Here I am in Beijing! My feet have been amply massaged, I’m extravagantly fed in mom’s kitchen, and I’ve started committing the daily acts of small subversion that seem to define life in China.
Arriving two days ago I was devastated to find that the omnipotent web censors in China have blocked access to Blogspot and Facebook, the two things I rely on to distribute my quotidian post. I sent a few email to friends and quickly learned that everyone who has chosen to make their life here has at least one favorite proxy server for accessing forbidden Western websites. This is the Chinese way – rules are made, rules are broken, life goes on.
So, my problem is solved, life is perfect again. Life on my unemployment holiday is mostly pretty perfect, but what do I love the most about it? (I say this with all the respect due to people who are involuntarily jobless and in need). Beyond the trifling luxuries of sleeping in and going out on “school nights”, I love my unemployment most for giving me time to learn about myself. Three big lessons from the last three months:
1. I have everything I need, not everything I want. This is a good thing.
In May I forced myself to pack light for the nomadic life, and through the summer I have had to stay light. Before I set out, I repacked my suitcase three times, trying to pick only a few outfits from four full closets. Once I hit the road I became perfectly content with having only fifteen articles of clothing.
I brought mostly basics – black and white tank tops that were in the “hardly ever wear” pile at home, a navy cardigan that saw the light of day only once after I bought it two years ago, a pair of skinny jeans, and a few dresses for special occasions (like my college roommate’s wedding in Florence).
Instead of tedium, I found daily enjoyment in my small trousseau. I took the pains to wash these simple garments by hand, fold them with care each time I packed my bags again, and I really felt clever if I managed to create a new look by adding an accessory.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t about my creativity with fashion. It’s about the fact that I didn’t miss my Gucci bag or long for my crystal-studded heels or feel compelled to shop, all summer long.
Away from the daily stresses of corporate life and the barrage of consumer products that pave the way from the subway to the office, I found out that I don’t need many material things. My attitude of “I work so hard I deserve to buy these shoes” went flying out the window, along with the trappings of having too many possessions. Never once on holiday did I get annoyed about not finding the right top or losing a rhinestone in my earring.
I understand what Kenny Chesney’s cheesy song is trying to get at now – “no shirt, no shoes, no problems.”
2. If you had to go live on a deserted island, who would you take with you?
I not only found out which of my things I most love, I also found out who the people are that I really love. I mean REALLY love.
Yes, I love my friends dearly, and my cousin’s two-year old son, and maybe I even love an old workmate once a year on her birthday (when I send a card casually signed “Love, Qi”). But who are the indispensable ones that bring me happiness in life?
Far away from my usual company of coworkers, clients, acquaintances, and friends to party with, I gravitated towards just a handful of people. I emailed them whenever and from wherever to report my latest adventure, I called them to let them know I was happy and well, and I had to find a way to meet up with them on my travels even if it was just for an afternoon of fervent chatting.
Not surprisingly, my husband and my mom grew bigger and bigger on the distilled list of “people I really love.” My husband I began to love again in the way that I loved him when we first started dating. With fewer people and events competing for my free time I forgot that I had known him for almost five years and for most of that time had been nagging him to put up the toilet seat. It was special to discover that I enjoyed myself with him as much, if not more, catching the budget bus to Amsterdam as I did lounging poolside at the Four Seasons.
My mother, although I didn’t see her during my travels, was constantly on my mind. Every time I tasted a new dish, came upon a row of charming houses, or encountered some exotic flowers I took a picture and wished that I could email all the other senses to her as well. And so it naturally developed that after months of traveling far away from home, I had to come to Beijing to complete my holiday.
If I had to go away forever I would miss many people, but I wouldn’t leave for the life of me without my husband and my mom.
3. I am good for my mind and good for my body
When I was working I could’ve started the Perezhilton.com and Us Weekly Addicts Anonymous clubs. My precious weekends flew by in a flurry of social events and grand plans to “hunker down and read a good book,” which quickly gave way to the much easier non-activity in front of my favorite celebrity gossip outlet.
When I quit my job a big part of me worried that even with endless free time I would not get around to doing any of the mini projects I set. Would I end up surfing the web all day, filling my head with Hollywood trivia?
Luckily, when free time became abundant I spent more and more of it reading books (classics that I never wanted to pick up on a Saturday off work because they were too “heavy”), writing in my journal, and doing yoga. When leisurely activity didn’t have to fit into a 48-hour time frame I didn’t need the instantly gratifying “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” photo update. With every passing day, I remember more books I’ve been wanting to read, jot down more writing ideas to develop, and dream up more difficult yoga postures to master.
It’s a relief of sorts to find out that, left to my own devices, my mind seeks improvement, as does my body.
These three things may be commonplace to some, but to me they are profound learning’s about myself. Some people have good perspective and they gain it early, and manage to hang onto it even as they tread on the hamster wheel of working life. But me, I needed to take drastic action before I could see the elements essential to my happiness.
Getting out of the job, ridding myself of the apartment, and leaving behind most of the accessories of a “successful” life gave me the physical and metaphorical space to see what makes me happy. This period of unemployment is a blank sheet of paper onto which I can draw anew. If, at the end of this long holiday, nothing grand emerges (no life-changing epiphany, no novels published, no business to start), at least I will be resuming “normal” life with a better understanding of myself. And that, to me, is worth all the while.