For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in (pause for effect) … south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 13 time zones-long? CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. I want to “simplify, simplify”, as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead.
I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. It will deal with expat experiences, lifestyle, and mindset. Welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/theexpatlife.substack.com. Yes, it’s free and yes, it’s in the form of a weekly email sent directly to your Inbox. Substack also provides an opportunity to leave your comments if you wish. Welcome!
The No-Alternatives Lifestyle
I am on a quest to identify the best elements contained in the popular image of country living – although much of that country life, in reality, belongs to an era now lost forever. Specifically, I am considering how can we find peace of mind and a sustainable lifestyle in a world that seems to be moving at an increasingly frantic pace. (What this means is that more and more people are becoming more and more crazy. Or, as my old math professor growled at me once in an entirely different context, “This old crap has got to stop.”)
I have long believed that our human body, adapted over hundreds of generations as hunter/gatherers, is just not prepared to deal with the level of stimulation in today’s modern society. I wanted to reduce the amount of my stimulation and thus reduce the amount of my stress. One part of the solution comes from the Chinese scholar and writer Lin Yutang who advised us to “eliminate the non-essential”. Then, in an insightful article, my friend Liz Huber (https://www.lizhuber.co/) contributed her refinement when she proposed the Low-Communication, Low-Information Diet.
I created my own variation of Liz’s concept. Because I am fortunate enough to be able to (somewhat) control my schedule and control how accessible I am digitally, I was able to implement an “offline til lunchtime” policy. This was a tremendous relief, although it is merely a variation of the old husband’s tactic of “If they can’t find you, they can’t yell at you.” Thanks to air-gap technology, it was now impossible to reach me in the mornings. Already, I was feeling more peaceful since I was assured that I could not be interrupted.
But, somehow, for all the improvements this brought, it wasn’t quite the complete answer. Are you curious to know what I have identified as the missing element? Read on. Epiphany moment ahead.
Let me set the stage with three scenarios.
First scenario (an excerpt from a pre-pandemic blog post, my own Down at the Creek).
Sometime back in the 1960s or early ’70s, my grandfather arranged to have a bus brought down to the creek and placed on the very spot where the family had camped for years. Probably from the far-off city of St. Louis, this bus, retired after years of metropolitan duty, was destined to spend its next decades in rustic, rusting splendor on the banks of the Little Dry Fork. This was a huge, square, steel-bodied city bus. A distant relative of the M-60 tank, it was well suited for its new role of providing shelter and storage space for the coming years. Weatherproof, easily locked and secured, with rows of windows providing ample visibility and ventilation, Grandpa’s bus was the ultimate fishing cabin.
Decades later, it seems impossible to believe that I had free range of a stream where the only sounds on a hot summer afternoon might be a farmer on his tractor, maybe a mile away, or, far off in the distance, an eighteen-wheeler going through the gears on its way to the outside world. In the evening, the wind in the trees was the background music for squirrels leaping from one branch to another. Resting under those huge old trees at the edge of the creek, Grandpa’s bus represented all that was good and simple and enduring. I fondly remember what was surely the best fishing and camping spot in the whole world… down at the creek.
Second scenario (from American writer Gordon MacQuarrie in his literary creation the Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc.). “Mac” often wrote about his real-life cabin in northwest Wisconsin. Like Grandpa’s bus, the headquarters of the ODHA was quite primitive. No running water, no electricity, no telephone or television or tele-anything. Hence, no interruptions, no intrusions, and no complications from modern technology. Reading his stories is like turning your watch back 80 or 90 years.
Gordon MacQuarrie was a master at describing the rustic settings around his beloved cabin and the local rivers and surrounding area. “Peaceful and undeveloped” would be putting it mildly. He made that cabin the center of many stories. Even today, years after his death, those who enjoy his tales still travel to Wisconsin to fish the Brule River and see that log cabin on the Middle Eau Claire Lake. They make this pilgrimage to honor the man and the lifestyle he wrote about.
Third scenario: In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed westward on a balsawood raft on the Pacific Ocean for three months, leaving from Peru in South America, heading for Polynesia. In mid-ocean, he wrote, “The weeks passed. We saw no sign either of a ship or of drifting remains to show that there were other people in the world. The whole sea was ours, and, with all the gates of the horizon open, real peace and freedom were wafted down from the firmament itself.”
Then, after 101 days at sea, they ran aground on Raroia, a tiny, unpopulated island. In his book, KON-TIKI: Across the Pacific by Raft, he makes Raroia sound like an island paradise, undisturbed, indeed undiscovered, by the rest of the world. Later, generations of youths had their images of the South Pacific shaped by his description of this lush tropical island. Today, you don’t have to imagine it; just watch a rerun of Gilligan’s Island.
In my modern urban life, I sought to recreate that sense of isolation and removal in those three scenarios. Whenever my world became too crazy, too noisy, and the pace too frantic, I could visualize one of those places. They were my mental retreat, a sanctuary. Indeed, I wrote an entire book about reinventing a simple life, The 18th Floor Homestead. In that book, I took some of the best elements of country life as personified in the three scenarios and replicated those features. It is possible even if you live on the 18th floor of an apartment building in a large city.