The Mexican-Chinese home I grew up in was filled with expressions of our family’s culture. Now, my barebones Brooklyn apartment tells a different story.
If you walked into my childhood home in suburban Texas, you’d instantly know you were in a house of immigrants. Our kitchen smelled perpetually of the chives and ginger my mom used to prepare her pork dumplings, decorative plates inspired by the Aztec calendar hung above a red couch in our living room where we hosted gatherings, and an oversaturated CD rack reflected the range of our cultural tastes, with albums by Mexican singer Vicente Fernández sitting on top of Elton John’s Greatest Hits.
You would also notice the clutter: closets filled to the brim with board games like Life and Guess Who?, photo albums so old the prints were fading, cabinets overflowing with receipts from purchases made several years prior, and stacks of expired coupons on the kitchen table. It was 2010 and minimalism had overtaken the aesthetic sensibilities of millennials, thanks in part to money-saving behaviors many people adapted after the 2008 economic crash, and also rising fads like Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method. (The Japanese organizing consultant’s best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, hit stands in December 2010.) As a teenager trying to assimilate into American culture, I was embarrassed that my peers would see my house and judge what I learned to regard as my parents’ hoarding.
When you enter my Brooklyn apartment now, it’s the antithesis of the Mexican-Chinese house I grew up in. The walls are white and bare, devoid of family pictures or Aztec paraphernalia. My apartment looks like it was pulled straight out of minimalism TikTok, a popular niche on the app whose hashtag has more than 411 million views. My living room smells like the subtle essential oils from my Japanese Cypress Muji diffuser, and the centerpiece of the area is a rust-orange wool rug from Etsy, a round, sandy-beige West Elm table, and a black Ikea couch—everything else is blank space. In my kitchen, the pantry is stocked with only the things I’ll need for one week, while my parents’ cabinets were always filled with several months’ worth of paper towels and snacks. My small bedroom closet holds just a few neatly hung shirts; my parents’ was packed with boxes of old shoes and clothes they planned to eventually donate. I feel serene in my apartment, but looking around, it dawns on me that I could be in anyone’s home; almost every design choice was inspired by advice from TikTok.
For young people like me who are living in our own spaces for the first time, minimalism TikTok offers helpful advice for how to keep our apartments tidy with videos like "Five Things You Can Get Rid of Today"—tip number one is getting rid of your mug collection—and even a popular 30-day minimalism challenge. Sure, maximalism and "cluttercore" are also making comebacks, but for a first-generation American like me, going back to an overcrowded apartment would feel like a regression.
I’m proud of the space I’ve made for myself, and yet I feel a nudge of guilt for living somewhere that looks devoid of any indicators of where I’m from. There are days when I wonder how homogenizing my space is a larger reflection of how as I grow older, I’m also getting further and further from my parents’ cultural roots. I speak much less Chinese than I used to as a kid, and as I’ve become a busier adult, I no longer visit my Mexican side of the family every year. The guilt that comes with assimilating is common among first-generation immigrants, who have to grapple with the fact that American culture rewards those who fit in and the reality that we can never fully get rid of the connection we have to our family’s customs.
Ever since I can remember, Ma hated throwing things away, especially if they were attached to a memory. "You never know when the things you consider trash now will be useful later," she’d tell me and my siblings. Ma grew up in communist China before the country fully opened to the West, and everything she had as a child, from food to school supplies, was rationed. When she immigrated to Mexico, where she met my dad, and later the United States, Ma had to shed several parts of herself. She kept a small journal where she’d write every detail about her day and held onto movie theater tickets, theme parks receipts, and other forms of paper documentation as reminders of the experiences she had, knowing that memories were easily lost if they weren’t safeguarded. Perhaps her refusal to throw things away was also a way for her to feel more secure in a world that for most of her life had provided little security. Mementos anchored her in the chaos of time. Dad wasn’t nearly as precious about objects as Ma was, but in our household, Ma always determined what we kept and what was thrown away.
Immigrants and refugees have other practical reasons to accumulate objects. If they come from countries with war or restrictive governments, they’ve likely internalized on a deep level that the world doesn’t have infinite resources. Hoarding is one way to preemptively prepare for worse times to come. When people ran to grocery stores to stockpile toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, for example, my parents already had a stash that lasted them months. (That’s not to say that consumerism and accumulating clutter aren’t very American pastimes.)
This is the opposite of what I see when I scroll through minimalism TikTok, where avoiding excess is encouraged (even though there’s not always a distinction between a minimalist lifestyle and aesthetic). Minimalism TikTok taught me that in a world with so much noise, it’s important to have spaces that invite a clear head. But I’m starting to realize that minimalism is a privilege, and that I’m part of the first generation in my family to feel secure in the idea that I have enough of what I need to survive. In embracing minimalism, maybe I’m not actually disavowing our culture, but honoring it in an entirely different way: by giving us permission to let go.
Top illustration by Junghwa Park.