Two things happen when I return to America after an extended sojourn abroad: I experience a reverse culture shock, and I begin ordering lots of stuff online. The reverse culture shock was huge when I began traveling, but has diminished over the years as I’ve gotten used to quickly adjusting to American life. However, the urge to start buying lots of stuff has never diminished.
America has always been my “refueling station” during long living abroad stints. Back in 2011, I returned to The Land of The Free after living for a few years in Brazil. One of the first things I did was order a bunch of stuff online to replace worn out, lost or stolen items. A year later, I spent few months living in Miami Beach with a good friend who spends most of the year working abroad. Unsurprisingly, he spent most of his time also ordering packages on Amazon.
Buying things in America is extremely convenient. First, things like electronics are much cheaper here than abroad (electronics in countries like Brazil are 2-2.5x more expensive, but typically expect to pay 20-25% more in other countries because of higher customs fees and things like sales tax or VAT). Second, buying stuff is super easy. I don’t remember the last time I bought anything important at a brick and mortar store; everything I need is conveniently ordered online.
Thus, it’s no surprise that one of the first things I did after returning to New York after spending a year in Ukraine was to jump on Amazon and order a bunch of stuff.
At first, I bought only the stuff I really needed. I bought a new suitcase to replace one that was stolen in Ukraine last year. I bought new headphones to replace old ones that stopped working. I also bought some extra batteries for various accessories and a bunch of other miscellaneous items.
But then, something else happened: I began buying stuff that I didn’t truly really need and could live without. I bought audio equipment (including a nice microphone) and a bunch of random travel gadgets and tools. All of that was seamless thanks to something I thought I’d never sign up for in my lifetime: an Amazon Prime account.
Amazon Prime makes the process of buying anything you want magical. It’s like Uber for transportation. I put a bunch of stuff in my shopping basket, click checkout, and in two days or less, I’m unboxing the goods. Actually, many of my orders were in my possession in only one business day; few were even delivered the very same day.
This convenience makes it seductively easy to convince yourself into buying a bunch of things that you don’t generally need, things I’d never go to a physical store for. Ever dream of becoming a photographer? Forget about taking the bus or driving to your favorite camera store. Pick a nice DSLR/mirrorless camera, add a couple of nice lenses, a nice case or two, and in a day or two you’ve got the gear to become the best photographer.
Humans and products
There’s another reason why I’ve suddenly become addicted to consumption. This has less to do with conveniences like Amazon Prime and more to do with American culture as a whole.
When I lived in Brazil, I never had any desire to buy anything other than replacing underwear with holes in it. I had a cheap Nokia phone, no camera and no expensive gadgets of any kind. I might’ve had a TV in my apartment but because I was outside most of the time, I don’t remember watching it even once. I spent time walking around the city and meeting random people.
Looking back, it was actually one of the happiest and most fulfilled periods in my entire life.
The environment you inhabit influences you in a multitude of ways; as humans, we tend to mimic the people around us. When I lived in Lithuania or Ukraine, it was pretty rare to see people sporting the latest and greatest products. Most people either had old iPhones or cheap Chinese Androids. So, I didn’t have much of a desire to upgrade. From 2011 to 2016, I had an old iPhone 4S that was as slow as molasses with the battery lasting few hours. It made calls and sent texts, which was all that mattered.
Later, I returned to the US and noticed that my entire family (including my non-tech mother) were all sporting the very latest iPhones. I promptly picked up one as well. Money aside, it’s much easier to rationalize buying a new model when everyone around you has one.
Consumerism in America is so persuasive that products and service actually define people instead of the other way around. Recently, I was out with some friends in some Brooklyn bar. One guy mentioned that he noticed a cool new documentary on Netflix. A girl mentioned how she’s been enjoying Amazon Prime Video ever since subscribing to Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime seemed like a popular topic because someone else mentioned using Amazon Echo to order stuff by speaking to it.
That could be just people I know, but when everyone around you is discussing various products and touting their benefits and how they make their lives easier, it becomes much easier to pull trigger and order one yourself—especially when you have Amazon Prime account with its super quick delivery. Most of it happens subconsciously even without us being aware of it.
That kind of conversation would never take place in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Romania, Colombia or Ukraine.
However, the biggest reason I never have the urge to buy stuff when I’m living abroad is that I don’t crave new products. My life is satisfying without them. I vividly remember the reverse culture shock I experienced just after returning home from Brazil. I had just landed in Miami and my friend picked me up from the airport. We drove to a friend’s house and entered his apartment. There were about three guys inside watching some sports game on a huge 65” TV.
Maybe you don’t find anything strange, but I immediately felt out of place. The weather outside was perfect, a balmy 75F (25C). The pristine white sand beach—one of the best beaches in the world—was a mere ten-minute walk. It wasn’t even that late. Yet, judging by this guy’s investment in a large TV, he loved spending time indoors. I immediately remembered that merely 24 hours ago I was in Brazil—seemingly on another planet—and spending time indoors glued to the TV when you have gorgeous weather outside is nothing less than an act of self-punishment.
This is why people are so addicted to their products in America. It gives them the connection that they otherwise lack. In New York City, where I’ve grown up, people are always zooming from place to place, either glued to their phones or listening to headphones, isolated and disconnected from each other. It’s truly a sad sight. In Colombia or Romania, I could easily meet people on the streets, but if I did that in NYC, people would think I’m crazy.
Humans are social animals. We must be able to form connections with others. There’s nothing more fulfilling than meeting and forming connections with like-minded people.
It’s only when you’re unable to satisfy these basic human needs that you’re forced to compensate in some other way. So, you get a Netflix membership to watch the latest and greatest shows and documentaries that feature people you can relate with. Or, you buy the latest and greatest iPhone so you can take pictures and share them on Instagram for others to see and connect with you.
When I lived and worked in San Francisco, I went shopping for random stuff almost every single weekend, spending several hundred dollars on “stuff.” But I could never imagine buying random stuff every weekend if I was living Rio de Janeiro, Bali or Kiev. Having a Netflix subscription while living in Rio or Bali? Constantly buying stuff on Amazon while living in Lagos, Nigeria? Although you lack the convenience, the psychological cravings are gone because you’re able to obtain them via the environment.
Products—at least those we don’t require for survival—help to compensate the isolation and atomization we feel as a result of living in a Western society where everyone is out for themselves and traditional human bonds are weak to nonexistent. Coupled with heavy marketing and advertising that aims to position those products as salvation to a society that’s desperately searching for meaning, and you have the perfect recipe for a robust consumer class.
Consumerism is tightly woven into the fabric of American culture. Unlike countries like Japan or China, whose economies are based on production, America’s economy is based on consumption. Everything is structured around getting you to buy the latest and greatest product. Black Friday can be seen as a spiritual gathering. Instead of going to a church, the choice of worship becomes the nearby Walmart or Target.
The inherent isolation and atomization of American society mean that we seek a certain salvation by purchasing products and service. Since everyone is doing their own thing, it’s hard to connect with people directly, so you’re left with buying products and services in order to form connections indirectly.
America is my Thanksgiving: a once-a-year opportunity to pig out and order everything that I wanted during the year but couldn’t because I was living in a country where capitalism and consumerism are decidedly at a lower priority as compared to forming rich human connections. Getting my hands on the latest and greatest gadgets and tools when I’m in America, and still enjoying life to the fullest when I’m not is truly the best of both worlds.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.