The American privilege of tidying up (or not)

This past Thanksgiving, my mom brought an old pair of slippers to wear around our house because Asians prefer not to wear outdoor shoes indoors. The pink fabric had faded to gray and there were deep grooves worn into the soles. As my parents were packing up to leave, my mom remarked that she was planning to discard the slippers instead of bringing them home. My dad insisted that she keep them.

To my surprise, because neither of my parents throws much away, my mom protested, “But why? They are so old!”

Ai-yah, just keep them anyway!”

A younger me would have shouted down my bickering parents and thrown the slippers away myself. These aren’t sparking joy! Toss ’em! But this time, I merely observed. I heard the instinctive, unspoken words beneath my dad’s protests: Why throw away what is still technically useful?

My parents are not poor and have not been poor for at least the span of my own life. But they often act like everyone’s Depression-era great-aunt Mabel, unwilling or unable to throw away anything they “might need someday.” So I grew up with clutter. Not pathological levels of clutter, but enough to leave an impression and compel me to try and do differently in my own home.

I read The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up in 2015 right before I got married. My husband and I had already merged our apartments into a thousand-foot condo, but we hadn’t eliminated the duplicate hair dryers or kitchenware. Neither my husband and I are innately tidy, though fortunately we have complementary skill sets: he keeps everything but puts things (mostly) where they belong, while I acquire and keep very selectively but have trouble putting my toys away when I’m done playing. Wedding gifts were piling up everywhere, so I knew something needed to be done. Marie Kondo to the rescue!

I tackled my closet first, whittling my wardrobe to perhaps three dozen favorites. This turned out to be a bit too aggressive because when cold weather rolled around, I found myself with only two sweaters left. (Some capsule wardrobers might deem this enough, but I lived in Ohio where winter lasted from November to April and we could easily have three seasons in one week.) I was also pregnant at this point, so I gave myself permission to buy new-to-me clothes to get through the winter. I tried very hard to be judicious in purchasing baby gear, and I think we did a reasonably good job. But the tide of plastic and fuzzy fabric kept rising, and we weren’t able to move to a larger space, so I doubled down on my decluttering efforts.  

Over the years since my KonMari rampage, I have found myself replacing some of the items I got rid of, out of necessity or for convenience. I’ve also regretted some of my discards, for both practical and sentimental reasons. Sure, I didn’t have time to paint immediately after our child was born, but my easel wouldn’t have taken up much space in the closet and painting would be a relaxing pastime now. (I sold it to a woman whose young niece was very interested in art, so I have no lasting regrets.) I got rid of a sweater that I had actually worn frequently but decided was too dowdy-looking, only to realize last summer that it had been my late grandmother’s. There’s a chance it’s in my mom’s closet but more likely than not, it’s gone. I do have lingering sadness about that, but I hope that it kept someone else warm.

Marie Kondo acknowledges that some of her clients regret some of the things they discard, but claims that “they never complain.” My life wasn’t severely impacted by the absence of my easel or my grandmother’s sweater, but these small twinges of regret prompted me to rethink the somewhat short sighted approach I had taken to tidying.

And that’s when I realized that decluttering is an inherently privileged act that isn’t accessible to everyone.

There’s a certain level of privilege in having enough things to declutter at all. You need enough disposable income to buy things you don’t need for survival, enough space to store superfluous things, and arguably enough housing and life stability to retain unnecessary things. (There’s a reason my tidiness peaked in 2013 after I had moved every year for four years and downsized to a 600 square-foot apartment.)

I can understand the pleasure of throwing out a hundred trash bags of stuff, but the wastefulness that can only come from affluence isn’t something to be proud of.

It also seems like I see the same person posting pictures of their declutter pile one day and pictures of their latest Target run the next, with a self-absolving, “Well, Target told me to buy it.” Decluttering could easily get co-opted into late-stage capitalism by encouraging everyone to get rid of their things without getting rid of the relentless marketing message to buy more things. KonMari your closet, sure, but try KonMari-ing your media consumption too.

When separated from its spiritual roots in Shintoism, or at least the quiet mindfulness advocated in the book, decluttering just becomes part of a relentless consumerist bulimia. Toss everything you don’t need, buy more, declutter again, buy more. In her books, Marie Kondo always emphasizes that the point of discarding and tidying is to show respect for your possessions, not treat them like trash. Tidying, she says, is just a tool to create a freer and more wonder-filled life, not the final destination. Shintoism holds that there are kami, or spirits, in all objects. Respecting kami includes respect for the person who made the object, the person who uses the object, and the materials that make up the object.

In an American culture filled with disposable trends and disconnected from the means from production, it’s no wonder KonMari doesn’t translate properly.

My parents converted to Christianity in the United States before I was born, and in any case, they did not practice Shinto. But in her own way, my mother also placed cleanliness next to godliness and imbued tidiness with some kind of moral superiority. (Hence the admonition that I would never get married if I couldn’t clean up. Joke’s on her, I’m the chief tidier in our household now.) She always sighed with admiration and envy when we visited my friend Christine’s house. Christine’s mom possessed some mythical organizational power and her home was always neat. Looking back now, their house had a sparseness that seemed rare in the immigrant Chinese homes I frequented as a child. There were no bamboo forests of newspapers, no china cabinet full of bric-a-brac, no extraneous mismatched furniture covered in plastic.

Since reading and practicing Marie Kondo’s methods, I have often wondered why my parents and other immigrants seem incapable of tidying or at least getting rid of useless objects. My parents, in fact, are probably the polar opposite of Marie Kondo. The clutter level in their home has gotten progressively worse as fewer people make their home there. My childhood bedroom has become a storage unit for excess bedding and humidifiers. The finished basement where my brother and I used to play is now a repository of old VCRS, forgotten toys, and whatever bulk food items they’ve stocked up on lately. Over the years, my husband and I have gifted them new pans and kitchen appliances, but we had to personally escort their broken, Teflon-peeling predecessors out of the house.

I never seriously tried to compel my parents to declutter, mostly because that was a battle I didn’t have the energy to fight. But I’ve also become more sympathetic to my parents as I’ve gained a better understanding of the generational effects of poverty and immigration on my family. My parents grew up in post-WWII Taiwan, with lots of siblings apiece, and not a lot of food or money to go around. They emigrated in the late 1970s to pursue education in the United States and have gone through the majority of life’s major milestones without their immediate family nearby. It makes sense that anyone who didn’t grow up with extra material possessions, and who had to leave behind the security of home and family for an unknown and sometimes hostile environment, might cling to whatever possessions they had later in life.

In her book, Marie Kondo points out that there are “[only two] reasons for why we can’t let something go…an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” Immigrants and people living in (or raised in) poverty and instability have more of both attachment and fear than the average comfortable middle-class person. So whether one’s possessions “spark joy” is a largely irrelevant question for people who are preoccupied with avoiding scarcity. This leads to the counterintuitive clutter of poverty.

The main privilege of decluttering lies in having enough resources to replace what you get rid of should the need arise, or the ability to do without.

There’s also a boatload of privilege in refusing to declutter. (This is different from being psychologically or economically incapable of discarding things you “might need someday.”) Congratulating oneself for a large book collection is perhaps the most snobbish thing I’ve ever had the misfortune to see on the Internet, and I used to work for realtors selling McMansions and hypergentrified lofts. Like many of you, I love to read. Books are the reason I’m a writer today. But I have never mistaken the privilege of literacy or book ownership for some mark of moral or intellectual superiority. (Okay, maybe a little bit before I woke up in my early twenties.)

Many immigrants come from societies where media was and is tightly controlled. (See also: China’s Cultural Revolution, Taiwanese martial law, imperial Japanese propaganda, and myriad other examples of censorship.) Books were often scarce, contraband, and precious in a way “free” Americans will never understand. Asians know that their value lies in the ideas and information within, not in the paper it’s printed on.

So congratulations, Teigen, for being born in a country where books are plentiful and for having enough disposable income to buy and house extra books.

Like yoga, bone broth, and the Mandarin language, the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing has been separated from its cultural origins and become yet another American status symbol. As with most such markers of privilege, KonMari-style decluttering AND extensive personal book collections are both inaccessible and largely irrelevant to immigrants and people living in poverty. I’m all in favor of tidying up, but maybe instead of focusing on how many trash bags we can toss out or how many books we can keep, we can think about decreasing consumption and inequity.

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