• Lijing Cobb

Thrower vs. Hoarder

When I buy a new gadget, I open it, read the instructions as quickly as possible, set it up, toss as much of the packaging as possible, toss the instruction manual obligatorily into the manual drawer that’s only opened in such occasions plus dire situations where blind luck no longer helps, and move on with my life, having concluded the short ceremony welcoming the new member to our family. You see, I don’t get attached to my gadgets. When it’s time for them to go, I say goodbye with nary a tear. Sometimes a peppy voice chirps in my head, “good riddance!”

It is so much easier to buy new ones than to spend time fixing the old ones.

My husband, on the other hand, likes to hold onto what he has, even if the object in question is 100% without a doubt definitely absolutely completely utterly dead and useless. “I knew I shouldn’t have thrown it out just yesterday! Now I need it!” You’d hear this lament often if you lived in our house.

We are happily married, a thrower and a hoarder. To be honest (and I know I risk leaking critical intelligence here because he tells me he reads this blog), I used to (to use a strong word here to get the effect across) despise his hoardiness (I know I’ve just made up a word), but now I’m beginning to think twice about it.

Not that I want him to keep all that “stuff” in our three car garage so that I couldn’t use it once over the last 8+ years since we moved into the house. Not at all. I think there is a lot of room for improvement over his intentions of re-purposing all the otherwise “junky” stuff. But I think I’m beginning to see the person behind the intentions.

I think I’m beginning to understand that the person who refuses to throw away “junk” sees the good despite the bad, and holds on not because he likes the bad, but because he knows that the bad comes with the good, which he wants to keep.

Yes, I know. I’m the good that he saw all those years ago that he wanted to keep, and through all these years, no matter how many times I malfunctioned and “badded,” he never tossed me in the trash can.

So clearly, in this match up between the thrower and the hoarder, the latter had won the battle. And since I thank goodness for this loss, this bizarre gratitude pushes me to probe deeper into examining my habits of tossing old gadgets.

I think fundamentally, the habit of replacing malfunctioning gadgets with new and “better” ones represents my fear of looking into what is wrong at the moment, and more ironically, the fear of being able to fix it if I just tried a little bit harder, and the fear that the continuance of the status quo eliminates the possibility of new and “better”—of the same thing that essentially served the same purpose.

Like, you know, driving from point A to point B in a Ford Focus vs. a Range Rover.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in China, when the country started operating under the banner “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (basically Capitalism without calling it as such under a one-party rule). Life was simple and quiet before I turned double digits. Then the country got packed into a rocket ship and boom, off it went. One day the house with a tiny black and white TV was the envy of the neighborhood; two years later every house had a bigger one (except my family). One day your rich uncle gets a phone with 5 digits in his number and you can’t even use it because you had no one to call; two years later everyone was scurrying back to their “seat machine” (yes that’s what we called a landline in China) upon the first shrill ring of their shiny new phone (except in my family). One day you read in your textbook that there’s such a machine that can wash and dry your dirty clothing in no time; two years later you witness the miracle in person in your own house (except in mine). We eventually got our own TV, phone, and washing machine, but not before everyone else had already moved onto their third, COLOR TV, not before their phone number had increased from 5 digits to 7, and certainly not before the washing machine had doubled in size and capacity for everyone else in China.

I remember once I had a couple of kids stopping by my humble abode, and the next day they talked about the fact that my family did not have a TV. We didn’t, and it wasn’t until a good 5 years or more later that we finally did. But in my mind my classmates needed to know that we did, just as they did, so I retorted by declaring that we stored our TV in a trunk, and that’s the only reason they didn’t see our TV.

I don’t know if any of them believed me, but I couldn’t believe that I said that, for many, many years afterwards.

And can you believe that that little girl who so direly wanted to be on an equal footing with everyone grew up to be a thrower?

Naturally. In a country where all dreams were realized in the span of 2 years for everyone else but me, where new and better forever left me behind, where I lied a lie that haunted me for decades, what else could such an experience shape in a young and impressionable mind but a thrower? I was forever playing catch up and failing miserably. The material lack made me feel inferior in every way, and nobody took the time to teach me differently. I was destined to disregard the value of money and what it can buy, because I was a slave to it.

Here is where I admit that I once stole money from my own father. Right around the time when all this hopeless farce of not having anything was playing out in my early teen years. One summer, for some reason I don’t recall, we were all sleeping in the dining room/living room, a rectangle of about 12x15 feet, my parents on one bamboo cot, my sister and I on another. Such proximity opened my eyes one sleepless night to my father’s pants, which were laying right next to my cot. I knew the right pocket had money in it. I heard my parents snoring. My sister was also fast asleep. With a heart that almost jumped out of my throat and trembling hands that knew the thing they were about to do was bad, I reached into the pocket and started my thieving career.

I don’t remember how many times I stole, or what I used the money for. I imagine that I was able to go to that little snack counter at the entrance of my middle school, and bought little snacks with the stolen money, and pretended that my loving parents had given the money to me as allowance, and that I was perfectly normal because I had allowance money to buy small snacks just like the other kids. When my dad finally caught me red-handed, and confiscated all the money I still had in my pocket, I didn’t get a severe punishment like I expected. I think I even saw him trying to suppress a grin, like it was something funny. I don’t think I ever told him why I stole from him night after night. I don’t think I ever told myself why I stole from him until now.

You could say that I regret having done that. For so many years the shame of having been a thief haunted me, asleep or awake. You could also say that I don’t regret it. Not at all. It was a small price to pay for a few days of feeling that I fit in. That I came from a normal, loving family.

You might be right if you think that the reason why I was dry-eyed at my dad’s funeral was that he chuckled at the discovery of my thievery. You might hit the jackpot if you say that I mourn the loss of my mom continuously because she had once bought grapes for me using the money that my dad expected her to bring back home. You could say that over and over again and I wouldn’t get tired of hearing it, because those were the best grapes I would ever have.

But I digress. Enough thief talk, back to the thrower talk. I think that the more we throw things away and buy new things to replace them, the emptier we feel inside. We could have nothing and have the world; or we could have the world and have nothing. In my husband’s case, he would argue, we could have everything and have the world at the same time. In that young-girl-who-stole-from-her-father’s case, we could have nothing, period. My effort to fill my world with new, functioning things and throw away older, malfunctioning things is my effort to reconcile with a childhood when the acquisition of new things meant EVERYTHING, and the failure to acquire meant that you were NOTHING.

Thrower vs. Hoarder: I think that I’m finally beginning to appreciate the slight difference between values and things. I think I’m finally ready to disown the shame I had felt for so many years for stealing from my father, because that young girl did not steal money. She reached for love and belonging. I think I’m finally tired of the ceaseless charge at getting things I can buy with money. I think I’m finally ready to give money its proper respect.

So it is no coincidence that the hoarder and the thrower ended up together. Did I mention my husband loves antiques, the older the better? So much history behind them, he would marvel, and ask to be told their stories. The thrower, on the other hand, was born on the eve of the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao had literally persecuted and smashed as much as he could everything and everyone he could hunt down that claimed affinity to China’s long past. She was taught from the very beginning that the past was dead, that it was the poison choking the birth of the new China, and we must break with the past resolutely and absolutely to make a fresh start. Everywhere she turned the old was rickety and deplorable, and everyone around her was in a mad dash to get the newest, best thing that poured in with the opening of the market. She hated the old trunk that held her whole family’s meager winter clothing supply in the summer and the even more pathetic collection of summer clothing in the winter, that old relic that had held her imaginary first TV and made her a liar. She used to let the trunk lid fall close way too loud when there was no one else around, wishing that somehow it would crack and break, and that magically something fresh, anything, would magically replace that stale presence that had overstayed its welcome 10 times over.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the white devil (that’s what Caucasian foreigners were affectionately referred to in Mao’s era) whose love for the old and whose ability to see good through the bad is inadvertently doctoring the Chinese girl who grew up in a broken family and a ruthless society. Or maybe it isn't ironic at all. Maybe I'm just so used to thinking in categories and divide people through labels. Maybe it is just one soul, whose oxygen mask is already on, goes to help a fellow soul, who couldn't find a mask for herself to start with.

For it is easy to throw it all away and burn it all down when you don't care about the past and want to pretend that you came from the rocks. And it becomes hard when you want to know the names of the rocks and make friends with them.

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