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Oriental Minimalism: It Works, and then It Doesn’t

Oriental Minimalism: It Works, and then It Doesn’t

  • Culture
  • Life
It’s not called a purge for nothing. It’s not called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for nothing either, with the emphasis on ‘life-changing magic’.

The idea behind Marie Kondo’s book and method (or the KonMari method) is to get rid of anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” For most of us, that’s a lot of stuff. At the same time, her philosophy is less about discarding than it is about identifying what to keep. This entails being grateful; not just for what you have, but actually thanking the object itself for existing.

At least one practitioner has confessed that doing this has led to her always putting things where they belong. Another found pleasure in the once drab chore of folding clothes. Others have arrived at revelations about why they own what they own.

For professional home organiser Han Yien, the objective is no less ambitious, though admittedly far less melodramatic. Having left her job in Shanghai as a lawyer, she now works as a domestic helper of sorts—an efficiency consultant if you will.

When she goes about her work, she dons a surgical face mask, a weapon symbolic of the task at hand. Likely a simple hygiene practice, it communicates the notion that tidying up is in fact the equivalent of open heart surgery. You are not simply creating room. You are engaging in a sort of dispassionate, existential spring cleaning.

if a picture of your ex is preventing you from moving on, get rid of it

Both Marie Kondo and Han Yien, respectively Japanese and Chinese, operate via the belief that sentimentality is a burden. Asians are huge gift givers, and disposing of the things we receive can seem rude. Also, prudence is a prized virtue, which means that throwing anything away can quickly be seen as wasteful.

However, hoarding is by no means an Asian phenomenon. The television series Hoarders, which has been airing since 2009, offers us an often excruciating peek into the lives of people who are physically incapable of throwing things away.

While they exist at an extreme that few of us will ever experience, oriental minimalism tells us that the threat of this universal problem is as unhealthy as the monster itself.

If we must distill the magic of tidying up into a straightforward idea, it is simply this: if a picture of your ex is preventing you from moving on, get rid of it. If having less clutter means less frustration because you can now find your car keys, by all means.

Any other misguided belief in the inseparability of our interior and exterior lives might just result in empty spaces that are more sterile than serene. Call it being drunk on tidying power.

The thing is, most of us lead messy, object-filled lives simply because we are busy. Or we’re lazy. Sometimes we’re both. We don’t avoid decluttering out of some misdirected nostalgia, emotional ennui or materialistic obsession. Sometimes, we grow accustomed to tuning out of cluttered environments. When you live in a noisy, cosmopolitan city, it becomes second nature.

Sometimes, Chinese New Year comes around—or perhaps just a quiet balmy Sunday afternoon—and an unexplainable inclination to look through boxes of old photographs might lead to a minor excavation followed by a thorough throwing out of dust-caked mementos. Afterwards, no great revelations emerge. We do not become better people.

There is a kind of vain hope in wishing our minimalist material lives will come to reflect our emotional ones. That we can be truly left with the things that matter. No more fluffy maintenance of social masquerades, no more imaginary need to finance an endless supply of scented candles.

Being human means that the whims of nostalgia and “I just don’t want to throw that away!” define us.

But capitalist detoxing is not for everyone. Being human means that the whims of nostalgia and “I just don’t want to throw that away!” define us. Think of how work-life balance doesn’t exist because the idea itself is a myth; in truth, we all exist in a kind of whirling, cosmological mish-mashing of relatively successful multi-tasking.

Sure, being stressed can lead some people to clean obsessively. The trouble is, this doesn’t translate to the reality that a clean home is then an effective bulwark against anxiety. In fact, said distressed individual will just resort to other means to take the edge off.

Make no mistake however, the KonMari method works for a lot of people. Han Yien’s work is creating tranquil spaces for families who have known nothing but mayhem and perpetually missing household items. At a scientific level, there is even evidence suggesting that messy conditions compete for your attention and limit your brain’s ability to process information.

Yet there is wisdom in accepting that we can never truly have control over everything. Pristine physical spaces only go so far in helping to regulate the lived realities we have to actually navigate. If anything, let’s remember that minimalism is all about maximising joy. As for everything else, take it with a pinch of salt.

Yes, even if that means sprinkling it on the floor to ward off curses. Or just lizards.

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Wong Jia Wei