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 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 14 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.
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The Self-Sufficient Lifestyle
As an expat, some sacrifices are required. We need to recognize what we will give up as a price for escaping. Remember that a lifestyle is a package of many elements. You can leave behind the wasteful, ineffective, and negative aspects of your old life. But, in doing so, you also walk away from many of the good, comfortable, and familiar benefits at the same time. As always, the coin has two sides. Let’s explore the concept of self-sufficiency and how it can relate to the lifestyle of an expat. What are the benefits of simplification and greatly reducing our dependence upon others?
In the chapter “The Accidental Luddite” about losing my phone, I considered some of the many changes which would occur if I had to live without a smartphone. Fortunately, short of some sort of dystopian digital meltdown, that is only a theoretical question. But what if I had deliberately chosen not to replace my smartphone? How would I live without that multifaceted digital device which is the center of so many of my activities? Indeed, many of my activities depend on the phone, and would not be possible without it. Like the car in my previous life, what began as a convenience has morphed into what feels like an essential.
Going even farther down on the Luddite scale, what if I gave up all modern technological wonders to return to a simpler lifestyle? I don’t think so. Although I frequently lament the intrusions on my privacy, irritating interruptions, and long-term damage to my attention span, I would not want to live without the efficiency, immediate gratification, and productivity boost that the smartphone and other digital devices bring to my life.
Let us harken back to the days before the cell phone and its accompanying digital dependency. I remember hearing my father talk about events from his childhood. Those stories illustrated a lifestyle of an era that is now irretrievably lost. He told me of life on a Missouri farm from one hundred years ago, a life in which the family was largely self-sufficient and independent. His family – typical of most farm families of the time – grew and processed almost all of their own food, then ate it. They also gathered local wild crops like nuts and berries and looked at hunting and fishing as a source of meat for the table. One significant feature of this lifestyle was that their diet was largely lacking things that had to be purchased. (Exceptions were coffee or tea, sugar, and salt – liquor, too, unless they made their own.) Their yard had cherry trees and grape arbors. In season, these fruits were processed into jelly which was their source of fruit in the winter months.
The farm family was virtually independent of the outside world. Basically, the farm family lived alone and apart from the rest of the world. This attitude found its way into American writing. Wisconsin (one of the northern states bordering Canada) produced Gordon MacQuarrie, a prominent outdoor writer of his generation. His stories were filled with phrases like, “Turn him loose anywhere in his native heath, which is Wisconsin, and, given matches, an ax, a fishhook and some string, he’ll never go hungry or cold.” and “He represents something almost gone from our midst. He knows the value of working with his own hands, of being eternally busy, except when sleeping.” In becoming an expat, there are certain parallels with MacQuarrie’s self-sufficiency. Wherever you choose to go as an expat, you also will find certain items or services are vastly different… or completely unavailable. You must be prepared to live without them or make them yourself as the farm families did in the past. So what are the benefits for you as an expat if you learn to make them yourself?
American writer, Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, went to extremes. To determine what was truly essential in life, he built and lived alone in a small cabin in a forest for over two years. In his journals, Thoreau penned the famous dictum, “Simplify, simplify”. For him, self-sufficiency included a simple diet. Like my father’s descriptions of his farm family, Thoreau ate what he grew and what he gathered in season. In his cabin, Thoreau had no stove; he prepared his food in his fireplace. His culinary diversity was cooking the food over the fire or in the fire. It doesn’t get much more basic than that. I don’t think I would be satisfied with his choices. There are times when I want pizza, shrimp nachos, Chinese hot pot, or seafood. I would hate to eat the same foods over and over because there was no possibility of variety. Cooking without using any seasoning – herbs and spices from locales around the world – would be an unwelcome restriction. (Try eating for a week without using any condiments.) Even my beloved morning coffee has to be imported from tropical zones, then processed, then distributed. And, for anyone who wants to be truly independent, try making your own fishhooks and your own string. Let me know how that works out. In addition to the long, long learning curve of all the skills needed just to make a useable fishhook and string, don’t forget the opportunity costs. What might you be doing while you were learning how to make a fishhook and some string? Self-sufficiency has its benefits and its sacrifices. As an expat, you will sometimes be called upon to shift the balance point between self-sufficient independence and dependence upon others to provide the goods and services you want. You will become much more conscious of that balance point.
I enjoy teaching my son some of the skills which were common in his grandfather’s youth. With him at my side, I love making our own jelly and baking our own bread so we can enjoy the aroma as well as the taste and healthy ingredients. Baking and cooking as great-grandmother did it is a pleasure… when I choose it. I enjoy them as an occasional indulgence… not a daily regimen. Do I want to take my son camping and sleep overnight in a tent? Sure. Do I want to live in a tent permanently? No! The fun ends when the cold rain begins and it is impossible to start a fire. Don’t ask how I know.
As a modern expat, I am perfectly happy with being interdependent. I value and romanticize the self-reliance of earlier times and it is undeniable that DIY (do it yourself) is sometimes quicker and simpler and less stressful than depending on other people to do things for us. But I would not want to give up the diversity and connectivity which add color to my life.
What about you? Where would you strike the balance between complete independence and unhealthy total reliance on others? The choice to become an expat means the freedom to “simplify, simplify” as Hank Thoreau preached and practiced. It is a tremendously exciting freedom, this ability to choose what to carry with you as you hop across borders and create new lifestyles. Some things you carry with you, some things you learn to make for yourself, and some you sacrifice as a cost of adopting a new lifestyle as an expat. Choose wisely.