A few years ago, looking to furnish my new shoebox apartment in Tokyo, I made my rounds of the secondhand shops in the area. At one place, a little far from home, I spotted two super-cute vintage chairs – around $50 for the pair. I loved them. I wanted them. And I bought them. It would have been a hassle to bring them back on public transport, so I ended up paying another $20 or $30 for shipping. It felt much relative to the cost of the chairs. But I liked them enough to overlook it.
I had never properly shopped or invested in furniture before, even $25 chairs, primarily because I had never quite settled in a place of my own. In Irvine, where I lived for six years in a university-owned apartment – the longest I had lived anywhere in my entire life – my biggest purchase was an arcade basketball machine. My residences had generally been furnished by roommates. And where items were lacking, I would fill in the gaps with unimaginative, cost-effective options: a bedside table from Ikea, a desk from Office Depot.
My reticence to invest in nothing but the most basic, low-end items was certainly linked to the transient nature of my existence. I could not help but think about the inevitability of having to get rid of that furniture in due course: nine months, a year – it would go by in the blink of an eye. Indeed, my approach to furniture reflected broader sensibilities linked to the moving around, as I heralded utility above all else. This was reinforced by the fact that I was both a cheap and relatively poor bastard.
As I have mentioned on these pages before, luxury was unknown to my family growing up. We were never quite uncomfortable, but nor were we ever comfortable either. We rented, never owned. We bought Corollas and paid them off over the span of years. I only had two or three years during my childhood and adolescence in which I did not share a room with my sister, until she went off to college. Given how hard my parents worked, given how hard money came by, spending extravagantly simply could not enter the realm of possibility.*
*Naturally, I wasted money anyway, being human and a child. But it was within reason.
Opportunity, however, began to present itself as I grew older. I made a little money working as an undergraduate, then more as a teaching assistant in graduate school. With some semblance of financial independence, I began to do things with regularity that would have been unfathomable when I was younger: engaging in fun travel (if almost exclusively within the States), attending sporting events, and simply going out on weekends for food and drinks and the like.
Thus it was that luxury too came to manifest, even if in spurts and with limits. I had nosebleed seats for my favorite baseball team, but they were season tickets – thousands of dollars’ worth. I bought a laptop or two on sale, even when my existing one was only aging rather than nonfunctional. I picked up small items like DVDs, books, comics, etc. without even thinking twice. I no longer had to dwell on such transactions, but for entirely unexpected reasons: because it WAS possible and not because it was not, as in the past.
Still, I struggled – and continue to struggle – to reconcile the reality of my present with that of my past. Of course, that my mother remains a blue collar worker, that many of my relatives and their social circles remain decidedly lower-middle class (or perhaps upper-lower class), provides a constant reminder of a life that is not quite in the rearview mirror. Additionally, that my own career instability continues to loom provides a constant reminder too of a lifestyle that can be all too fleeting.
Whatever the reason, I certainly have developed mixed feelings about the kind of life I am able to live sometimes. About the kind of world I live in that values a particular skillset over others to the tune that it does, with the kind of inequality that the difference entails. The effect is exacerbated by how it is represented in my own life: in comparison to my parents and how hard they work, in comparison to my sister and the societal value she brings, even in comparison to my own life (and duties) just two or three years ago.
I am able to live my life without dwelling on it most of the time, of course. I am not as good a person as I would like to think. But there are times when it becomes too obvious, too naked – with things that are small and tangible and all too easy to compare. In those moments, I feel somewhere between apprehension and full-fledged guilt. And thus I cannot spend over certain unwritten amounts for clothes, for electronics, especially for extravagant meals, even if I am all too aware that the limits I have set are quite arbitrary.
Indulgences take many forms. I have written of my ability to travel to more places than I could have ever imagined. And while I can rationalize such trips as genuine experiences that will be lodged in my mind in a way that a tangible thing cannot be, in reality one is not too far from the other. Ultimately, I am spending sometimes obscene amounts of money in one go – for a day of fucking around in a new city, for a weekend at a friend’s wedding on the other side of the world, for a week in the woods.
It seems of course misguided to deny myself the opportunities that I have been able to attain – no matter how unfair the world that offered them to me might be. To do so appears as self-righteousness to the extreme, an act meant primarily to assuage my own guilt. The solution then, broadly speaking, is to channel what luxury I have access to now to improve the world around me, to help others when I can. It is something I think about as I continue to pursue that elusive stability. And it is that awareness that allows me to live with myself.
There is a bookend to this. After I left Japan for Switzerland, my friends cared for my two chairs for the better half of a year. But when they left Japan too, I did not want them to simply get rid of the chairs. So, after contemplating my options, I asked for them to ship the pair over. They’re out on my balcony now, the exceptions in what is again an otherwise furnished sublet. It cost me about $250 to ship them over. I’m not particularly proud of that. But for now, I’m still all too conscious that I shouldn’t be proud of that.