By Lucy Liu Yang
I was planning my new year’s trip to Hokkaido, Japan, and came across a photo online while gathering information on Hokkaido. It was a photo of an anonymous Japanese girl, wearing a large down jacket with a snow-white cap, with wisps of black straight hair flying in the wind. She had a cute face smiling gently, moving about like a graceful crane dancing towards the sun in the snow. The color of the down jacket was bright red, as vivid as the national flag of Japan. I was, in a mysterious way, immediately smitten by the freshness of the color and the beauty of the young girl. “I’ll wear a red down jacket in Hokkaido, too! And take a photo like that girl, in the all-white snow.” All of a sudden, the idea of purchasing a red down jacket had crept into my mind, and quickly it grew so strong that it became unquenchable. I’d also immediately thought of posting such a photo of myself on Facebook and how others would appreciate it by “liking” my photo.
For the following three evenings, I spent hour after hour at the city’s shopping areas, just to find the right red down jacket. Comparing prices, selecting sizes, hesitating over nuanced color difference, the ordeal of trying on again and again was exhausting, yet while the energy of the body sapped, the intensity of the desire grew. “I must find that perfect red down jacket otherwise the trip to Hokkaido will lose its appeal” – the idea became so firmly embedded in my mind that I could not think of anything else. Finally, the candidates were shortlisted to two but it proved even harder to choose. The longer one or the shorter one? The cheaper one or the more expensive one? The darker one or the brighter one? The wind-proof one or the water-proof one? Such questions kept bombarding me so that I delayed the decision-making moment for another week. There were moments when the rational part of my brain got the upper hand and I began to question myself –“Living in Hong Kong, do I really need such a hefty down jacket? I’ll be in Hokkaido for no more than a week, and the jacket will be consigned to the wardrobe for the rest of the year. Why waste money?” But the troops of Vanity were so fierce that very quickly they defeated my militia of rational thinking. “Money is made to be spent anyway,” a siren whispered in my ear, “just think about how lovely you’ll look in that red down jacket and how happy life will be.”
The weird thing was, the more obsessed I became, the harder it was for me to make a decision. Two weeks later, I brought a friend to help me out of this conundrum. “Why are you so obsessed?” she asked. “I have to choose the perfect red down jacket,” I replied, “the perfect red down jacket to wear in the snow of Hokkaido.” I took her to the shopping mall and asked to try on the two red down jackets. When I got out of the fitting room, my friend took pictures of me wearing those two jackets and showed them to me. “ I can’t see why you’re so bogged down,” she said, “you look good in both of them.”
To my dismay, I did not look like what I thought I would look like. Here standing in the picture was a tired-looking girl with messy hair, a pale chubby face with no make-up, in an oversized flaming red down jacket, looking spiritless and bored. “You know what, I think I look like someone who is delivering pizza, wearing a red uniform of that take-out restaurant. Let’s go.” Almost immediately my passion subsided, and previous worries seemed oddly ridiculous.
I looked up the word obsession in the dictionary: “Obsession,” says the Oxford dictionary, is “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.” The word first appeared in the 1510s, from a French word derived from Latin which means “siege, blockade, a blocking up.” In the 1600s, “obsession” meant a hostile action of an evil spirit that possesses a person without the spirit actually inhabiting the body. It became a psychiatric term in 1901, defined as a persistent idea or impulse that continually forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety and mental illness. Obsession is deeply rooted in our human psychology without us realizing its existence.
My obsession with owning a red down jacket came and went like a tornado, so unexpected and strong, and vanished so quickly without me realizing what had happened. “Sell your clothes—keep your thoughts,” said Thoreau. The Zen Buddhists speak likewise, reminding us of the importance of mindfulness, to avoid the traps and pitfalls of modern life. While such teachings from time to time echo in our ears, it is hard to keep them close to our minds—especially in Hong Kong—the “heaven of material goods.” How had I become so fixated on possessing a red down jacket for days and weeks without thinking over whether it was suitable for me? I have always thought of myself as a person who values intellectual enjoyment more than material possession, but this latest episode of my life gave me an epiphany. I realized that thrift and simplicity should not be taken for granted. If not locked up cautiously, our seeds of vanity, pomposity, and obsession for possession can grow like wild weeds in a no-man’s land. And is it really the city to be blamed? The ancient Chinese poet Tao Yuanming gave his answer: “I chose to live among the secular, without hearing the uproars of traffic. How could it be so you may ask, well, a quiet mind lives in quiet place wherever his body is.”