How many possessions does one family really need?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The shameful amassment of expat life in Beijing

I feel a little shameful today. That and exhausted to the point of emotional and physical collapse.

You see, all our stuff left yesterday. It’s gone. All 30 cubic metres of it – piano, treadmill, furniture and ribbon in every colour and handbags in every size. Now all that’s left is a few of those faux Christmas tree needles on the floor.

Yes, the weekend was a little tiring.

Then at 3.45am, my son Riley came creeping into my room. He had turned lights on in the living room so it looked like day. He snuggled in beside me and instead of wriggling like a squiggly worm as he usually does, he just snuggled into my side like a baby worm and dozed. Teensy squiggle. Doze. Little squiggle doze.

It took me a half hour to cotton on. Sleepily, I stretched for my watch and noted with horror the time – 4.15am. I promptly picked sleepy worm up and put him back to bed.

There are two phenomena surrounding Riley’s pre-dawn visit. The first is that he never, ever, ever, ever does this. The second is that he had to do it on possibly one of the most physically exhausting-in-need of sleeps in my life.

But that’s being a Murphy’s Law mother, right?

So after spending three pre-dawn hours on the computer, triple checking our Vietnam bookings and answering unanswered emails that needed to be answered, my family toddled out and wandered the empty rooms of our empty house sleepily. I was shoved off the computer and proceeded to wobble around, plugging things in to charge for our trip - cameras, camcorders, phones, Nintendo DSesses. Whilst in the midst of squatting to plug a cord in, my leg, which I injured on a packing box, began thundering with pain and I just sort of lost it.

So, my husband corralled the kids and told them to “get dressed; we’re going out” then carefully helped me stand and put me to bed and I’ve just woken from a power nap. I feel drunk or jetlagged but it helped. I’ve woken to an empty house – so empty, my breathing echoes.

And that’s when the shame hit me.

It took five men two days to pack our things. And we have even more in storage in Australia. Why what when where and how did we amass so much stuff?

There are two rooms filled to bursting with things to donate to charity. I stood looking at them and thinking of all the things that people don’t have when we have so much. The things so many people are lacking, when we have so much. We have so much. It actually felt very uncomfortable. Then, as I moved about the house and peeped into the rooms with mattresses on the floor and only a blanket and pillow and a suitcase, I momentarily forgot almost everything we packed and everything we own at home. I couldn’t remember a single item (well, maybe the ribbon stash). And the oddest feeling swept over me.

It felt good to forget it. It felt freeing. I stood taller and stronger than I have in a long time, unfettered by clutter, by possessions by stuff. I could breathe. I briefly imagined that if I never saw it all again, it would be okay.

Then I remembered the ribbon. And the baby books and the albums I’ve worked so hard on. And the kids school work. And the celadon pottery and the silk. And it all came flooding back and I felt so enormously grateful.

But I will relish that short moment of material freedom. It surprised me how utterly wonderful it felt.

Self-discovery is a wonderful thing. I’ve discovered a lot about me and a lot about our family in the past few months. I’ve also discovered that I’m an utter workaholic. My husband and the kids are out, there is naught to do, there is a stack of our favourite DVDs and a big fat couch and I have literally not stopped for six months. Yet, I choose to write.

Winding down completely from the tightly-coiled life that was Beijing is going to be harder than I thought.

First published on the City Weekend Beijing website.

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