm room the size of mine (which I have to myself) with FIVE other girls, in three bunk beds. And that doesn’t mean they have less belongings than your average girl in a dorm, they just fit it all in pretty tightly in a maze-like fashion. One of my colleagues has what is a comparatively nice apartment (has a kitchen!), but to make the cost work out, she shares a double bed with her friend from high school. So I’d like you to think about your most unpleasant roommate situation you’ve ever had, then imagine what it would have been like if you had to SHARE YOUR BED WITH YOUR ROOMMATE. I’m assuming these two get along pretty well, but you’re bound to have some off days, even with your best friend, and going to sleep with them right next to you is a pretty grating thought, in my opinion. That’s because I’m a completely spoiled Westerner and used to a lot more personal space. I think Chinese people in general are used to crowds and sharing space because it’s kind of unavoidable. My friend who studied in Scotland had a Chinese friend there who was very off-put by the stillness even of Edinburgh, which is, as you know, a city…. just significantly less crowded than Beijing.

Though I find it unlikely that I’ll miss the crowds, I think I’ll bring back to my U.S. life a strengthened appreciation for the minimalist and tiny home movements (though I’d prefer a small, rather than tiny, home), and a drive to encourage others to think similarly. Part of it is that I don’t think I need as much stuff as American consumer culture makes me think. The other part is that I am terrified of the impact that our Western consumer culture is having on Chinese culture. It’s simply not sustainable. If you don’t have a good sense for the difference between what WE own and what the REST of the world owns, read this article and let me know what you think… The average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. U.S. children make up 3.7% of children on the planet but have 47% of all toys and children’s books. Pretty darned striking. Couple of questions:

  • If everyone in China strives for the same Western lifestyle, what sort of a percentage increase in STUFF will we have? (With more given numbers, this could be an SAT question.)
  • If you own approximately 300,000 things (or maybe 50,000-75,000 to count for the other people in your household) and pack two bags to spend two months in China, how many of those things will you actually bring or need? How many of them would you forget you have once you can’t see them? I didn’t do a count, kind of wish I had, but I’d estimate that I have something like 100 individual items. Wish I had some of my other belongings, but… hopefully point taken. In theory you could live with <300 items and still be fashionable and functional. 

So this is an urban planning blog, you say?

Well, let’s think about how we use space, why don’t we? Let’s think about how to design housing that is not only small and exclusive to certain users (i.e. micro-apartments and studios) but also family-sized housing (multiple bedrooms, not just housing for childless couples) that is well-designed to support more people – it doesn’t need to be a whole house. What about duplexes? Quads?

What about designing more and better parks so people don’t have to have their own yards? What about better and more community spaces, public spaces, etc, so people get out of the house?

How about thinking about how we can support more local businesses and industries that support the production of higher-quality items instead of big box stores that sell cheaply made, CHEAP stuff? How about supporting higher minimum wage so people can actually afford that higher-quality stuff?

I definitely don’t have an answer for how you can teach the whole world to buy better stuff instead of more stuff, since that’s probably most peoples’ go-to, but…. I didn’t claim to have an answer here. I’m just pondering.


3 thoughts on “Living with Less in China – Hannah

  1. I’m glad you wrote your blog post about this! I’ve had similar thoughts and have also chatted with another intern about this. I love that most of my coworkers wear the same things to work. It’s not uncommon for people to wear the same thing two days in a row or a couple times a week. I’m doing the same and I dig it! Living out of a suitcase and only having a handful of outfits is making my life a lot easier. I live pretty light in Portland, but I know I could live with a lot less.

    When I first arrived to Shenzhen, the hotel staff put me in a double room (2 twin sized beds) with a Chinese intern. It was a surprise for the both of us when I arrived that night to her room! It turns out the hotel staff made a mistake, phew, and I got my own room the next day. What is interesting is that the Chinese interns all have to share a room, but the foreign interns all have their own rooms. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been wonderful having my own room with a gigantic, comfy bed, but it definitely made me think about the lifestyle I’m accustomed to! We’re definitely used to our own space with lots of room to spread out.


    • hannah.silver says:

      I like to think that some of the perks of being a foreign intern (getting paid more, getting your own room, etc.) are because we aren’t necessarily there trying to get a job, so the Chinese interns maybe are willing to accept less in the hope they’ll end up with employment later… but I know it’s probably that they are appeasing us…


  2. Oh also, you’re opening sentence made me laugh! I am familiar with your recent minimalist manifesto. It’s a great thing 🙂


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