As many times as I have flown out of this country I have felt free to leave behind all the trappings of our culture and explore a new one. I embrace it. I love it. I even crave it. I very rarely miss anything American, in fact, when abroad, I often feel released from things I do and am also expected to do in this country.
But when I return, I’m always mostly the same. I spend too much money on clothes, unnecessary lattes and books I could have borrowed from the library. If I have a bad day I feel I am entitled to eat an over-indulgent meal or a pair of shoes I don’t need. None of these things actually make me feel better, and truth be told I am usually doing pretty well, so sometimes I just let my desire to consume take over just because, well, because I can.
These are luxuries I have as a relatively average-income American. And despite what most Americans think, and what I like to think when I am in this mindset, this behavior is not normal. Just like it’s not normal that on a whole the poor in this country are more obese than the rich, and a number of other scandalous, rich-nation characteristics.
I spent 10 days of December in Mexico, staying with my husband’s family in a relatively small town about an hour from a large city, where they have a nice life. They own their home, which is completely paid for (by several years of my husband working in the U.S.). Land, building materials and labor are cheap in Mexico, so what would equal about a year of mortgage payments for me has essentially bought them a very livable, complete home. The floors are tiled and the rooms brightly painted. The coldest it ever gets is about 40 degrees fahrenheit – maybe one or two months each winter, and only at night – so people use heavy blankets during those times and do not install furnaces.
My mother-in-law makes her own tortillas nearby, on another piece of land where they have a few buildings devoted to their small assortment of livestock and a room with a fire pit for various cooking activities. The kitchen in the house, save for a dishwasher, has everything a basic American kitchen would have, but simpler. A man brings milk straight from the cow every other morning, which is then boiled in place of pasteurization. The milkman, old, hunched over and wrinkly, usually has something to eat while chatting with Edith before going about the rest of his day. There is a small open-air room off the back of the house, where they do laundry with a partially automatic washing machine. Since every day is sunny and at least 60 degrees, the “dryer” is up a ladder on the roof — a clothesline.
Remarkably little packaging passes through their home. They bring fruits and vegetables home in crates from their dad’s produce business. Any meat from the market is carried in at most a few plastic bags. Almost anything else that is transferred from here to there is wrapped in something like to an old-fashioned flour sac. Very little is disposable. The things that are include soda (in two-liter bottles, rarely individual cans or bottles), yogurt drinks and maybe the odd snacks brought into the house – a bag of chips, or a store-bought bread, in a bag, not everyday items. Gladware, thank God, has not been introduced.
I observed that the seven-member Fernandez household creates less than a small garbage bag full of actual trash every day, probably less than I create by myself in one day. Food scraps go to the pigs, and there are no styrofoam trays, no Starbucks cups, very few cans or bottles, no egg cartons, no plastic packages for strawberries or apples. Completely opposite of most Americans, The consumer items they buy are most likely from the town’s market, where American-style packaging is just as scarce. One has to travel to Puebla, the nearby city, to find the sort of waste that goes on because of the existence of a single Walmart or Target store.
Besides this, or perhaps alongside it, is the fact that Mexicans in many such towns are not surrounded by advertising everywhere they look. There are some billboards, but its much more likely to be a crude sign advertising a mariachi for hire or a restaurant that serves tacos arabe than the sort of slick, contrived sophistication of planned marketing that bombards many Americans every day.
During the last two weeks a number of people have asked me what it was like being in Mexico around Christmas, or if I exchanged gifts with my husband despite his living in Mexico, or other questions related to the consumer aspects of Christmas so interwined with any religious ceremony remaining. Honestly, most people look at me rather blankly when I explain that Mexicans do not typically give gifts at Christmas, and that my husband and I do a very minimal amount of that among us. I am not exaggerating – blank looks and incomprehenion.
I usually explain the little I know about Mexican holiday traditions, which involves a lot of big community-wide block parties of sort with snacks and ponche (a hot fruit drink, reminiscent of apple cider) and kids attacking pinatas in the street. It’s a time for family, and family members do not worry about not being able to get a new Playstation, or wish they had a slick new camera, or covet a 15th or 150th pair of shoes. There’s no expectation of any of that, and there’s not disappointment either. They spend uncomplicated, easy time together, and they don’t spend their money on a lot of things they don’t need.
Like I said, this consumerism is a luxury of being an American. We literally have so much money we waste it on things we don’t need. In fact I don’t even think we know what we need. Because why, honestly, would any parent buy their obese children another Playstation. God I’m scared of being a parent. I know I often am blinded by the marketing, I spend $60 bucks at Target when I go in for some $5 item, never batting an eye.
But when you aren’t being sold something every second of the day, when you aren’t pressured to spend money recklessly, when you focus on the people in life rather than the mall being crowded and the parking lot full, Christmas, and life, get a lot simpler.