I started this challenge on the first of February. It has now been two months, and I guess I’m proud to say I have stuck to almost all my rules.
There have been no clothes, no new material belongings.
I have given a few books away as presents.
It hasn’t been that easy. I’m no big shopper to begin with, but it is definitely a change of mindset. When we talked about it recently, my husband told me he didn’t think it was a hard challenge for me at all, not shopping. I told him even though I was never that indulgent to begin with, purposefully not buying anything is not as easy as he thinks.
“Oh I have about an hour more to go till I have to go home/there, let me just wander around the shops for a bit” changes to “Ok I will just go straight home” or “What gallery can I go to that’s close by?”.
Last month an “Oh look, little tornado has started to have ‘tea sessions’ with his soft toys” automatically drew a “Oh I should buy him a toy tea set”. I kid you not, it was so automatic. The consumerist brain – so quick, so determined – is such a dangerous thing. Doh! Why the heck would you buy him a tea set, woman! He is doing perfectly well there using the washing liquid measuring cup!
Tea parties with friends can be free you know, mommy
Don’t even get me started on the usual temptations. And the thought processes that have to do with ‘I need/I want’. I went to Paris recently, for heaven’s sake. It’s a mind fuck sometimes. I’ll leave that for another post, because it has to do with things I think are massive temptations for women.
Notice I have written that I have stuck ‘to almost all my rules’. There have been a few lapses – although I do not place too much emphasis on them as they were not done purposefully.
For example, I have bought two bottles of water over the past two months. One was reflexive, i.e. I was chatting with our local newsagents nearby and bought it without thinking, only realising later what I had done. The other was because I had forgotten my water tumbler and I really needed to have water by me for the work day. I guess I could blame my forgetful baby brain? Baby brain … it is real, okay? It’s like the brain shifts focus onto other things, like these feelings and emotions and shit. But like I said, I’m not kicking myself about these incidences because I really didn’t mean to. And this whale currently needs a lot of water.
We also bought take out once, from a local Indonesian restaurant. But this was because husband was ill and our household was in a bit of a state due to said illness. Otherwise we have been very good with our home cooking, sticking to our food planner and mostly making our own meals. For two months, that is a definite win. So one takeout meal is okay.
Random photo that I will pretend is about me feeling free from the shackles of consumerism. Kinda.
I’m feeling very good about this no-shopping thing, I must say.
It’s something to be proud of, and I am so much happier thinking I can spend more on travel and experiences without any of the usual guilt. Combined with Lent, where I have been giving up Facebook, fried chicken (a monster temptation) and soft drink, the whole month has felt very chilled. More simple. Clean.
Have not broken any of my no-shopping rules yet, but it seems that if my debit card does get exercised in any way, it does so in Boots.
Tornado’s skin – prone to a bit of eczema – was looking a little dire, so we had to buy a new cream for him to replace a finished tub. £8.50. NOT CHEAP. But sigh, it is Aveeno.
More interdental brushes as directed by my dentist, because I am sadly very prone to pregnancy gingivitis. “Asian people tend to be prone to gum disease! If they don’t take care of their gums well they will lose their teeth due to the state of their gums,” says my dentist, who is Asian himself. Okay, doc. £3
I’m hoping to get a Monzo card to track my spending, but as “demand has been incredible so we can’t send cards fast enough”, I don’t think mine will come anytime soon. My husband applied for one much earlier, and he loves being able to see everything he has spent money on. It looks amazing, I’m hoping the good fellas at Monzo come through for me soon.
On Jan 1st of this year, I was in Malaysia, and I chose to spend my lunch time with a Datuk in a hotel. I went with my husband’s okay and support.
Okay, so it was nothing dodgy at all. It was a meeting with a long-time work contact, Prof Zaini. He is now actually Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang, Malaysia’s secretary-general of the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water. But I don’t know, big titles don’t seem to suit him, in my mind he will always be that smiley Prof I first met circa 2003 or 04.
Some background is needed, I suppose.
In the early noughties, I was still a junior reporter at the New Straits Times interested in water management issues in the country, and I had a lot of questions. He was an academic in one of the local universities who could talk about the subject of water until the cows came home. Over the years and many discussions about water and the environment, I would call him whenever I had to understand technicalities or context related to these issues. Over the years I would also watch as his career boomed – he would continue to grow academically and professionally; in research, teaching and advocacy. He eventually became vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, advised the government on issues, and continued to win awards, work with other universities, and so on and so forth. Many years later when he heard I had left the newspaper business for freelance writing, he hired me to edit material for UTM and teach his staff about social media and the like. When I moved to the UK, we would keep in touch sometimes, but by then he was an even busier man – he had been appointed Ministry of Education’s secretary-general (II) in 2013, later moving to Ministry of Higher Education. Last year, he would finally enter the ministry best suited for him – Energy, Green Technology and Water. I remember smiling big time when I read the news.
Okay, back to my meeting with him on Jan 1. The thing you have to remember about government officials or politicians in Malaysia is they are so busy and there is often a huge amount of red tape or dealing with secretaries and calendars if you want to meet them. The thing you have to know about me is I still had many friends I wanted to see in Malaysia before I left for the UK, and I was so tired. And this was the first day of 2017!
But the thing about Prof Zaini is he is still as humble, efficient and cheerful as the first day I met him all those years ago. And to know he wanted to make time to meet me was heartwarming, so I knew I had to make time to head to KL. New Year’s Day in the over-crowded city centre, yikes! Anyway, we locked the time and venue down in just a few messages, ‘Okay see you there’ and we were done. We met at the breakfast/lunch restaurant of Mandarin Oriental, where he sometimes has meetings.
And here’s why I’m writing this post at all.
With all his status and success, we spent lunch talking about …. water and the environment and sustainability issues. And books and cycling, which he is quite obsessed about. Yes, we caught up – he asked about family and I asked him about life as an office-bearer, but we did not talk much about politics or what have you. When I told him about my no-shopping, low consumption plans this year, he was very interested and shared his thoughts on consumerism. We discussed sustainability issues at length. I even pointed out his super hip bag – it was the Kånken bag! I don’t think he realised how hipster the brand was, he just knew it as a great and durable bag from Sweden. (He is now all over Scandinavian efficiency, development and sustainable living – he keeps sending attachments about Hygge and ‘How to Live Danishly’ and all)
We also talked about the possibilities of improving the environment and green technology in Malaysia. ‘Prof,’ I told him, ‘This is your time, you can really make a difference.’ There is no better ministry for him. My personal hope is that those around him and in charge of other decisions pertaining to these sectors can move with him, for everyone knows the issues of water management, energy and the environment in the country are numerous and complicated. At the end of the lunch, I remember feeling energised about my own sustainability goals and hopeful for the country. Not thaaaat hopeful, but it was something. It was a good way to start off the first day of the year for me.
Even in the chillest of conversations, he draws charts …
I don’t keep in touch with many work contacts at all, and friends would know my current feelings about the administration in Malaysia. There are many things I sigh about when it comes to Malaysia, but obviously it is still so wonderfully raw and rife with possibilities. This is an example right here – someone born for a role now has it.
To Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang, I’m sure those who know you feel ever so grateful that you continue to share articles with us about ‘Responsible Consumption’ and ‘The Odd Beauty of Ice Fishermen’, haha. I just want to say thank you and Happy Birthday. I know I am a day (?) late, but here’s to your continuing passion and dedication to subjects you have always felt strongly about. May you achieve your dreams about book-writing and doing as much as you can for the betterment of the environment in Malaysia.
To those in Malaysia who are interested in these issues – especially Malaysian youth with good intentions and plans – you now have a man who is knowledgeable, committed and open to ideas about the topics of sustainability and Energy, Green Technology and Water. He just got in last year, but he won’t be there forever (you know what Malaysian politics is like!) He is interested in innovation. He raised the name of MaGIC (The Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre) before I did.
We went to IKEA today. Mainly to get some baby/toddler safety latches as the Little Tornado likes to open drawers now, with too much enthusiasm for our liking.
We also went there to get those IKEA meatballs for brunch. Yes we are sad but we don’t care, we are now parents.
Husband got the latches and some more black sorting boxes that have been absolutely integral to our house tidying process, you know, the Drona boxes. We highly recommend them.
Anyway so that’s all we wanted to get right? Okay.
I’m passing the Kitchen market place section and see this frying spatula. It’s a simple kitchen utensil from their cheap but dependable set. I pick it up, because I think: “This will be good because I cook a lot and our one is always dirty when I have to cook a new dish – this way I always have two for easy access.”
Thought processes as follows:
Shit but this means I’m buying something.
But shucks it’s just 50p. 50p is okay, I’ve saved a lot so far.
Shit but it’s not about the budget, it’s about the stuff.
But these new rules mean we cook so much more, can’t we just add to efficiently? Isn’t that part of the process too?
You’re full of shit, you know, lady.
Maybe I can get Anh to buy it somehow.
But that’s bloody cheating!
But it’s just 50p!
You’re so pathetic, you know.
All the while I am holding this frying spatula, walking past all these lovely things, swatting imaginary things here and there all over IKEA.
At the end of it all, I put the spatula next to some random pot in a section far, far away. And we leave.
That was close. But that’s the thought process. It’s hard. Your brain is your best friend and worst enemy.
Anyway, happy Chap Goh Meh. The 15th and final day of Chinese New Year. Our decorations at home come down after this, the year truly starts proper now 😉 Here we are, at the Magic Lantern Festival in Chiswick this evening – thanks to our friends Nadine and Ewan. We nearly froze our asses off but it was still lovely to see all the lights.
Happy rest of the weekend all. May the force be with you in your thought processes. x
So it’s been 10 days since no-shopping started. Here are my success and failures re my New Rules so far. For things that can’t be so easily put in these two categories, I have written them as ‘notes’.
The TIME aka INTERNET time management rule: Of course this would be the thing that got me, wouldn’t it? I would add the ‘laughing till crying’ emoticon here, but it’s not really funny – I need to tweak this particular rule so that it is as practical and realistic as it is well-meaning. Firstly, after 10 days I have realised it is really hard not to comment or like posts. The reading of other news posts or articles etc was simple enough, I just read them and then went my own way. What I found difficult was that on my own posts, if I did not reply or even acknowledge comments (and acknowledging responses are done with ‘Likes!’), I felt ever so …. rude. R U D E. Like, hey fuck you, I wrote this thing but I could care less if you have something to say about that. Harder still were questions to be answered, or just continuing a harmless enough thread. I mean, I want to be better with my time, but I don’t want to end up being an asshole online with horrible net etiquette? Tweaking necessary.
The one-hour a day surfing rule is tough to manage. I definitely cut my time online a lot, but still – with my busy days working or with my toddler, it was not realistic to say this one hour should be in 7-8am, or 8-9pm, or whatever. I just basically trusted myself to do 15 minutes here, 10 minutes there, and so on. Obviously, this is not realistic and unsustainable, and guaranteed to degenerate into ‘no rule at all’ if I let this continue further. Tweaking necessary.
Notes: The times I did choose to go on messenger and Whatsapp instead to reply were a revelation. If I did answer some questions or comments on a separate platform, I inevitably caught up with people I wouldn’t have caught up with. It was both good and bad – I had some nice conversations, but they also took more time than … a ‘Like’.
We had so much fun at our first Chinese New Year/Tet Open House last weekend x
Have not bought anything I am not meant to buy 🙂
Have bought dental stuff as per directed by my dentist, and Strepsils for a horrid cough, but those were things I deemed medical.
Have not bought a single bottled water, it has been so nice just using my tumbler. Realise it all adds up.
Our biggest success by far, has been our meal planner. My husband is so pleased with the results and so am I. We have cooked on all the nights we planned, except for one. Our fridge always has what we want it to have, and wastage has been reduced greatly. The one day we did not adhere to the plan was due to husband needing to attend a work function one evening. It was his turn that night to cook bun rieu and I er.. don’t know how to cook that dish. But I had taken Little Tornado to the Transport Museum in Covent Garden, and my pregger cravings made me grab a nearby Shake Shack burger after that, so that was my dinner done.
Our new meal planner on the fridge got a lot of attention during our open house (eh you cook BKT from scratch ah? “NOLAH PACKET LAH MAD AH”) – clearly people who cook do think about things like this too!
Notes: Which leads me to a conversation with my husband and I on Sunday, when I said I would like some KFC, could he please go to the drive thru and get me some? Friends who know me know that fast food, in particular KFC, is a weakness. I do not have a sweet tooth, I do not indulge in chocolate, I do not drink coffee and am hardly dependent on tea. I do not overindulge in anything, but I do expect once in a while to be fed the evil offerings of these evil corporations. It’s just what it is, I just can’t help it, I guess anti-KFC or fast food activists will just have to accept that. So it was to my horror when husband looked at me blankly during said request, and said: “Er. That’s take out. So … what is my role in all this? Am I an enforcer? Do you want me to help you abide by your rules, or …what?”
Oh my goodness, I gasped! Yes really, gasped, because it’s KFC, okay. I would have to tweak my rules or make them clearer.
I told him when I said ‘take out’, I really meant those times we used JustEat to order meals from restaurants, you know those meals that use tonnes of plastic packaging and all. I would feel so, so guilty every time I ordered take out – it felt I was not only lazy for not cooking, I was adding so much more unnecessary crap in my rubbish bin. “But in no way did I mean KFC!” I whined explained. It was my once-in-a-while treat. Also, I had just run 10K that morning, I moaned reasoned. I so needed my KFC! I also had to remind him that I needed no ‘enforcing’, as I am a strong, independent WOMAN HEAR ME ROAAARRRRR. (But help me get my KFC lah, pretty please?)
Going well so far. But things to tweak, and a long way to go.
Next up: Update on the state of the house re tidying/clutter.
In three words it can be summarised as ‘Shame and Guilt’.
I am over-thinking and over-feeling walking sack of Shame and Guilt most of the time. The Guilt of Privilege and Helplessness – OMG what can I do about Syria? About the kleptocracy in Malaysia? I have the Mother of All Guilts, Mom Guilt. Fellow moms would know, dudes, you can’t touch this Guilt. It is mega. But the guilt that has determined my 2017, this year, is the guilt and shame that goes with being a consumer. Everything connected to my feelings about environmental degradation and waste and sustainability finally peaked at the last few months of 2016. I guess it was a long time coming.
It probably took three epiphanies/incidences before it really hit me:
The Souvenir Scam – circa 2005/06 : I bought a lovely and authentic turquoise-decorated ring from a Turkish market as a travel keepsake. About a year later I was to find the exact same ring … in a market in Cambodia. So very authentic. Not long after that, I would just stop buying people souvenirs in general. Unless a friend specifically asks for something from the area I am going to, I am no longer buying ugly things that force my friends to uglify their homes in the spirit of friendship. Friends don’t do shit like that to each other.
The Qipu Lu epiphany – 2011 : The Londoner and I travelled around China for four months in 2011 – partly to see if we could live together like that and still want to be together, partly due to immigration frustrations, and partly because we just wanted to travel la. We had so much fun and learned a lot in China. But it did trigger something within me. It was in Shanghai, in the craziness of this area of Qipu Lu – foreigners called it ‘Cheap-u Lu’ or ‘Cheap Street’ – that I had a visceral reaction. There were buildings, these wholesale malls, of stuff. The cheapest, most unsightly, most throwaway stuff you had ever seen were in rows, heaps and bundles everywhere. From clothes to shoes to tourist knick knacks, it was a visual nightmare – so much, so wasteful, so unnecessary. We were there with friends and had wanted to see what it was like at first, and maybe get a bargain or two. But the scenes there, and the amount of things everywhere – I ended up feeling distressed and nauseated. I didn’t buy anything. It was in China that I rethought stuff in general. I did not buy much at all from China.
A typical scene at Qipu Lu. Pix from dhetravel.blogspot.
The London/Malaysian Experience – 2014 to 2016: After China I did change my consumer habits quite a bit. My tastes had also changed. I just wanted better quality, more classic-looking things. After moving to London to be with Anh, I had also gone through several rounds of packing and unpacking, and that tends to shame and guilt you into looking at the stuff you have accumulated over the years. I actually already experimented with a shopping challenge in 2014, vowing not to buy anything from the high streets – Top Shop, Zara and the like, for about 8 months. As a reward, I would then be able to buy some higher end things I actually wanted at the end of the year – during the Christmas/Boxing Day sales. At least that was my plan. Come December and I realised I had changed. I had developed a repulsion towards Sales. I realised that everything they parade for you in their sales, even branded goods, were pretty awful. You may be an Alexander Wang top but you ugly as fuck. This is why you are on sale, and you is still ugly, and you is still bloody expensive! I would look at the rows of the sales items – in all their wrong size and unsellable glory – and be reminded of Qipu Lu. At the end of that year, I bought one beautiful bag, one that I had been dreaming about for four years. It was expensive. It was classic. And I made sure I made buying that item an experience. And that was that. I was happy.
Come 2015 though, I had popped a baby. And everything went crazy. I went crazy. I think the doubt and madness and sleeplessness throws you into this weird haze and stupor. I developed an insane relationship with Amazon.com, buying everything and all I thought would help me be a better mother, wife, person, anything. From baby gadgets to tops to make me feel better, I bought so many things I know now I just did not need. I threw away so many things, I wasted so many things too. My husband patiently put up with me with it all, I think he knew I was just trying to survive this insane new motherhood phase.
It was a haze. Oh what a time it was.
In 2016, everything had stabilised somewhat – my baby was still alive and thriving, and as a mother you start feeling more like a human being again once you realise the kid is alive and thriving. Once baby became a toddler, I felt more like myself again. And my brain was back. (A little) Back enough for me to rethink things like wastage, the environment and consumption again. I remember being back in a Malaysian mall at the end of 2016, walking into a huge Mango store, and I felt that familiar nauseated feeling. There were 70% OFF signs everywhere. Everywhere. I remember walking around, mumbling to myself things I had been agonising about in the past – OMG who will buy all this crap. And why 70%? Should they have been produced in the first place then? And when all this cannot be sold, where does it go? WHERE? Moved around to where? And this is just one Mango shop in one small town in one city in one country, imagine all the crap that is everywhere in the world!
And then a few days later, I sat down to watch the documentary The True Cost. And all the things I had been distressed about in the last few years just clarified, the puzzles fit, it all made sense to me. I cried, damn it!
The human and social element of rampant, unthinking consumption greatly distressed me, but what really upset me more was the cost to the environment – those landfills, our rivers, our groundwater, our air. The chemicals needed to grow all that cotton. There are many lessons from the documentary but the ones that stood out most for me is that even if you donate your things to charity shops, only 10% get sold. The rest need to be moved again, as junk, elsewhere. Also buying more expensive things may not necessarily be better – the materials or parts required still have to come from somewhere, and it may not just be Italian leather.
So there you go. After that I couldn’t turn back, I guess. I just needed to do something, or at least try. I am so not perfect, I am so shit at all this. I know how entrenched I am with this consumerism, this capitalist system. But I can’t not just try.
If you don’t do anything else, at least educate yourself more about what is really happening out there, and just have a think or two whenever you buy something. At least a more considered thought, that is all. It seems like such an insurmountable system to overcome. But we can always just try.
Please spend some time watching The True Cost in full here.
I know people don’t like to talk about money much. But you know what, this is real life. Some people have also said only single types and rich people can KonMari their lives, or go organic, or be sustainable, or a whole lot of this and that. That only the rich can have plenty of junk. Er .. hey. I just don’t agree. But for me to argue that, I guess I need to explain our circumstances.
My husband earns good enough for us, but I wouldn’t classify us as wealthy. My two careers have been in journalism and teaching. They are wonderful and fulfilling jobs, but let’s face it – one will never be wealthy in these lines, unless one is in the field for the long run, achieves fame, or … does dodgy things. I love these two jobs, so the money aspect has never been a problem for me.
Since I’ve moved countries to be with the Londoner, my earning power went all the way down to ‘starting from scratch.’ It was nothing at all for a while. I’m not having a moan, it’s just the way it is. It was tough for a while. We both took a beating financially when previously we had quite solid disposable incomes on our own.
But we are totally fine and very happy. Husband not only looks like a baby ewok at times, he is as loveable as a panda bear, but far more efficient – all his clients think the world of him. He is doing well. (I think I have to stop talking about him in animal terms like this or he will make me do some edits soon.)
Backgrounds & Values
Our families, bless them, are always supportive. Their support throughout our lives meant that we were and are incredibly privileged. Both sides have come from very humble beginnings – no connections, no elite backgrounds – and they have done well.
My dad has come a long way from drying rubber tapping sheets in Batu Pahat as a child and using just one small Nissan Sunny for our little family back in the day. To this day he is still a workaholic businessman. The only time I ever tangled with a reader as a newspaper reporter back in the noughties was when one Internet troll spewed utter nonsense about my father being an MCA supporter benefiting from (this political party’s) largess. I seem to only get triggered or really bothered by fucktard trolls, but I somehow managed to write an email to this reader, calling him out on his fiction. I was civilised. He thoroughly apologised. Before this segues into another story about my father or trolls or DON’T MESS WITH MY FAMILY, basically what I am saying is – my father is a self-made man and has worked so hard for our family. When he treats himself, I am very happy, because he thoroughly deserves it.
My husband’s family were refugees from Vietnam. My husband spent his young childhood in Covent Garden, where he would sleep in a suitcase under the table while his parents worked. They worked so hard to get where they are, you would just marvel at their story. Self-made just doesn’t even begin to cut it. Our children will have to learn these stories well.
I have to stress that we are well aware we are not poor, we will not starve, and we are so damn lucky to have a good roof over our heads. We can travel and buy our friends a meal or present or two. So yes, we are good, but I guess we are saying, we aren’t … wealthy.
We are just your regular middle class dudes trying to build foundations for our little family, and money is always a concern. As our families have been through rough times, they have instilled some monetary discipline in us quite well. My husband is solid and careful with money. I am not as careful as him (OMG IS THAT AN ANTIQUE TIFFIN CARRIER?!), but I can save ferociously when I want to, I loathe debt, and I have not had a credit card for years. I’d like to think my husband and I have distilled the very best from our families’ lessons – we know the value of money and working hard, but we also know that it is nothing if we do not spend it on things that truly matter.
So I guess to sum up where we are:
We are rich enough to have a good house over our roofs, and live our lives comfortably, without hardship. We are not wealthy enough to eat out that often (meals at restaurants here in London average from £15 – £25 per person), consider Business Class flights, have our house look like an interior design catalogue, or spend money in Chanel. We are not in the 1% of the world – oh trust me, I have checked the math! But that isn’t our lifestyle anyway. Yes, we had a wedding celebration in Tuscany, but that was our honeymoon combined into one, and we really had to cut many corners, let me put it that way.
HABIS TU, AND THEN?
Here is the problem. Or issue.
Childcare here in London. It is so expensive. We only just recently put our child in for three days week into nursery so I could teach again. That costs us about £800 a month. The thought of a second child, and having to stretch that three days to five for our first … it was enough to spend our one precious swanky date night in Singapore recently talking about budgetary concerns for this year. We even had budgeting meeting nights later, complete with notepads and bullet points. I guess this differentiates a bit from some of our friends here, who have powerful double incomes in the finance or money sectors.
So yes, money is a factor when it comes to me not wanting to buy anything this year. With a Little Two on the way, I won’t be able to work for a while. Little One will probably have to be in nursery five days a week. The math is real. We noticed when our favourite restaurant hiked up its prices recently, and we don’t even go often. I had to have a rethink about how we consume if we are to keep living the lives we want – comfortable, with a few treats here and there. And this money spent on … stuff. It’s bullshit! It’s just … why do we have all this stuff? Why do I have to buy more when I already have all this stuff? I don’t expect my family to be a holier-than-thou, hippie organic minimalist, let’s go vegan-type of family. I’m a weak creature of habit with passions and flaws. But I’d like to try to see how best our family can fare with this. I don’t want to teach my kids, I want to show them and let them learn for themselves. Our families’ immigrant and refugee backgrounds are even more reason for us to try and sustain this awareness about work, money, savings and prudence, and pass it on.
My no-consumption goal did not materialise from this financial consideration of things, but it certainly fit perfectly into my overall mindset. Everything has been clearer for me. These considerations made me happier I was doing this in 2017.
I don’t know why I am sharing all this, to be honest. Perhaps I also felt from some comments that some people thought we were rich enough and this goal of mine was just some flight of fancy stemming from boredom or something. I also think I felt all over the place for a while for a number of reasons, and this goal has rooted me to some core lessons that are real and true. But this is not the main reason why I am doing this. The main reason …. is in the next posting. (sorry!)