Back in high school, North Face jackets were everything. Even at the slightest hint of winter, you would immediately find an army of kids decked out in their latest gear. Whatever North Face’s marketing department was doing in the Lower East Side, it was definitely working. The brand grew into a cult of sorts and of course, I was the odd one out because my mother was an eternal pragmatist and the thought of spending $300 dollars on a black rain coat was ludicrous.
Nonetheless, the pressure was strong. Even kids with counterfeit jackets were adopted into the “cool” circle and the puffy coat I owned stuck out like a sore thumb. I still remember the bright red goose-down from Nautica’s winter of 98 collection. I looked like a walking communist balloon but instead of sickle and hammer, mine was punctuated with a sailboat. The urge to fit in and belong was so overwhelming that I mustered up all the savings I had one weekend and spent it all… all $324.99 on this beautiful GoreTex jacket completely furnished with a hood and secret pockets to help me conquer a winter apocalypse but would not keep me warm…
I’m sharing this story because this might be the same level of fervor that the Wang Shangku must have felt when the 17 year old decided to sell his kidney to buy an iPad. Or this gentleman that spent two years worth of salary to buy 99 iPhones as a romantic gesture of proposing to his girlfriend. Materialism is at an all time high with Chinese but what’s confounding is the irrational driver behind this urge to spend.
The flight up to our apartment told stories of unfixed plumbing issues and neglect. When we first learned that NYC was getting a tenement museum, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the appeal of paying money to visit one when we couldn’t wait to get out of ours. We shared a two-bed apartment near Madison for less than a year and were relieved when grandpa took us in. The hard and fast grind brought my parents out of Chinatown all together into small town New Jersey. Like a switch of a button, we transported into the middle class. My dad caved in and bought his first luxury car. We took our first family vacation to the Caribbeans. Rapid social mobility brought us infinite possibilities but it also came at a cost.
Our family experience was reflective of the Chinese global economic mobility in the past 20 years. Millions of Chinese were lifted out of poverty and many were suddenly propelled into the millionaire’s club. With this escalation, also came obscene spending. Report from Ipsos ranked China the most materialistic country in the world that outspends everyone else in the luxury goods market.
If you’ve ever been to a Fujianese American Wedding (which I highly recommend), in addition to the magicians and dancers, you’ll certainly find a ludicrous display of spending/giving. At a recent wedding, I could barely keep my jaw closed when the MC announced that the groom’s dad was giving him $888,888 along with the key to a new BMW. More than a signal of affection, it also screamed to the world that we belong… that we matter.
For 200 years, western colonialism carved up much of Asia, forcing unfair trades and exploitation. And while countries like China and India have risen out of that era of submission, the taste of shame remains on the tongues of many Asians and Chinese Americans. On a macro-level, our materialism is a response of indignation.
“What’s so great about them (White Americans)? They’re probably making just enough to pay for rent and cheap alcohol!” A man at the wedding table shouted at us as he grabbed a chopstick full of abalone. He continued, “So what if they’re more cultured and better educated than we are…look at this $1,000 coat. They can’t even afford this in a lifetime.” He points to his Burberry jacket. In a culture where money speaks loudest, our humanity can easily get drowned out by the noise.
Russ Harris categorizes this as our impulse to control our anxieties. And this impulse is initiated by thoughts we all struggle with. Think about the time when you were made fun of because of your English, when you’ve been denied a promotion, or when you’ve been rejected because your coat looks like a giant red balloon. These triggers set off thoughts of insecurity and inadequacy and a quick fix is to look at your new Rolex and say – I’m fine. I’m rich. I’m impenetrable. For Fujianese Americans, the growing sense of materialism is a control mechanism to tame this fear of not-belonging.
So what’s left to do? Should I sell my Mercedes and go live out the rest of my life in a monastery? The short answer is no and there are two perspectives to share here:
- Materialism is a condition of economic development. The next four most materialistic countries were India, Turkey, Brazil, and South Korea. This suggests that materialism is not only a cause of economic growth but also a necessity. How would the economy grow if people didn’t buy stuff, however superfluous it may be? Some have even argued that our heighten sense of materialism would be alleviated if only China overtook U.S. as the dominant global economy.
- A value-driven life breaks you out of the happiness trap. A key point that Harris makes is that we all use quick fixes to get us through tough times whether it be the next greatest phone or an expensive bag. A more sustainable approach is to have your actions be driven by your value(s). For most Fujianese, family sits at the center. Can you maybe substitute that new car with more time with the family? Can you also lean on your family to get through unhelpful thoughts that were triggering you? A value-driven life provides you with a compass for which you can measure whether or not a thought or action is helpful in actualizing yourself.
I never built up enough courage to tell my mother that I had spent all that money on an expensive raincoat. Today, that jacket remains an expensive raincoat. But more than a raincoat, I kept it as a reminder of my once incredible urge to belong as well as other foolish yearnings that motivated me.