01 April 2013

The Race of Consumerism

Everything I look at lately seems to scream out a new example of needs vs. wants and the culture surrounding consumerism. My decision to go to Thailand was fueled partly by my desire to gain some clarity on this global issue and to find more peace within myself.

What does money mean? In Seattle, where I live in America, I had never really stood still long enough to think about this question. Living in Thailand, I have for once been able to exist in a space where I can slow my world down enough to see clearly. In this moment I see money as simply a chosen medium we have attached to, used to ascribe meaning to our lives, to give us directional, measurable goals and comparison to others. The shallow race “to make money” is used to focus our attention on a surface layer so we do not need to unearth real feelings for why we behave.

This seems to be crystal clear when I we are staying with families in the rural villages in Northeast Thailand. (As part of our program, we stay in home stays in communities that have been affected by recent Thai globalization projects. My most recent host family lived in a farming community affected by a nearby mine, in which a recent chemical spill at the plant had contaminated their farmland and water supply).

We are so wrapped up in money that we have lost ourselves and our meaning. We are chasing something void, running around in circles and moving so fast we only catch blurry glimpses of life passing by us. I have heard many times that money does not make us happy but I have never in my life felt it or really understood the statement on a gut level.

As part of our courses here, we got the opportunity to interview an NGO (Non-Government Organizer) named P’Suwit who has helped Thai communities in the Northeast deal with humans rights issues surrounding dams and mines in their area. P’ Suwit was the kind of speaker who made you stop what you were doing and listen. Even through the lag of the translation, his words hit me straight in the face.

He said that he has seen some people in the villages receive financial compensation for their damages to their farmland or livelihood. But they often don’t know what to do with this money and often buy meaningless objects or technology. These things are not equivalent to the farming land or livelihood they have lost, and the compensation may actually due more damages by starting them on a rat race of their own. P’ Suwit used an example of families with open house layouts using the extra money to renovate their houses and building walls and windows where it used to be open to the community. The money is used to assimilate to an “ideal” modern lifestyle but because of it, the connection between people is slowly being lost.

It is definitely not money that is the answer because these people I have met in the rural communities in Northeast Thailand have very little of it and they seem to be extraordinary people. These people do not have many fancy things, but they are strong, kind people with amazing characters. The children seem joyous and the community seems connected with a genuine caring for one another.

I want to acknowledge that these opinions are not intended to be deprecating in any way to people who have done well for themselves financially. I am simply pointing out that it is worth thinking of what else is driving you and what your purchases mean. Thai Food for Thought.

Aziza Seykota 
University of Washington

6 comments:

Emily Neubig said...

I have had similar thoughts about money here in the Dominican Republic, and the kinds of behavior that it solicits. While people are always going to go after money and that is something we cannot control, we can control how we ourselves perceive money, and be consciously aware of the way it makes us behave. I have learned here, as I am sure you have in Thailand, that we dont need as much money as we think we do. There is something to be said for resourcefulness, for appreciation of the multi-function of many things in our lives. I hope to return to my life in the U.S with more clarity between needs and wants.

Jessica Kruger said...

Aziza,

I appreciate your Thai Food for Thought and can definitely relate it to experiences I have had here in the Dominican Republic. Not only within our experiences here in Santiago, but also within the opportunities we have had to travel throughout the country, we have seen many different lifestyles and people with different sources of income. And I can definitely say that the people in the rural areas are equally as extraordinary, with some of the best characters and values I have encountered within my experience.

I also strongly agree with the point that P’Suwit made in your interview regarding the problem of simply rewarding families with financial compensation after they have lost their farming land and source of livelihood. These families often don’t know the best way to spend this money for their benefit, nor does it compensate what they have lost. We have also explored the topic of giving money to those who aren’t in the best situations, and have come to the conclusion that it is neither sustainable nor effective in the long run. Simply giving money to someone in a distraught situation is not tackling the roots of poverty nor the social problems it creates. The problems are more deeply rooted, and we ought to re-explore the concept of money and what it means to us.

Good luck with the rest of your semester!
Jessica Kruger

Melanie M said...

The rat race for money makes me think about the discussions we've been having lately about alternative economies, and how American education, expectations, and ideals often leave us with no physical skills. Sure, we know how to think and analyze, but when it comes to actually making ourselves useful (for instance, in a barter economy), I’m afraid there isn’t much to offer. Plus, these money-making jobs – everything in the financial sector, big business – how do they encourage qualities that make up what it is to be a good person? Disengaging from personal interactions, reducing relationships to monetary exchanges, jobs that are about individually getting ahead, or your company individually getting ahead, all promote values that completely miss the point of what it is to be human. To be ‘happy’. I’ve always said that money doesn’t matter when it comes to my future, that I want to do something that brings me happiness above all else – but it’s only since I’ve been here where I’ve realized what that really means. We are social beings; we evolved in small communities where we really knew the people around us, and our exchanges were deeper than currency changing hands. Why is that now so distant from the way of life that many strive for? Money can’t buy community.

Jeremy Starn said...

I couldn't agree more with you Mel. hearing what you said affirmed what I have been thinking about, and it broke out into a wild epiphany. We should be learning how to build houses, how to teach others, to grow our own food and enjoy working outside instead of researching abstract concepts in a dimly lit room. This helps no one and hurts your eyes. Money is also inherently connected to possessions. We make money so we can spend it on things that cost more than we have. So lets change this system instead of talking about how bad it is. lets move away from our computers, go outside and learn how to help others and ourselves by physically doing something.

Maia Cole said...

Consumerism is a very tricky subject to discuss because we all feel implicated as consumers in some way. We are so often surrounded by clothes, jewelry and other often useless souvenirs to buy. The consumerist culture has taught us that we can buy an image, and therefore an identity, for ourselves. Aziza, you mention the problem with our shallow race to make money. I think this is fueled by an underlying desire to achieve a certain image in society; it is a socialized desire, created and perpetuated by advertisements, media, and our peers. Consuming serves as a distraction from other, much scarier, issues of identity and self. We try to smother ourselves in things so that we don’t have to hash out who we are and what we stand for. It’s easier. We let ourselves slip into the identity of consumers. Instead, we should be mindful of why we shop and whether everything we buy is necessary.

Kenny Strauss said...

Aziza,
I have noticed many of the same things in the Dominican Republic that you have mentioned in this article. A lot of people in this country would be considered to be of lower economic status compared to the rest of the world. But I have yet to see or meet a single person here who acts like it or shows it. Everyone has a smile on their face no matter their economic status, as people are more focused on creating relationships than worrying too much about their money situation. This trip has given me time to slow down my life, not worry about money situation, and has given me the opportunity to connect with people on a deeper level. I am truly grateful to have been given this opportunity and have taken advantage of it to the fullest! I hope that you had a great semester and found your inner peace!
Good luck and enjoy!
Kenny