Thursday, March 10, 2011

Things & Stuff


Some of my rapidly multiplying STUFF.

I've been thinking recently about stuff.

Literal, physical, actual stuff. And how I have too much (or too little) of it.

This is all tied in with my thoughts on what happens next year, when (whether I like it or not) I pretty much have to go to grad school. For the record, I like it in that I am sure I'll learn a lot and it will be a new experience and career booster. I don't like it in that I feel like I could get the same thing out of shorter training programs and modules, but if I want to go anywhere in my career, it's basically MA or bust. The job I have now is about as good a job as I'll ever get without a graduate degree in my field.

So the question has become "do we stay in Taiwan, and I attend the program offered in my field and go part time at my secure job where I am in a senior and respected position and pay tuition that we can easily afford...or do I apply for a more prestigious program abroad hope against hope that I'll get the aid that I need to make it financially feasible?" Even with a husband working full time, which Brendan has said he'll do, it's not easy.

Back to Stuff then. With a capital Ess.

There is so much I'd like to do in terms of decorating that I can't bring myself to do now. So much Stuff it would require that we buy. I hate our floor (I think the builders stole it from the same dodgy insurance company office they stole our desk from) and would install tatami in a second - or just move into a nicer place with a better floor. I'd love a ceiling not made of plastic, and lantern lights whose cords are not clearly tacked to the ceiling with electrical tape. I'd like actual frames or dowel drapings for my textiles (with cement walls there's little I can do about this). I'd like quality furniture that doesn't look like it was rescued from a curbside.

In short, I'd like an apartment that looks more sophisticated, more adult, more polished. More like an apartment and less like something rented by students with no money and no taste. We're not students anymore (though I will be soon enough I guess), we have money (for now) and we have taste (which is sort of a curse, if you think about it, because if I had no taste I wouldn't notice how crummy our Stuff is, or wouldn't care, and this wouldn't be an issue).

Is this possible? Definitely. Is it feasible? Yeah, I suppose. Is it logical?

Well, no, because if we don't know if we'll even be in Taipei in a year, there is absolutely zero point in investing in nicer Stuff and a nicer place in which to put that Stuff. This is why we didn't register for our wedding or ask for (or want) Stuff (though whenever we move home the gift cards we got will be very useful as we rebuild our Stuff collection) - we knew we wouldn't be able to transport, store or keep much of it over the next few years.

Reading Offbeat Home regularly isn't helping (I've basically outgrown Offbeat Bride, which rocked, but I'm not planning a wedding anymore) - everyone has such cool Things, and Stuff - including Stuff going on in their lives - and as an expat that's so much harder to achieve.

So. I want nicer (as in higher-quality, not just to show off) Stuff, but the expat life (which I also want) makes it pointless to try to acquire that Stuff, so I'm left with Stuff that I don't particularly like, and now that I've had that Stuff for years, it makes little sense to replace it with nicer Stuff a year before we may or may not leave.

I say "I" because Brendan cares far less about Stuff - even stuff like pots with melted handles -t than I do.

Stuff - like where to move next, whether to study and what Things you need - is an issue that sort of wiggles around in the back of every expat's mind. How much to bring, what you need, what you can buy locally, what you shouldn't buy locally, what to have people mail you from home, and how to get rid of it if you ever leave. Stuff is the main driver of makes it more expensive to move overseas than to move in the USA - while large-scale cargo options are possible (I know someone who worked for the State Department and had the privilege of a paid-for shipping container to pack with stuff whenever she changed assignment), let's be honest. 99% of us arrive with a few suitcases or a backpack. At that point, we either have to settle in a pre-furnished place or slowly accumulate furniture.

Don't get me started on furnished apartments in Taipei's expat community. Some of them are not that bad, but mostly what you see are desks with uneven legs held up by magazines shoved under the pegs, dressers with blown-out drawers, tables with icky stains that never seem to come off and the ubiquitous "mattress and box spring on the floor without a frame".

Or you can go the route we did - our apartment came partially furnished with some of the ugliest crap you've ever seen - orange plywood shelving, desks straight out of a 1950s insurance office, a plastic table meant to be lawn furniture, a press-board dresser and coffee table, mismatched chairs that are all broken now. One kitchy-cool wicker chair. We added to that my textile collection (India, China, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Egypt, Japan, Panama, Guatemala), a futon and a bunch of cheap stuff from IKEA and Nitori. An oven. A microwave, which broke. Another microwave, which broke. We need to buy a third but haven't quite figured out what to do with the first two in our kitchen. Piles of plates, dishes and glassware. Tchotchkes (including a children's lion dancer marionette). Some DPP flags. A dart board. More books than we have space for. A vase. A stuffed gorilla wearing a jersey that says #23 (that came with the apartment. Don't ask. I don't know either). A Christmas tree. A pressure cooker. A coffee maker. An idli maker (probably my most useless purchase - but I really love idli)! Not one but four sets of speakers - one that's actually decent, one low-end pair, and two mini-speakers which are great for use in class and small things like watching The Daily Show (no, the speakers on the Mac itself are not good enough for this).

Oh yes, and a Stupidface.


Zhao Cai next to our hideous desk, on our cheap desk chair, enjoying his space heater (he thinks it's his). Also, gotta love the floor. Ick.

It's amazing, while trying to live a comparatively scaled-down life abroad, how much crap one accumulates as an expat. It's amazing how much it cost, and how little of it we're going to get to keep...and how none of it comes even close to the nice furniture that I so admire in other houses.

This is something I hadn't thought about much until recently, when it became clear that next year we'll have to make some decisions about staying or going (at least for the time being), all depending on where it's the most feasible for me to go to grad school.

Most of this stuff presents no real challenge - junk the desk chair that's falling apart, sell most of the other stuff, and set up again in our next destination, whenever and wherever we go - but my mind keeps floating back to three things:

1.) I love the expat life and I love not having to worry about grown-up furniture - this allows us to spend more money on travel, which we agree is more important (and interesting) than furniture anyway.

But I do like good pieces, and my parents' house is full of quality furnishings (took awhile to get there, but it's great now). It would be really nice to have a couch that doesn't look like exactly what it is: an IKEA cheapie. It would be nice to have a desk that doesn't make me cringe. I'd love a set of pots and pans that wasn't kinda...sad. I do look around our apartment and think "it looks cute, comfy and colorful, but it also looks like we're still starving students, or perhaps artists, or schoolteachers after a few years of having no collective bargaining rights".

2.) We're going to have to get rid of far more than we keep, and I'm already thinking about how I really love our mismatched Japanese-style plateware (cheap, but awesome and hard to find/more expensive in the USA) and I don't want to have to sell that, or how our awesome thick foam bed thing from Nitori is totally worth keeping, or how I love my Indian pressure cooker and want to take it everywhere. And the books, oh the books. Won't someone think of the books?! We can't possibly keep them all, but I don't want to sell most of them! This is one area where Brendan feels about it as I do.

I already know we're not going to be filling up a shipping container, which means eventually we will have to resign ourselves to selling most of it.

3.) Ah, Stupidface.

We tried, and failed, to keep it simple when it came to material possessions in Taiwan. We're clearly keeping our cat, of course, but he presents so many logistical challenges. It'll be easy to get him out of Taiwan (no rabies here, so quarantine is not an issue - though it'll also cost us another ticket on an airplane, like a child would - we're NOT putting him in the cargo hold)...but what if we decide that I should study at the University of Melbourne next September? We'd need to find a cat-friendly apartment before going, or some other way to settle in with kitty in tow. After the program is up, we have to take him on yet another stressful plane trip, or what sort of certification/quarantine he'd need when leaving Australia.

I know, I know. We haven't even decided if we're leaving, let alone where we'd go. It's a bit early to get neurotic about this stuff. Or Stuff. Or Things.

But if we ever do get nicer Things and Stuff, clearly we'll be living the sort of more-settled life in which one owns nicer things because one intends to keep them long-term. Which means less travel and less adventure and more Stuff, which is exactly what we don't want (even though I'd like nicer Stuff - does that make sense?)

In our situation, it's going to come down to the decision next year. If I decide on the program in Taipei, we'll probably invest some more time and money into making our living space more polished. We'll buy pots and pans that don't make me sad. We'll do something about the floor and ceiling. We'll trade up for a few nicer items before tuition costs make that impossible. If we leave, we won't be doing any of that, and wherever we end up for my schooling, we're not going to have the money to buy much of anything, let alone quality items.

So, my question to the masses, if the masses deign to answer, is:

How does one live as an expat and still manage to have nice things...and Stuff?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, the furniture situation is not much different (as in, not higher quality) than what I grew up with. My parents' primary source of furniture was (is) ... the street. In their neighbourhood people put out furniture they don't like all the time, and people pick it up all the time. It's a tradition. Somebody even once offered my mother 250 USD for a mattress she got for free from the streets (my mother refused). My principle is that if it works, it's cool.

As for stuff ... I actually found it refreshing to let go of so much stuff when I moved. And yes, it does pile up surprisingly fast in spite of me actively trying to not accumulate stuff.

-MSK

Jenna said...

Yeah...we did that through our college years. I had the cutest little blond wood coffee table with a drawer that I picked up on the edge of a parking lot. I'm totally not ashamed to go curb shopping.

It's just...I'd like nicer stuff, I guess. It can come from the curb (not that one can easily do that in Taiwan) - at least if it's not upholstered.

Don't get me wrong, this post totally deserves the hashtag #firstworldproblems, and I do like how our place looks and how it has its own cozy style.

I'm just ready to give up the cheap stuff, but not feeling good about what Grown Up People Furniture would imply about the sort of life I lead.

Jenna said...

Yeah...we did that through our college years. I had the cutest little blond wood coffee table with a drawer that I picked up on the edge of a parking lot. I'm totally not ashamed to go curb shopping.

It's just...I'd like nicer stuff, I guess. It can come from the curb (not that one can easily do that in Taiwan) - at least if it's not upholstered.

Don't get me wrong, this post totally deserves the hashtag #firstworldproblems, and I do like how our place looks and how it has its own cozy style.

I'm just ready to give up the cheap stuff, but not feeling good about what Grown Up People Furniture would imply about the sort of life I lead.