What is this strange thing that happens with age? In my teens I could just pop a few things in a backpack and walk out of the house to explore the world. Which I did, at eighteen and again at nineteen, backpacking around China. The latter trip was with two older boys, a schoolmate and his friend, and we spent three months traveling from Hong Kong to Guilin, taking the long overnight train past Guizhou to Yunnan, where we spent nearly a month, on to Sichuan, and after which we parted on different routes. Many years later I met that schoolmate again, and oddly enough, we had both moved on to work in private equity. He mentioned a trip he had taken a few years ago to remote Mongolia, staying in very basic accommodations, and moving the very next morning to a luxury hotel because he was too uncomfortable.
“Cannot already lah,” he said. “I need my material comforts.”
In a similar vein, my husband told me a few years ago–“it’s much easier to upgrade your lifestyle than to downgrade.”
I still remember the cheapest room we found, for RMB 30 a night in Dali, a scenic mountainous town in Yunnan. It was a new backpackers sort of lodging, on a street corner, with an open-air restaurant below. A narrow staircase led to a few rooms, and ours had three beds in alternating solid colours, white-tiled flooring, a brand-new washroom. It was basic, but new and very clean. These days, a similar room in Dali would cost at least ten times more, and in the big cities, multiple times more.
Although I hate to admit it, coming to Toji has been a physically disconcerting experience. It’s stunningly beautiful. But I had not realised how accustomed my body was to physical comforts. I had forgotten what it’s like to wake up in the morning with damp cold in your bones. I miss my down comforter and memory-foam pillow. I miss the abundance of choice back home, where I can choose from ten or more different international cuisines at almost any time of day, and if that fails, there’s always something at the hawker centre. And I’ve not even gotten to how much I miss the kids and cuddling their soft, warm bodies.
And yet there’s something about shocking the system by returning to basics. It feels almost like a detoxification experience. A mind-cleanse. Life is simple. The food is simple. We wake, we eat, we write. We write, we eat, we sleep. I look out of my window and don’t see a soul, the only sign of civilization the lone car, truck or bus 34 winding its way back to town. Even the music I sometimes play from my laptop sounds too incongruent with my physical surroundings, too urbane, too discordant.
Having so much less all of a sudden forces you to question yourself. What do you really need in life? Like many other women from the city when they travel, I brought tons of skincare samples in lieu of lugging around large bottles. I’ve barely used any. I feel embarrassed to have even brought a pared down cosmetics pouch. The other day I put on lipstick when I went to town and it just felt…wrong. Even though I did feel a little less embarrassed when I reached town and the young people were all made up.
But in this slow, still environment, I can feel my mind quieting. I check my phone less often (although I just did after writing this line). When I look at my friends’ social media posts from back home, the urge to reply leaps up my throat–then sinks back down again. Being alone, being away, sitting in front of a panorama of mountains and golden yellow rice padi fields has made me realise how addicted I was/am to social media and how hard that has made it for me to focus.
Little by little, the fog over my head is clearing. I’m starting to feel more at peace with myself. The quietness I have sought for so long is within reach–the quietness of acceptance, of being one with the environment, that I am but a stalk of rice swaying in the autumn wind.