Thursday, May 31, 2007

Last week's column

THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL



Caught in a Shopping Frenzy
On a Return Trip to America
May 25, 2007


My family recently made an impromptu, whirlwind eight-day trip to New York and New Jersey. We had a great time visiting with friends and families -- and shopping. Though it pains me to admit it, we get sucked into a commercial frenzy every time we visit the U.S.

We usually head home for lengthy, well-planned trips, armed with a list of things we want to buy. But it was no different on an unexpected, unusually short trip with no buying agenda. Though there are less and less things I feel I can't get in Beijing, every time I set foot in America I am overcome with a desire to buy, buy, buy.

One nice thing about living in China has been the lack of commercialism assaulting the kids. This is partly because they have not refined marketing here and partly because we live somewhat outside the mainstream culture. Our consumer desires just aren't being constantly massaged and ramped up. We don't have 10 catalogues a week coming into our house. The kids don't watch much TV so they don't see commercials. We almost never go to McDonald's or Burger King, and when we do, they don't have tie-in product giveaways, reminding them of the current hot movie or TV show.


Partly as a result, we buy a lot less plastic. It never occurred to me that the best way to escape the lure of mountains of Chinese-made merchandise would be moving to China. Almost all the Chinese-made goods you see in places like Costco and Wal-Mart are export-only, not available domestically.

Leaving your home culture behind gives you the opportunity to view it with some critical perspective. I can only describe my relationship toward America's consumer culture as love/hate.

While cradle-to-grave marketing is now a fact of American life, it seems to peak around the release of a Hollywood blockbuster. Because our trip coincided with the debut of Spider Man 3, I witnessed the broadside in full bloom, getting caught in the middle of two promo events when I least expected them.

The Museum of Natural History had a special live spiders exhibit, featuring an appearance by Spidey himself. They were handing out glossies of Spider Man signed by the movie's director to the many people waiting in line, including an alarming number of adults dressed up like Spider Man and mixed between the kids.

It was more of the same at the Central Park Zoo, where "Spider Man Week" buttons were handed out to nursery and primary school students -- all too young to appropriately view Spider Man 3. It's no wonder that most of our friends seemed to be taking their kids to see the movie with an air of inevitability. Luckily, it was a non-issue in our family because our kids were far more interested in shopping. They now regard the little overpriced toy store in our hometown a toy nirvana, filled with Legos, Playmobil and other things you can't easily find here.

They are not the only ones flush with buying fever. I never leave America without at least five pounds of Peets coffee, which I also have shipped to anyone coming to visit. I have long loved this stuff, but it has taken on a huge significance since moving here as a sort of bridge to my previous life, and I feel mournful when it's running out. We also always bring back some chocolate and other goodies for the kids. But that doesn't even scratch the surface of the shopping we engage in. We usually start with a list of things we need and then get sucked into cartloads of more stuff, much of which we of course don't need, and much more of which we could just find and buy here, with a small amount of effort.

On this trip, we were relatively subdued. We didn't have time to hit Target or Costco. But we made it to the mall one afternoon, outfitting the kids in Land's End at Sears and myself in a typically boring spring wardrobe at the Gap. We also went to a sports store, where we picked up a box of soft baseballs and an aluminum bat for 9-year-old Jacob, who is playing Little League here and loving it, a little pink mitt for 3-year-old Anna and assorted other items. The next day my wife Rebecca made it to a higher end mall with a bevy of aunts and sisters-in-law in tow, to do some power clothes buying.

We had a new mountain of things with which to return, and that was just the Jersey shopping spree. One blurry New York morning, Rebecca and I went to Banana Republic, where we both dropped big coin augmenting our closets. You'd be surprised how scintillating a Banana Republic feels after living in China. I was just warming up, moving on to a New Balance store for two new pairs of shoes.

Granted, it's hard to get 11.5 extra wide shoes in China, but I was firmly in the grip of a frenzy. It continued at Manny's Music, which I entered to buy some guitar strings and picks and left with a new Fender Telecaster Deluxe. I was now fully loaded down, walking around New York to meet friends dragging packages and bags behind me like some sort of crazed bagman. And I wasn't done yet.

A photographer friend took me shopping for a new Canon. I had to replace the portable DVD player which had blown up -- no way we were getting back on the plane without one of those. I got one with a long battery life, and picked up an extra external battery to boot, on the recommendation of one of my readers. By the time I waddled my way onto a PATH train back to New Jersey, I could barely stand upright.

Now it was time to begin our "how the hell are we going to get all this stuff back?" dance, which we engage in every trip, comically wrestling with a growing pile of possessions. It should be getting easier to return with more goods than the average Chinese family probably owns. We no longer leave China with our bags stuffed too full, and we always toss an empty duffle in before we leave. But we needed even more room, so hours before our scheduled airport pickup, I left a house full of friends and family downstairs to rummage through the attic for an extra bag.

We still weren't quite done. Realizing that my folks had returned to Pittsburgh with six-year-old Eli's Gameboy and fearing getting on the plane without one, we asked our driver to pull off Brooklyn's Belt Parkway at the Coney Island Toys R Us. When we finally made it to Kennedy Airport, we grabbed some final goodies at McDonalds –"Look, American Idol toys!" -- and waddled through security and onto the plane, dragging our possessions like so much dead weight.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on NBA expats.

Glad to see God Shamgodd is still playing and still trying. Most importantly it sounds like he has matured considerably and has grown from the international experience. Great to hear he has a wife and family and is investing for the future.

Always felt bad that he did not stay in college another year where he would have been a big star in college basketball and set himself up better for the pros.

His best days are quite likely still ahead.
-- Kenneth G. Kraetzer

***

Shamm's experiences of living in China in an out-of-the-way place will serve him very well long after his playing days are over.

I especially loved the part about his saving and making good investments. The internet with IM and SKYPE has certainly been a plus for him but still it took moxie to do what he has done.

Please send Mr. Shammgod my best wishes and pride in what he is doing for him and his family.
-- Frank Tew

***

I went to PC [Providence College] with Shamm and even played against him in high school. I know that God always recognized me when we'd pass each other on campus. Although he was treated literally like a God there, he seemed to remain down to earth and reasonably humble.

Before they went play in the Sweet 16, Shamm had a quote at a student body best-wishes party that I'll never forget: "We must be butter because we're on a roll."

He brought a ton of joy to the PC family and I hope that one day he makes it back to the NBA. It would make so many people extremely proud.
-- Patrick Judge

I really enjoyed spending time with Shammgod and have remained in touch with him. He is a great guy, perceptive, bright and funny. As someone who has watched a lot of NBA basketball, I feel somewhat qualified to also note that I do think he has the skills to be in the League. He has made some strange career choices in that regard, including playing in China instead of Europe, mostly because the shorter season allows him to have about three extra months at home with his family.

I was discussing him with one high-ranking NBA official who said something that really depressed me: "Maybe he would have had another shot by now if he had a more normal name." I don't know if that's true, but it was a sad commentary.


***

How on earth does Shammgod maintain his health and keep his stamina on a diet of McDonalds, rice and Coke? I just chased a mushroom calzone with a Sprite and I feel like taking a nap. I can understand his apprehension to trying local cuisine, though. When I was in Beijing with my family we caved after only a few days and went out for burgers at the Hard Rock. And we were staying at the Palace.
-- Margaret Myers

I too continue to be amazed that he can function at a high level athletically with his diet. I think the key is, he doesn't overeat and he does eat a lot fruit. It is really sort of sad because Shanxi is famous for its noodles and with a little bit of effort, Shammgod could eat a solid local diet of not-so-odd food. It is a classic example of bad communication. No one on the team has ever bothered to make the effort to bridge this gap.

My column is also translated into Chinese. The forums there were filled with outrage at this insult to Chinese cuisine. Food is very important here and that really struck a nerve. I felt that it was a big missed opportunity.

No comments: