Friday, March 16, 2012


One of the main tenets of Buddhism is to rid oneself of desire. Technically, one is supposed to even rid oneself of the desire for individuality, and therefore merge with the world. To be honest, the most vigorous courses I've taken in Buddhism are reading Siddhartha and conversations with my boyfriend, but from the passage from Siddhartha when the main character finally reaches enlightenment, the idea is that you can accept everything because there is no barrier between you and the universe, past, present, future.

The rest of us aren't so lucky. I'm staunchly anti-Buddhist in some ways. Maybe it's because I've soaked up some of the guanxi ideology from my parents, but I do believe there are real separations between groups of people. If you treat everyone the same, there is nothing to mark the difference between your family/friends/network and everyone else. Of course I believe in equality, and I endeavor to treat everyone with the same basic courtesy, but there are people out there that I will deliberately give less of myself to and those who I will give more.

That was all digression. I'll edit it later. What I really want to talk about is the difference (and hopefully find the happy medium between) minimalism and maximization. I like the aesthetics of minimalism, and even parts of the philosophy. However, I can't quite let go of certain things. I am a natural hoarder and collector. In that way I am a maximizer (who, by the way, should probably give up on happiness as well as enlightenment).


Riji Diji
Minimalism strives to find the essence by eliminating the non-essential. Imagine black brushstrokes evoking a winter night. Or the stork--very Gestalt. I like this concept in architecture and interior design, and even clothing. Unfortunately, it can get pretty annoying in modern art.

Kazimir Malevich's Black Square. I'm not impressed.
One example of this in practice would be 100 things. By culling your personal items down to 100 things, you are forced to evaluate the value of that old baseball mitt, or the ticket stub from a dance performance, or whether you really need 20 different scarves. It's like an extended version of the game we play when we ask what 3 things we would save from a fire. What is most important to you?

The difficult thing about this is that you have to then live off of those 100 things. Can you get by with 3 pairs of pants? Maybe you shouldn't have thrown that toothbrush away. I find it pretty easy to do without most stuff (besides my laptop), but there are other things that I love. I love books--being able to feel their grainy paper, hear their soft shuffling, smell their pages and glue. It's difficult for me, psychologically, to be without a collection of books. Even though I hardly ever read them, I like having them there, like old friends--every one of capable of giving hours of enjoyment. Since hooking up with my boyfriend, I also have access to many books I haven't read--potential friends that can open up the world for me.

by Brian Dettmer
Of course, I hardly read from books anymore. I read articles from the internet. Of course, because the backlight on computers is bad for our circadian rhythms, I tried to always have a paper book to refer to, but then my boyfriend bought me a Kindle. I am well aware that there are other digital reading platforms available, but the Kindle gives me instant access to Amazon, which, whether you like it or not, is providing a valuable role as maximizer of book resources, and is not backlit. I have bought many more books since receiving this Kindle than I otherwise would have, partially because it's easier, and also because I delude myself into thinking it's a good deal because it's $3 less than the paper copy.

It's also great to be able to have access to all of my books in one handy form. I'm even thinking of downloading old childhood favorites that I don't have access to anymore because the books are overseas, out of my grasp (and eyes). In any case, the Kindle is a convenient way to reduce a library of books to an item of 1. In the meantime, books are reduced to their material forms and turned into specialty items, or art.

The other things it would be difficult for me to be without is cooking paraphernalia. This one is more difficult to erase. I suppose if I was minimalist about food, I would become a raw food vegan. Alternatively, I could do what rich people have been doing for centuries, and only eat the best food, adapted only slightly so as to enhance its natural flavor (think sushi). A lot of food which was originally low-class becomes high class. Think paella, hot pot, meatloaf, cupcakes. There are several reasons for this.

For one thing, it's more local and cultural. Rich people could always afford to imitate each other in a avant-global sort of way. Poor people are forced to eat what's available, and then they make it awesome.

It's fun to improve things that are so obviously bad. You eat at a restaurant, where you expect quality as well as convenience, and the food's so-so. You think, "I could have done better." But, how many ways can you make a creme brulee? It's already perfect, so you don't mess with it. You can spice it up with ginger or use a different kind of sugar, but it's already pretty good. What about jello? How can you make jello fancy? Add fruit? Alcohol? Pop rocks? Blend colors? Mold it into a skyline? Taiwan's national dish is beef noodle soup (niu rou mian 牛肉面). It's not high class, at least not originally. Okay, sure, people didn't go around killing cows just because they wanted to eat them, but the beef in niu rou mian is the toughest part of the cow, braised to salty, oily perfection.

But niu rou mian isn't just beef. It's beef and noodles and soup, plus some green things. That's the other thing about poor people food--there's so much variety and versatility in it. Poor people didn't have a lot, so they threw odds and ends and anything they had into the pot. It's leftover cooking: fried rice and soup.

So I don't want to go high-class essentialist minimalist on food. I want to cook it in different ways. Yes, I want to cook. I think one of the reasons cooking is trending right now is, besides the economy, people are looking for experiences instead of just the product. They're also becoming more engaged with the material world as digital world soaks up so many of the activities that used to take place in the physical world: viewing, reading, listening to music, dating, complaining about dating. Food can't be put online or in an ipod though. Even food porn is only an imitation. It reminds us of our material existence.

So what would I get rid of if I wanted to minimize my material possessions, if not existence? I don't have much guilt about food products themselves, because they'll all eventually be used anyway. But what would I need to cook? The year in college when I lived alone, I was a pretty minimalist cook and eater. I only had a handful of dishes, a pan, a ricecooker, and a pot (although it was an awesome double-boiler). I was also just learning how to cook. I was still able to make fried rice, fried eggs, pasta, mashed potatoes, and, through some ingenuity, steamed fish. I wasted a lot of time making ginger lemonade (successful) and french fries (not). I also had an oven, so I could bake chicken and other goodies.

Then I moved into an apartment with a well-stocked kitchen. Suddenly I had access to a meat tenderizer. Hello Chicken Parmesan. There were a variety of whisks and measuring cups and sharp knives. Hello omelettes. There were a plethora of baking supplies: a flour sifter, a rolling pin, baking tins and muffin pans, and a lot of baking chocolate. I learned to cook a lot more things.

But when I moved to Taiwan, I experienced a sudden deprivation. Apartments with kitchens are expensive in Taiwan. Most single people eat out because it's so cheap. At first my roommate and I were in a one-room apartment. We moved the TV so we would have more counter space for our hot plate and microwave and struggled to make decent meals. We fell out of the habit of cooking even after we had moved to a 3-bedroom apartment complete with a kitchen and another roommate. Then I got a boyfriend, who happened to live close by, and who happened to have lived in Taiwan for 9 years, and who happened to be on the receiving end of stuff, including kitchen stuff, from friends and acquaintances who moved away from Taiwan for the past 9 years.

Now I have access to various measuring cups, measuring spoons, pots I don't even know the names for (frying pan, sauce pan, skillet, stew pot, wok) and again, a variety of knives, though in need of sharpening (paring knife, boning knife, santoku knife, bread knife, steak knife, butter knife, cleaver). Also badly needed were an oven (something most Taiwanese kitchens lack as well), a blender (for smoothies and lemon curd pies) and a bamboo steamer, which I have wanted since the first time I tried to emulate the steamed fish from Chinese restaurants. There are also miscellaneous baking implements. I have a rolling pin again. I even have those little brushes which are actually useful, I have learned from experience, if you want to brush your scones or pie crust with a sugar glaze or egg wash. I still want a mesh bag for simmering whole spices.

I don't use all of these things all of the time. If I really had to choose, I wouldn't need an oven, despite my love of baking and baked goods, because steaming is a much quicker and more energy efficient way of cooking most food. Therefore I wouldn't need any of the baking implements either. I don't need a bread knife, though it's very good for cutting through pseudo French bread. I don't need a whisk, because chopsticks or even a fork is just as good. I can use a wire colander as a messy flour sifter (except I can't bake anyway if I don't have an oven).

But my life would be sad. Cooking, like reading, is one of my hobbies, and though I hate to surrender it to materialism, it is an inherently material endeavor, and you need material for it. It is also an experiencial endeavor, and as you advance, you want to cook different things that require different materials. Karate is also a material endeavor, and you don't really need anything for it except for space, but I can't steam fish with my body. Or if I did, it would be fatal for myself, I imagine. So I want stuff for cooking. I draw the line at waffle irons. Those are for special occasions when we visit restaurants and friends who are bigger foodies than us.

What about clothes. In case you haven't noticed, I am a girl. If you haven't noticed, then androgyny is spreading! But still lagging as far as male/female fashions. Male fashion is like handbags, so subtle I can't tell the difference. Female fashion, however, is a thriving community driven by both supply and demand, and filled with creative innovations. I like clothes. I actually don't have that many of them, because I like to look more than I like to buy (especially with those price tags). Sometimes I try and throw out my clothes which are old or ill-fitting or ugly, but I always end up rescuing them because I'm too lazy to do laundry and I need a variety of long-sleeved shirts to avoid being repetitive. I have to admit though, I have a lot of earrings and a lot of scarves and more dresses than occasions to wear them. I have a lot of fun sundresses now due to shopping in Thailand, and I have a couple of evening dresses of varying formality. I recently bought a hot cocktail dress. I still want a casual dress that I can throw on and not have to worry about being too fancy or provocative. I'm not sure if this is a solution or not, but I'm thinking of getting an infinity dress. The problem with getting an infinity dress though, is then I'll want another style infinity dress, or another length, or another color, or a two-tone one. Still, an infinity dress gets around the variety problem, if not the laundry or yearning problem.

18 dresses in one, even if I don't like some of the styles.