Some Asians are hoarders. That is, some of us Asians like collecting things, accumulating things over time up until we struggle to find somewhere to put away all that we have.
Most of my childhood and adolescent life, my Chinese parents were fond of bringing things home even when we didn’t need them. Our house was always rather full – every shelf was never empty. I suppose I was partially to blame as I liked collecting some things back then too. But these days, not so much.
Hoarding is not only about collecting things, but it’s also about putting aside these things and not touching them for who knows how long, maybe for a few weeks or never ever again. Often, hoarding is about collecting things that we don’t really need or don’t have a use for, and over time these things can become junk to us.
Walk into a typical Chinese person’s house and poke around, we may discover freebies or samples lying around. Some Asians are stereotypically stingy, big on being cheap with the ‘why pay for it when you can get it for free’ mindset – and when we can get something for free, chances are we’ll go and get more than one. It’s a practical mindset of sorts: collect what one can for next time, the future.
When I lived in Singapore many years ago, one day my family and I went to McDonalds for lunch. At that time, McDonalds still served their tomato sauce in sachet packets (as opposed to pump dispensers today). When we got our burgers and fries, my brother made a beeline for these sachets on the table top island beside the counter – and grabbed what looked like 20 tomato sauce sachets. For the next few months, my mum brought out these sachets from the fridge to go with our fried fish dinners that she cooked at home.
Some typical Asians tend to be highly competitive, and in a way hoarding can be a competition against others around you. Hoarding equals possession and territory; one’s possessions can earn them face, giving them bragging rights. Having more of something is not an issue among Chinese people, for instance having too much food on the table to eat is perfectly acceptable. Last year, there were queues and queues at McDonalds’ in Malaysia for the limited Despicable Me minions toys. During the year 2000 in Singapore, I remember seeing people queue for Hello Kitties that McDonalds gave away – and there was shoving and pushing and broken windows.
When McDonalds in Singapore gave away the 8 Treasures monkeys in 2003, I joined the queues. I managed to collect all eight stuffed monkeys because I wanted them.
Quite a few older generation Asians are familiar with living a hard life, perhaps living in poverty at some point and through the world wars. Perhaps going from living in dank shop houses back in the day to living in a high rise apartments today. To some Chinese these days, what is available or what comes by in the modern world is literally treasure. For instance, Chinese shoppers in Australia are not shy about buying tins and tins and yet more tins of Australian baby formula and sending them back to China for their families.
In Chinese culture, there is the superstitious belief that certain items brings good luck. Chinese coins, money plants, laughing Buddhas, Chinese/Japanese Maneki Neko waving cats and dragons are just some symbols that the Chinese believe are associated with good fortune – and more so if they come in the form of knick-knacks in pairs or more.
To put it simply, the more good luck knick-knacks one has, the luckier one may be to some Chinese. Each time I visit my parents’ place, most of the knick-knacks I mentioned above greet me whichever way I turn – dragon figurines on the shelves, and quite a few red and yellow Chinese knots hanging on the walls. Collecting good-luck charms always baffled me because I believe we make our own luck through what we do instead of living through our material possessions. Then again, stranger things have happened.
The notions of hygiene, cleanliness, and the issue of space goes hand-in-hand with hoarding. Naturally if we have a house crowded with quite a few things that we don’t need, over time they collect dust or attract parties of creepy-crawlies. Compared to Westerners, Chinese people in China can be dirty – the latter like to spit and let their kids pee and poop all over the place, so hoarding would naturally be something they wouldn’t really mind. On average, 40% of the world’s plastic waste is collected in the South-East Asian region. The more things we have usually means the more things we can throw away, and the more junk we might have.
When we move house or move to a new country, we often realise how much stuff we have. When we move, more often than not we have to let go of our material possessions, and so realise how much of our stuff that we have is a want, not necessarily a need. When I was packing up in Singapore getting ready to move back to Melbourne, I had to choose between taking my Sylvania Families doll houses and collectible stuffed monkeys. I chose the monkeys. Maybe they are worth a few thousand dollars today. That is one of the plus sides of hoarding – the things we hoard might be worth a bit of dollar sometime down the track.
Not all Asians are hoarders, and the art of minimalism is well and truly alive in Japan. Shinto is Japan’s native religion, with a focus on cleanliness and purity. Tidying parks is common around the country, and sliding partitions are a common feature of typical Japanese homes. In other words, for some Asians, there is a place for everything that we have. As organising consultant Marie Kondo said in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up:
“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
When we are selective about the things that we keep, we become more aware of what really matters to us. The less things we own, the more we focus on the right here, right now. Today the entirety of my clothes and possessions take up a wardrobe and a bookcase in my bedroom. That is all. Part of me feels that by seeing less clutter all over the place, the more I feel in control of how my room looks, and the more I feel free to live my life according to current choices as opposed to the past. Also the OCD-Asian-neat-freak side of me feels smug that home is in relative order.
Some might say the more possessions we have, the more disorganised we may be. But sometimes our lives demand we have more than a few possessions: like our photography or painting or gardening hobby that demands we have quite a few tools to bring art to life. Also, decluttering takes time, as fellow blogger Sandy over at Hoarder Comes Clean has been writing about for a while. It can be hard to let go of what we have because it haunts us, and on decluttering Marie Kondo offers:
“But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
What we choose to keep is often tangled with memories from a moment in time. What we have is where we’ve been, what we’ve felt, and what and who we may have loved and perhaps still love, and so the sentimental in us might be keen on hoarding – keeping something to hold on to, something to remind us that we were once there.
Aside from my stuffed monkeys, like many stereotypical Asians I like taking photos and find it hard to delete and get rid of any of them, even the ones that don’t turn out good. On the plus side, photos are fairly easy to keep and move around, be it in photo books or on a hard drive. On the other hand, when we look at photos that we took and really hold any object that we have kept for all these years, so often we see and feel the past firsthand once again whether we like it or not.
No matter how much we hoard or how organised we may be, we can’t control how exactly life will turn out.
No matter what we have or what we don’t have, sometimes we can’t help the way we feel.
Are you more of a hoarder or minimalist?