The ideas behind this really started in 1992, when my son was almost 10, and he and I made the first of our 2 trips to Cairo, Egypt to visit with beloved family. No, wait, it really began when he was 2, in 1984, and my then-husband accepted a teaching post in Uganda, having just graduated from the Episcopal seminary. The words “culture shock” became part of my vocabulary, for many reasons, but for the purpose of this first post, I will focus on one aspect.
Chapter 1: Choices
Oh, but before I start, I have to tell one story about an aspect of culture shock that few think about. Part of our preparation for this mission was undergoing training with a former missionary couple in California. They told a story of what is known as “reverse culture shock” by relaying the tale of a man who had spent many years in an area (I have long since forgotten where) with very few modern conveniences, not to mention no running water or bathrooms. When he finally returned stateside, he would spend hours flushing the toilet, fascinated with watching the swirling water going round and round and round and round.........reverse culture shock with just a touch of madness thrown in to make it interesting. That prompted the Church to start a policy of bringing missionaries home periodically for a break, a time-out, a vacation of sorts to regain their sanity.
Anyway, during our brief sojourn in East Africa, we would go to the market every day or 2 for food, walking to town - he with BS on his back, me with the market basket (which I still have). We could find a good variety of things in town, but we would have to go to quite a few different places to get everything. One place for vegetables & fruit, one for meat, one for bread, another for eggs, and a tiny ‘grocery store’ for canned items & non-perishables. You get the picture. Sure, it was very different from what we were used to, but it wasn’t a long walk, and we were there just long enough to get used to it, even enjoy it - to have it still be a novelty. We were only there for 3 months, but even then, when we got back, my first trip to the grocery store was a bit of a shock. In fact, you could probably fit the entire downtown area of Tororo in a modern Super Wal-Mart. The thing that stuck in my mind the most was the cereal aisle. I could not figure out why anyone needed that many kinds of cereal to choose from.
A picture of Tororo as it looks today. Umm, actually, it hasn't changed at all. This is pretty much how it looked 24 years ago:
Flash forward to 1992 when BS & I made the first of 2 visits to Cairo, with a stop in Gaeta, Italy to visit former neighbors. At each place, our friends would do their shopping in a combination of local merchants for certain perishables, and a larger grocery store for other items. But even their larger grocery stores were small, dare I say insignificant, compared to ours. But you know what? You could find just about everything you needed in them, just not dozens of varieties of each item. It got BS & me to thinking, as we compared daily life in the States with daily life other places, using East Africa, Italy & Egypt for comparison. We started noticing all the choices we have and pondered the effect on our attitudes and priorities. For some reason, the cereal choices in the Cairo market is what keeps coming back to me to illustrate this point.
Let’s break this down. I took a trip to my local Wally World to snap some pictures, but first I did a little research online. A visit to the websites of the cereal giants revealed the following truly disturbing facts:
- General Mills: including the 11 kinds of Cheerios alone, they have a total of 77 different boxed cereals.
- Kellogg's: 59 (this is not counting the 27 different kinds of Eggo frozen pancakes & waffles and 16 different Special K bars)
- Post: 38
- Quaker: 17
But I ask you, please please please tell me - what the f**k does anyone need with over 200 kinds of cereal to choose from? Are we really that hard to please? Do we need all that?
In this series of pictures, I am standing at the end of the cereal aisle, first looking right. Then, since they couldn't fit it all on one side, they had half of the other side filled with cereal. The rest of that side was taken up with all the different kinds of oatmeal and cereal & granola bars.
BS also wanted me to go look at all the different razors you can have a hard time choosing from, but they were really low on a lot of stuff. He claims much angst when trying to decide what kind of razor to buy among all the ridiculous choices - regular, double blade, triple blade, quattro, and now he says there is one with 5 blades. What, were men not able to get a close shave 20 years ago when they thought the double edge was da bomb?
The answer to the question asked way above is "YES", we really have become that hard to please, and therein lies the problem.
We have so many choices in everything, as this syndrome has infected everything from cereal, laundry detergent, sneakers, cars, and everything in between, that we are never satisfied with what we have. No matter what we choose, there will always be someone who has one that is shinier, bigger, newer, has more gadgets, more expensive, etc than the one we have. This does nothing but set us up for constant 'stuff' envy and discontent. Is it any wonder that kids are beating each other up over a miserable pair of tennis shoes because they are a particular, somehow more desirable brand?
I am as guilty of this as anyone. I am in the market for a big screen LCD TV, and when I finally make my selection, I can pretty much guarantee I will have more than one moment of wondering, "maybe I should have gotten the bigger one." Dammit, a few years ago, just the thought of having one would have been a luxurious dream. Now, I will wonder if the one I get is nice enough? What the hell is wrong with that?
When we were in East Africa, we had no refrigerator, oven, or washing machine. We did have bathrooms, and we felt damn lucky for those. As for the things we didn't have, it is amazing how quickly you can adapt. I did the washing in the tub and hung it out to dry. The laundry detergent I had to choose from was New Blue Omo or New Blue Omo. And you know what? It got the clothes just as clean as anything we had back in the States. I didn't have to stand in the laundry detergent aisle, looking at all the claims of superiority over the other brands, and wonder which kind was the "best".
And really, people, they are all pretty much the same. These days I go for smell. I don't care what brand it is, as long as it is cheap and smells good. That's my shampoo philosophy too. Can you imagine the look of horrified panic on someone's face as, in doing someone a favor, they face the hair care aisle armed only with instructions to "pick me up a bottle of shampoo."
Don't get me wrong - I am glad I have choices. I'm glad I have more than New Blue Omo to pick from when I need washing soap. A free-market economy is a good thing. Most of the time. But we have taken it so far that we're not be satisfied with what we have. We have ended up in a society of excess. The demons of "there's a better one" will always be whispering in our ears.
Have you looked at your local street full of car dealers lately? Every town has one - one street with rows of dealers from the different car companies. There are so many models to choose from, and you know what? They all look alike.
Our moms were right. You can have too much of a good thing.
Edited to add: I have nothing against capitalism. I like stuff as much as the next person. But remember when your parents made you work for your first car instead of giving it to you? You appreciate what you have to work for more than you do something that is handed to you with no effort. When there is easy access to so much stuff, we tend to value it less. I would just like to see a happy medium between 'excess' & 'sufficient'.
That's my opinion & I'm sticking to it.