“Howww!” Two Kirghiz Chinese children howled in approval as they raced each other on their three wheeled bicycles. One smacked the other on the back and took off running while panting for breath. I observed the children for a few minutes more and then made my way back to the yurt, where I would spend the night with the two children and their mother. As I scanned their residence I noticed that the only toys they owned were the bicycles they were riding on. They were all smiles and laughs as they chased each other along the grassy terrain as a 7,500 meter high glacier loomed in the background. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” suddenly North American author Thoreau’s quote entered my mind. Keep your life simple and happiness will find its way to you. These children were a prime example.
As I fixated myself on the children playing in rural China, I had a flashback that transported me back to Children’s Day in South Korea. The sun was shining bright and the cool, refreshing breeze that was blowing against the leaves was musical. It was hard to believe that I was in the middle of a city of 12 million people. I saw vivid images of a South Korean family I saw at the park in my neighborhood in Seoul. The mother and father distracted not by their child’s naughty behavior, but by the smart phone in their palms. “Minsoo! Come over here quickly,” they yelled halfheartedly while keeping their eyes locked on the electronic device as their thumbs kept tapping on the screen. A young boy about age 8-10, Minsoo kept walking in the opposite direction, a defiant attitude at such a young age which reminded me of myself. Minsoo also had a smart phone in his hands and didn’t pay his parents any mind. Next to Minsoo’s parents was another family of four. Two parents in their early to mid forties and two children between ages 8-12 years old. This time all four were fixated on their smart phones sitting on a bench distracted from the most important thing in their lives- quality time together. As advertised by the major electronic companies, they were playing with a device developed to help modernize society and bring people together. Unfortunately, it is being abused by many to the point where people are now separated by their electronic devices and do not focus on the present moment. The dopamine spike that computer scientists work so hard to maximize in their smart phone applications was simply too much for them to resist. Even while at the park with their family, the need to be entertained by social media and the Internet was too powerful to be overcome.
Even though I had a very privileged upbringing, I could relate with the Chinese children better than I ever expected. A ball and a group of friends created hours upon hours of free entertainment, exercise, bloody noses, skinned knees and even two broken bones which proved invaluable for character building while growing up. Team building, leadership and the ability to persevere when my body refused to go any further would foster essential life skills. All I needed was a ball and friends and I was happy. This was all before the information revolution took over modern society. Now our ball has become the computer we hold in the palm or our hands while friends exist only through text, pictures and videos.
Minimalism is a way of life that everyone should adopt as responsible global citizens. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements that promise happiness through our consumption of junk. As we continue to be good consumers, our world economy thrives. We work hard to look good in the car we drive to work and show off the new clothes on our back. However, we fail to think about where the items we purchase come from and what effect our excessive greed will have on the environment. “I am just one person. This will make no difference,” we repeat to ourselves to justify our irresponsible behavior. We spend less time with others and our relationships become more and more shallow. As a result, our mental health is being depleted. The pharmaceutical companies and psychologists in the West are making a fortune from the great paradox of our era. My 97 year old grandfather lived through the Great Depression that resulted from the stock market crash in 1929 in the United States and claims that no one suffered from psychological depression during that era. Perhaps this is because people back then focused on the most important thing in their lives- their relationships with others. The happiest moments in my life are when I leave behind all of the items I have accumulated in South Korea and hit the road for two months out of the year. All I need is my tent, bike, warm clothes and company of my fellow global citizens and I am happy.
Yellow dust has become an everyday part of life here in Seoul, South Korea. Eight years ago when I arrived at my new home on the other side of the world, it would make an appearance once a year for one week. Times have changed. Yellow dust forecasts accompany weather forecasts on the news everyday. Nowadays I wake up in the mornings with a sore throat and eye irritation more than three days per week. The vigorous exercise routine that I has become an essential part of my life has been altered as a result of potential lung damage due to inhaling toxic air particles. As I write this blog entry, I have finally been relieved of yellow dust due to a cool rainfall in Seoul which provides a brief escape. People in my neighborhood today told me there is nothing they can do about the present situation and blame the poor air quality on neighboring China. It is time we stop blaming others for the present state of the world and take a serious look at our own personal actions as mature global citizens. There is something you can do about it- all it takes is the courage to act appropriately and speak the truth as you know it. We all have something to learn from the Chinese children in Xinjang- how to enjoy a life of simplicity as responsible citizens of the world.