In skyping with my parents tonight, I finally put to words something that has been building within me since I arrived in South Africa last January. It was under the context of, with less than two months to go here, what will potentially give me reverse culture shock when I return to the United States. Though there are expected potential culture shocks such as the proportion of black people to white, the presence of interracial couples, or lack of intimate daily contact with extreme poverty, the biggest issue I can see myself facing is the idea of consumption and the idea of deserved consumption.
I dealt with this in Germany to an extent too. You walk in a grocery store, and whereas in America there might be 20 cereal brands to choose from (this is a conservative guess) in Germany there would be 2-3. This was not thought of as abnormal, as “how complicated can cereal get?” Additionally, Germans just really like musli, so there’s that. Here in South Africa it is something similar. Though South Africa is certainly much more developed than I think the Western world gives them credit for, the average yearly income being $1,164 (as opposed to $60,526 in the States) does not inspire consumerism for the sake of consumerism. As such, at the grocery store there are a couple options for each item. Nothing deprivational, just food. You can find things in season, and you can suck it up when they aren’t. The most purchased good food-wise is a loaf of white bread, as for many that alone serves as nutrition for the coming day.
So in evaluating what might shock me in coming home, I realized that pure consumption- much of it for consumptions sake- will be the hardest to witness coming home. The idea in the United States that every product must be exactly personalized to every preference and need- gluten free, low fat, low sugar, high fiber- is slightly ridiculous after spending time here. We have grown up to believe that these products which we like, these things that we regularly buy, are parts of our very character- as if without these items we, as a person, will cease to be 100% us. We tie our personality to our product choices, and feel deprived when those products are no longer offered. We import for year-round fruits and vegetables, as to prevent ever being “deprived” of these foods we love. We buy that new product simply because we’ve never seen it on the shelf before. We pack our kids lunches with the snacks that have been branded to them or serve them Spongebob Mac n’ Cheese because they believe it tastes better when its shaped like him—I myself am guilty of this specifically!
But the problem I have is not in our desire to consume, but in our feelings of deprivation. We, in reality, require very little to survive. We do not specifically need those avocados. If that store went out of business, I would find other clothes. If my favorite cereal went off the shelves, I will find something else to eat. However I know many who get truly upset at the thought of these products disappearing. We are taught to believe that lack of choice is against human expression, but much of the difference in products we consume are small and inconsequential- only to the benefit of the producer/marketer for the product.
In thinking of home I can already see the long lines of items on shelves at grocery stores, and I can feel a sense of confusion of why its all necessary. If more choices were the key to happiness or health, America would be the happiest healthiest place on earth. But it’s not. So why do we think all the hoopla is necessary? Is it a distraction? Are our lives, down to every product we eat, meant to be so personalized? And what does this constant personalization teach our citizens about what they deserve and what is necessary for living? Does it make any difference?
I don’t know. What I know is that in comparing myself to the average South African here I am happy to eat what is provided, and having not been exposed to the choices that are provided in the U.S., many here are happy with a smaller amount of choices and never stop to ask why there aren’t more. Though a couple of years ago there was a phenomenon of youth burning money and cars to show they “didn’t need it” as to indicate wealth, on the whole I find South Africans much less apt to shamelessly display wealth and much less apt to ask for more. This is humbling. However, my stepmom once asked me, “If America is perfectly capable of providing these products and importing goods in season, why shouldn’t they?” And aside from the environmental ramifications of the transportation of these goods, I still don’t have an answer. In this way, my culture shock will be more of confusion, than anything, about how I feel about the contrast between the two countries and how they define what they need.