A letter to my hoarder-mother

I am grateful that you never throw anything out. If you will not tell me about your life, I will at least be able to piece it together through your belongings.

Dear Ma,

I don’t think you’ve noticed that I don’t like owning stuff like you do. I don’t like the little trinkets you think are “so cute”, I don’t like the musty dusty “antique” furniture that’s falling apart, and I really regret introducing you to Facebook Marketplace. I hate to break it to you Mum, but you’re a hoarder.

I know proper Chinese children don’t criticise their parents, but I know you won’t be reading this. Your stuff has spilled into your duplex home and made most of its rooms unusable. You constantly say you don’t need to throw anything out, it just needs “organising”. Maybe a sense of safety and order is what you’re really searching for, maybe it’s a form of nesting. I can only really speculate.

What I do know is that you came to this country just after the Tiananmen Square Massacre — but you won’t admit that was the reason you left China. A kind NaiNai took you in as you started working. Her funeral last year was the only time I’ve seen you sob. Looking at your home now, I wonder how much stuff you had when you arrived at her doorstep. You probably didn’t have the six human-sized Chinese vases, or the eight antique lounges and three “very nice wood” dining tables. You probably didn’t have the countless clothes YeYe always brought back from his summers in China — which never made it into your closet — or the stacks of extra textbooks you bought me that I never opened.

I’ve asked you a few times to get rid of some of these things. I mean, you really don’t need the shoes I wore when I was 11, even if they do fit NaiNai I don’t think she really wants metallic ballet flats. Having moved four times in the last five years, I think stuff weighs people down, but maybe that’s exactly what someone who immigrates might want: an anchor.

There’s a TikTok that’s been in the back of my brain for years now, a sound byte of a person saying, “I’m sorry, minimalism is for hot rich people, okay? I’m broke, I need stuff. Having things is who I am.” There’s been a hard pivot in the past few years away from millennial minimalism towards maximalism. Audrey Stanton wrote in August 2020 that “aesthetically pleasing minimalism may look like less, but involves a lot of effort, time, and money.” After years of lockdowns and economic downturn, more people don’t have the effort, time or money to have fewer, more expensive items. To be honest, I think people have given up trying to look wealthy, in favour of looking like they have a real personality.

But Mum, I’m not so generous as to say that your style is “maximalist” in the aesthetic sense. If you worked less, you might have the time to do all the curation that goes into making a beautiful space.

I think stuff is part of our identity, probably more so for you than me… but who am I to judge? Those six human-sized Chinese vases might remind you of the culture you could have had without the Cultural Revolution. The three antique wooden dining tables might make you feel that you belong in this country because you own a part of its history. Stacks of paper and books, old shoes and clothes, tell the story of a life lived. If you just printed out a few thousand labels, your home could be a pretty cool museum of diaspora living.

I can’t imagine immigration, the uprooting of an entire life, and the building of a new one from scratch. You never really talk about it either. Yet, I know you were into photography, travelled across the country with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and made picture frames — I’ve found the negatives, the old certificates, and professional framing equipment at the back of cupboards and under boxes. For this reason, I am grateful that you never throw anything out. If you will not tell me about your life, I will at least be able to piece it together through your belongings.

Perhaps stuff is how we will go on communicating. I’ve only recently figured out that when you bring me those “cute” little rabbits, you’re actually trying to tell me that I’m much more like my zodiac than I know, and I should come with you to the Chinese fortune teller. I’m sorry it took me this long to realise that stuff can be more than clutter: it is also a form of love.

I still don’t like your little trinkets and musty dusty antique furniture, even though I begrudgingly allowed you to place an ornate marble topped side table in my entryway. Weirdly enough, it gets a lot of compliments.

I think it’s growing on me.