Binge-watched anything lately? Yes, we all have unabashedly washed the sensational Marie Kondo’s tips and tools on how to organize our things. Her tenets have been ingrained in all of our mommy brains as we swiftly move through our cupboards and cabinets, seeking out the meaning of the term “sparks joy.” We’ve seen and contributed to social media pages peppered with evidence of our hard-fought battles to apply the KonMarie methods to our homes.
I’d already got the hang of tidying up. When we shifted homes and downsized, I had already come to terms with having to part with items that simply could not fit in our new home. And yet, upon seeing my friends sending pictures to one another of their basket-filled cupboards (and fridges too? Really?) and vertically aligned t-shirts and pants, I was intrigued. My determination to binge-watch the show was further cemented by the excruciating pain I experienced upon stepping on a Lego piece when going to give my boys their godforsaken “one last hug.” As I went through each episode like a drug addict, I mentally catalogued each and every tip that Marie had to offer (real reading subtitles), and as I watched, I kept thinking over and over, “this show does not apply to expats.”
There were some ideas that I found universal, for example:
– Thanking each object for how it’s served you, whether you used it or not.
– Folding. Folding. Folding.
– Using the vertical space to maximize the number of items you can put in each drawer.
What concepts do not apply to expats? It’s the main one, i.e. keep only the items the “spark joy.” Sorry, Marie. You’ve met your match when it comes to dealing with expat moms. We don’t look at our clothes and shoes based on what will spark joy. When we hold household items, debating whether to keep them or not, we base our decision on the infinitesimal probability we “might” need them. It’s what I like to call “sparks probability.”
As expats, we are not at a loss for shopping outlets. If we need to purchase something for our kids (a button down shirt for a school concert? A prom dress? A pair of water shoes? An umbrella?), we can usually find those items in the country we’re in. What we do lose, however, is (a) our sanity in trying to find said object and (b) the exorbitant amount of money we have to spend on those objects. Everything coming overseas is so heavily tariffed that we end up spending so much more than if we had purchased the item in our home country.
When I shop in the States every summer, my family is more or less horrified by the amount of stuff I buy:
Mom: “Is he really going to need all those shirts?” (No, but I can give some to others as birthday gifts.)
Sister: “Seriously, do you have to buy something from EVERY store we pass?” Yes, yes I do.
Dad: “How many boxes do you really need?” (Well, that depends on my baggage allowance).
What they don’t realize is that when I spend hours upon hours in outlet malls and doing online shopping, I don’t hold up items and think “does this spark joy?” I look at them and think, “Is there a remote possibility that I will need you this year?” If it’s a yes, it goes in the cart. If it’s a maybe, it goes in the cart. Hell, if it’s a no but maybe someone else will need it, it goes in the cart. The end result is that our expat mom group chat conversations look like this:
“Does anyone need anything from China? I’m here for a few days learning Xigong from my Jedi master.”
“I bought three pairs of shoes and two bags from the Kate Spade outlet. which is more than I would buy in a decade. Did I not mention the word ‘outlet?’.”
“I need to get a prom dress for my daughter and everything is overpriced! I’ll have to get one custom-made, one which she will never wear again.”
“Does anyone have a concert shirt for my son to borrow? I can’t afford to buy one at the mall.”
“My son used his water shoes only once. You guys can borrow them for your children and grandchildren. Just so I get my money’s worth.”
You get the idea. If it sparks probability, you buy it. Maybe two of them. Plus all the accessories that go with it. And one size bigger.
The second concept that doesn’t always translate well for expats is the charity part. If we tidied up our clothes and linens, would we have bags and bags to give away? Can we just go to a thrift shop, dump all the bags and just walk away? Not necessarily. After we factor in the probability of needing those linens and clothes, we tend to hold on to the items, not for ourselves but for people who really need them. Some expats hold onto their charitable items until they travel to another country. Some expats wait for a local cause to open up. Or they might pass items down to their house help. In either case, expats have the opportunity to be more selective in who receives their charity because we see the impact much more directly than others do.
I can’t imagine that everyone translated the concepts from the Marie Kondo show the same way. What I can say, as an expat, is that our ability to “tidy up” is much more limited due to our incessant need to keep items that “spark probability” and our desire to see our charitable items go to people who may truly deserve our things. All in all, I think that the show has definitely affected the way we see ourselves and the items we surround ourselves with.
Adeeba Jafri is a mother of four kids (three teens and a tween), currently living the expat life in a tiny country in the Middle East that she doesn’t want to mention for fear of getting deported. She graduated from Columbia University with a double major in Political Science and History, and is the author of The Baby Garden, Alia and the Story of the Rose, and The Path that Allah Made. Her sarcastic blog posts on expat living have been published on BluntMoms. She manages the FB page Dessert in the Desert, where she posts interdisciplinary Islamic Studies lesson plans and activities for after-school programs. She enjoys food, fitness, writing, teaching, organizing youth group events, reading fantasy novels (to escape all the aforementioned activities) and more food.