1. Only buy the groceries that you need for the next few days.
When I first moved back to the United States, I would walk into a grocery store and immediately be filled with anxiety. To this day, I am still overcome with this strong desire to just turn around and leave. What stresses me out about grocery stores in the US? There are SO MANY OPTIONS. Not only is the building 20 times the size of most grocery stores in Beijing, but there is an ENTIRE isle devoted just to cereal. To make things worse, you might have the same kind of cereal, but then there are also four different brands that you can chose from, even though they may all taste exactly the same. It seemed like complete overkill and made my decision-making process a nightmare. I like to weigh my options, which often translated into me pacing the cereal isle, picking the four or five cereals that I liked and then very carefully weighing the pros and cons between ingredients, price, flavor, and brand before choosing one of them. And that was my process for just one item.
In Beijing, refrigerators are small, street vendors bring in fresh produce every day, and grocery stores are small and have limited options. In addition, we did not have a car, so I had to rely on public transit, bike, or walking when I needed to buy groceries. I learned a lot from that lifestyle; for one, it makes the most sense to just buy the food that you need for the next few days. This makes it easier to plan meals, since you are only thinking about a few meals at a time. Less planning, check. It also makes it easy to walk to and from the market because you are only carrying a few bags at a time. Health benefit, check. You are also less likely to have food/produce go bad. Less wasteful, check.
I still have anxiety about large grocery stores, but living in downtown Indy fortunately gives me the option of going to smaller stores such as Pogues Run Grocer, the farmer’s market, Marsh O’Malias and Kroger at 16th street, which are all much more tolerable. If I HAVE to go to Target, I bring a friend for support.
2. Getting around town takes more planning.
Living without a car is not impossible, but it does take more planning. If I was going across town, I had to plan in extra time to factor in the bus potentially running late, traffic or having to wait for the train. When I chose to bike, I had to allow myself extra time because it would take a little bit longer than public transit. The great part about biking in Beijing is that there is an entire car-sized lane devoted to bikers, which is separated by a median in the road. Brilliant. Either way, it made for very enjoyable ways to get around town and to this day, I prefer all of those methods to driving a car.
I take the bus in Indianapolis several times a week, mostly when it is raining or too cold for me to bike or walk. The buses in Indy are not quite as reliable as the buses in Beijing and do not come as often, but the bus system has improved tremendously over the past 6 years that I have lived here. I mostly use the 2 and 17 to get to and from work and have had very little issues the past 4 years that I have been using those two routes. It is about a 3-minute walk from my house to either stop and a 5-minute walk from where it drops me downtown to my office. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. Be sure to arrive at the bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to get there, to make sure you don’t miss it.
3. Travel light.
When I would leave the house for the day, I usually wasn’t going to be coming home until dinner or sometimes later, so it was important to pack light. If I didn’t, then my shoulders would be burning by the end of the day. I ditched the idea of giant purses that had anything I could possibly need in them and instead defaulted to a small backpack or shoulder bag. But it is amazing to me how little I actually needed throughout the day; here are the essentials:
- Makeup for touching up throughout the day. Especially because it got hot traveling on public transit all over the city.
- Compact umbrella or poncho. I know ponchos are super ugly, but when it’s down pouring, I was glad to have it.
- A notebook or book. Being on transit was a great time to draw, make lists, or read a book. It forced me to stay on top of current news or refresh my mind with literature.
- Gum. Chinese food is notorious for having a lot of garlic, so this often came in useful. However, this applies to many cultures and types of food.
- Headphones and iPod. Sometimes I just wanted to zone out and listen to music. The hustle and bustle of a city can be a lot to take in constantly, but music is always able to bring some peace to chaos.
- Asprin. There is a lot of pollution in Beijing, and although this is not necessarily true everywhere, it’s a good idea to have a pain reliever on hand in case you need it throughout the day.
- Small sunscreen. This is really only applicable in the summer, but no matter what city you are in, protect you skin and put on sunscreen.
Throw in your wallet, phone, and keys are you are set for the day!
4. Focus on your experiences, rather than “stuff.”
When I lived in Beijing, there were a lot of things that we could not get. For example, if I found a Dr. Pepper at a grocery store, I would buy it, hide it, and then secretly drink that instead of the coke that everyone else was drinking at whatever occasion came up next. It wasn’t so much about the Dr. Pepper itself, it was about the experience of drinking something that was so special and rare. I would only drink it with ice to make sure that the experience was as authentic as possible and savor every sip. I never just downed a Dr. Pepper, because I wanted the enjoy it as long as possible.
I also spent a lot of my time just exploring. There was so much to see in Beijing that it never got old to just jump on a random bus and see where it would take me. Sometimes I would discover beautiful old houtongs or an instrument store that I didn’t know existed. Especially when I was biking, if I was passing something that looked intriguing, I was often able to stop and take it in. Cell phones were barely used at that time, so other than having my headphones in, I was constantly absorbing the world around me. I knew I wasn’t going to live in Beijing forever, so being there taught me to enjoy what I had in that moment, be present, and let the joy of that point in time really resonate with me. These are the memories that are far more vivid than any of the stuff I owned at the time.
5. You can make community spaces your peaceful place.
One of my favorite times of day in Beijing is the morning. If you wake up early enough, when the sun is just rising and walk around the streets, it’s as if the world is coming alive in a slow motion. There might be a group of elderly people practicing tai chi in the park with intention and grace. The movements they make are slow, methodical and beautiful as they switch poses in sync with one another. Old men walk the streets with a birdcage in each hand, swinging the birds back and forth as they walk. Vendors begin to set up their stands at the market, carefully laying out a canvas cloth and meticulously placing each fruit and vegetable in rows, showing off the array of beauty and color. The canal is still and there is a slight mist rising off of the water.
You might think that Beijing is an overwhelming place to live because of the 20 million people who reside within the city. Although that is certainly the case at times, no matter where you are, you can find retreats and peaceful spots. One of my favorite things about simple living is that it gives you an excuse to get out, explore, find seclusion somewhere, to find your thinking spot. I am not a fan of the American mentality that everyone should shut themselves up in their homes and live privately with their private yard and privacy fence. I thrive off of the idea of living together, experiencing together, even if we are not interacting, soak in the energy of the world around you. Take a moment to feel that morning peace and let it sink into you. To me, that is much more powerful than trying to do that on your own.