The Culture Shock Of Coming Back to America After Three Years in Thailand

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

Spring 2012 — I’m living in a one-room suite in a guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand. All my worldly possessions—a few books, a laptop, and a small wardrobe consisting mostly of baggy-legged “harem pants” that scream tourist!—fit in this small, studio-style place. I’ve lived in Chiang Mai over a year, which would have been plenty of time to stock up on furnishings, décor, and more clothes, but I resisted.

Some friends and friends of friends drop by to drink Thai rum and discuss the evening’s plans. One girl peeks into my small closet, the door of which is wide open, revealing my sparse and ragged wardrobe. “Are those all of your clothes?” she asks, disbelieving.

“Yes,” I respond, half-defensively, half-proudly, silently daring her to make a disparaging comment.

My clothes may have seen better days, and no one would mistake my threadbare tank tops and faded denim shorts for high fashion. But I liked owning so little. I relished the fact that, at any moment, I could stuff my possessions into my poorly-manufactured but resilient travel backpack and take off. And I was more than a little impressed with myself for having escaped the consumerist machine I’d fallen prey to so many times back home in the U.S.

Even if I moved back home, I swore I was never going to over shop again. I was liberated! I was enlightened!

The best laid plans of mice and minimalists

Summer 2018 — My partner and I are standing in the doorway of our new storage unit in rural Iowa. We’re moving out of the house we’ve rented for four years and we’ve decided to use the move as an opportunity to downsize and practice a more minimalist lifestyle. For months, I’ve been listing our possessions on Facebook, gleeful every time a buyer came to hand over cold, hard cash for our crap.

When we first visited the storage unit, we laughed at how much space there was. “We’ll need maybe half this,” we agreed. Imagine our surprise and dismay when, after all the downsizing and moving were done, the storage unit was bursting. Blue Rubbermaid bins towered to the ceiling, surrounded by lamps, rugs, and more books than you could read in five years. So much for minimalism.

It wasn’t just that having all this stuff makes it really difficult to move (which it does). When we moved from Thailand to Iowa in 2014, everything we owned fit into a few bags, save the small amount of furniture my partner had in storage. Despite being delighted by the luxuries once again available to us in the U.S.—Cap’n Crunch! Cool Ranch Doritos! Amazon!—we vowed not to go overboard. We would be moderate, reasonable. We just needed a few things to get set up.

But somehow, a set of dishes and a vacuum turned into Roman god-level indulgence. There was the ravioli press (which has still never been touched) and an appliance that churns frozen bananas into ice cream. Bookshelves were overflowing, and we had furniture for every nook and cranny—much of which we barely used. We stocked up for a hypothetical future, instead of optimizing for our lives at the time. As Tobias and Lindsay Funke in their ill-conceived quest to buy a mansion they couldn’t afford would say: “That way we have it.”

But our possessions began to overwhelm us. I couldn’t understand how there never seemed to be enough room for everything we owned, despite being just two people in a three-bedroom house. We even had a living room, basement, attic, and loft. How was the mess and clutter constant? How did every single thing we owned not have a place?

To make matters worse, my credit card debt was piling up. After maxing out my credit cards in my twenties and needing my parents to bail me out, I hadn’t had a credit card in years. But when I moved back, the sign-up offers started rolling in again, and I eagerly accepted. Clearly these companies were willing to overlook my past sins, so why shouldn’t I take advantage of the chance to rebuild my credit history?

For the most part, I was strategic, paying off my balances every month. But as those payoff dates loomed, I realized I had charged more than I thought and that most of my purchases weren’t worth the stress and extra work hours it took to avoid being slammed with interest.

How did we get here?

In the years since leaving Chiang Mai, many things had stabilized for us. I’d found it easier to pick up new freelance clients, my workload had accelerated, and our incomes had increased. We were able to afford more discretionary purchases, and it felt good to not be stressed about every penny we spent.

On a good day, we sang the praises of American abundance. We lived in a small Midwestern town, yet everything from specialty baking flours to ski goggles could be delivered to our doorstep within a few days. We were genuinely grateful for the many, many comforts we had access to just by being stateside—and our buying habits showed it. But because of that newfound financial comfort, I slowly began to lose the strict minimalist attitude I had sworn to back in Chiang Mai. I found myself getting caught up in society’s expectations, caving to the idea that you must have something new to wear to every celebratory event or that gifts need be lavish to show your affection. I bought day-to-day items recklessly, deciding it was better to waste money overbuying at the grocery store than to waste time checking what we already had at home. I wish I could say my extravagant attitude stemmed from a dedicated couponing habit, but that would be a lie. I bought whatever I thought we needed, whether or not we actually needed it, regardless of the cost.

When we moved, our cars were stuffed with the surplus I’d created—entire trash bags of cooking spices, oils, and hot sauces. A large Rubbermaid bin brimming with no fewer than 16 boxes of floss, seven bottles of conditioner, three identical bottles of vitamin E facial oil that I’ve used exactly twice, and so many hand-crafted bars of soap you would think we were opening a spa.

Don’t get me wrong—I love a good lavender-scented soap, and you never want to run out of floss (not that there’s any danger of that happening with us). I’m also aware that the ability to overbuy is a privilege, one I’m grateful for. Many people don’t know how they’re going to afford this month’s rent, let alone how they’ll splurge on luxury toiletries. But financial freedom is also a privilege my partner and I want to wield responsibly. Owning too many things wasn’t just irritating and it wasn’t just the excessive spending that was troublesome. Our lifestyle no longer reflected the values we espoused.

And then to sanity

Our situation wasn’t unique. Fifty-four percent of Americans have said they felt overwhelmed by clutter and studies show that materialism correlates with anxiety, depression, and weaker relationships. And the stress at times was very real, but we’re fortunate to have a strong relationship.

So finally, my partner and I decided to sit down, talk about how our personal inflation was negatively impacting our quality of life, and work together to find a way out of that pattern. We instituted a rule about checking in with each other before making big household purchases that weren’t immediate necessities, like the $80 outdoor composter I very nearly impulse-ordered. We did buy it eventually, but only after a three-month self-inflicted probation period during which we evaluated whether we composted with enough volume and frequency to warrant a proper bin.

Now that we’re pared down and in a new house, I still can’t say we’re really minimalists. Maybe we never will be. There are some indulgences that remain a challenge—namely books, for which we harbor a mutual voraciousness. (We’ve attempted to curb our appetite for book-buying by insisting we won’t buy any new ones until the current ones have been read, but that hasn’t exactly worked out.) I’m OK with that, though. We’re still far more conscientious about what we bring into our home, and that feels like an important first step.

I’m not hankering to return to the austere lifestyle I maintained in Thailand. I enjoy being able to afford more creature comforts and having space to spread out. But I also value my time and peace of mind, and owning too many things detracts from those. My ego is no longer tied to having a nomadic wardrobe or living minimally so I can buck consumerist trends. However, being a conscientious consumer has helped me return to a place of sanity and calm—even if it does mean I get to buy fewer lavender soaps.