I often hear Chinese and expats alike click their tongues in disgust at the flashy cars and loud attitudes of wealthy folk. There is both a need for and resentment of wealth, like a drug the Chinese just can’t quit. After a recent discussion with friends, I’ve been wondering just how China’s legendary materialism matches up to that of the US (I say US because it is my home country; if anyone from elsewhere has an opinion, please chime in).
If we consider that materialism describes a person’s need to have things in order to feel good, and not only to have things but for other people to know they have things, then I’d agree that China is a first-rate material girl.
When put in the context of societal structure, though, I think it compares pretty evenly with the US. In short, China has a less mature consumer market, and still considers having for the sake of having to be novel. The US, a far more mature consumer market, has long since swallowed the consumer’s pill. Materialism is so infused in the US bloodstream that people are not apt to realize how materialistic they are.
First, let’s take a theoretical look at what makes China so materialistic.
I invite anyone to challenge me on this, but as far as I can see, there is no widespread ideology in China that transcends “the society.” Spiritual pursuits not tied to society were attacked under Mao, and while making a bit of a comeback in recent years, are not as deeply and widely understood and appreciated as they once were. Spiritual ideologies are distrusted and systematically marginalized by the powers that be because the existence of any higher authority than the Party is inherently a threat. As the focus is on society and not on the spiritual, anything that connotes higher status in society is highly valued — for face, and at face-value.
Speaking now as an everyday observer, I find that people in China are just practical and honest about the worth of a buck (such as asking how much money one makes, how much things cost, without any regard for how the person feels about being asked these questions). The vast majority of Chinese people have had to struggle for money, and so it makes for an obvious conversation topic and social yardstick.
It’s not a conscious thing, and I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, but America’s consumerism is so highly developed that people don’t realize just how materialistic they are — how much they depend on having things to define them. The best example of this may be the debate over Apple vs. PC. The most heated debaters are often young adults, ages 20-35. This is also the age group with the greatest disparity of income (at least in one’s 20s, just out of college, more than half will not be gainfully employed). And yet as the debate rages over which computer is “better,” it’s clear that price has been disregarded and one’s identity [as associated with the product] has become everything.
In grad school (in China), only one of my 150 Chinese classmates had a Macbook, and she came from incredible wealth. Nearly everyone else had a small netbook, even though they also came from fairly well-off families. A handful had iPads. Meanwhile, most of my American classmates (about 100 of them) were borrowing heavily to pay for grad school — not at all on Mom and Dad’s penny (this distinction is important because as far as I know, not one of my Chinese classmates was paying for his or her own tuition). It often seemed that most of my American friends could not bear to go without their expensive electronics (Apple or otherwise), regardless of their employment status (none were employed; we were students). When my computer crashed, my American classmates were eager to exhort me into buying this-or-that computer, often stroking their own laptops as they did so, some even literally professing their love for it. My Chinese classmates, by contrast, told me where to get it fixed, and where was cheapest, and if I was set on buying a new one to make sure to get it overseas, where they adamantly believe electronics to be cheaper.
One could argue that Americans care more about quality than Chinese do, and therefore won’t buy stuff for the sake of having it as the Chinese might, but that does not change the fact that Americans still need [quality] things. The issue lies more in Americans’ inability to separate material (especially techno-consumerism) from their identities. America is so accustomed to its wealth that we are loathe to part with the products that make us who we are. Working in sales in China, I can attest that “vanity over value” is still a ruling mantra (and can write about that another time). In the meantime, I think I’ve made my point clear: that America is just as materialistic as China, but it is so ingrained that people do not even notice when their own identities rest on things.
I invite discussion, and also encourage everyone to read or listen to an incredible commencement address by the legendary writer Jonathan Franzen, which also addresses the issue of self, identity, and techno-consumerism in America.