When I visit the US I'm never quite sure how long it will take me to adjust or how I will react. Memories, both positive and negative abound. The longer that I live outside of the US, the more that I find reverse culture shock reverberating throughout my body.
On the surface, at least in my parent's gated retirement community in Mission Viejo, California, it seems that the US is just as brightly polished as ever. The refrigerator/freezer is fully stocked with all kinds of delicacies, the power is always on, the swimming pools are full of crystal clear water and the sky is blue, with seemingly no pollution. Although there are huge water issues in California, the grass is green and well-manicured, and the flowers are in full bloom in a rainbow of colors; the streets are bereft of garbage and there are trees everywhere, neatly planted. People in shiny cars drive in lines obeying traffic lights and rules and pedestrians and other vehicles are usually given the right of way. I haven't seen one person weaving in and out of traffic riding a motorcycle, clogging up the roads. Could this be paradise, the place that everyone wants to come to in order to fulfill their dreams?
Consumerism is seemingly alive. In general department stores are full of lots of stuff, providing a diversity of products made mostly outside of the US, in places such as China, Vietnam and a variety of developing countries. The grocery stores all seem to be a "horn of plenty" with fruits and vegetables (and packaged products) literally flowing out of the doors. In some sense this is obscene, i.e. why do people need so many choices of, e.g. ice cream? On the other hand this is capitalism (gone berserk).
I walk into a department store and I don't know where to look, there are so many "shiny" objects. I feel energy buzzing, running throughout my body as my synapses, out of control, are firing on all levels. I think that I might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as I want to run through the store and grab everything that I can and buy to no end. However my stomach, my barometer as to how I'm really feeling, as if I'm on a roller coaster, begins to rapidly descend into an endless, dark pit, and I sense impending doom. Fortunately, I snap back to reality and know that I can keep myself from contracting Affluenza; that feeling of never being fulfilled in a unending quest to keep up with others, causing indebtedness in order to pursue the American Dream or an unsustainable addiction to what some of us perceive as economic growth, although it is nothing more than out-of-control mass consumerism.
I read an article in the Los Angeles Times, "A can-do prom project" about a teenager who is collecting beverage can pull tabs to make her prom dress because her family is very poor. The article indicates that at times the teenager does her homework by candlelight whenever the power gets cut off or if the water goes she fills bottles at school in order to wash her hair. A friend tells me that there are more homeless people, very visible, in the Los Angeles area and today I see piles of clothes and tents underneath a highway underpass, and I ask myself, "What happened to the American Dream"?
"Approximately 14.5 percent of U.S. households struggle to put enough food on the table. More than 48 million Americans--including 15.9 million children--live in these households. More than one in five children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, nearly one in three children is at risk of hunger."
The movie, Inequality for All featuring Robert Reich the former US Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, points out the fact that the inequality gap is growing and the middle class, the real driver of the economy, is shrinking. Out of 141 countries, the U.S. has the 4th-highest degree of wealth inequality in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon. In 1983 the poorest 47% of America had $15,000 per family, 2.5 percent of the nation's wealth.
"In 2009 the poorest 47% of America owned ZERO PERCENT of the nation's wealth (their debt exceeded their assets). At the other extreme, the 400 wealthiest Americans own as much wealth as 80 million families - 62% of America."
In fact this is the real America; however the mindset continues to be to want to have more, instead of being all right with less. Although the US population is only 5 percent of the world's population Americans consume between 24-30 percent of the world's resources.
A reader of one of my recent columns wrote, "I'd like you to continue where you ended - about how "Less can be more and more can be less" from your personal experience - especially for our youth, so that they won't keep on searching for "Greener Pastures"."
In fact what I've found from living first in India and then Nepal is that we don't need too much to live, at least on a material scale. If I had contracted "Affluenza" I would never have enough. I would perpetually be on a spinning wheel like a hamster in a cage, never getting anywhere, but continuing to run as fast as I could. Learning to need less has enabled me to have a much richer life, not in a material sense, but in terms of life experience.
For many people living in "developing countries", the pursuit of the American Dream, seeing pictures of tall buildings, stores filled with stuff leads to wanting to work in the US, as if the grass will be eternally green. However, what people don't understand is that having stuff is unfulfilling, often leading to a life of misery.
Tom Cruise, playing a Sports Agent, in the movie Jerry Maguire, says, "Show me the Money". The reality though is that life should not be about money. Yes, we need money to live, but on some level it only brings shallowness to life, and doesn't bring riches.
From my perspective broadening one's perspective by being educated and living in other countries, for a time, makes perfect sense. However, returning to one's country and using this experience to creatively solve the multitude of issues in resource strained environments, is key to a life filled with riches.
You see, it isn't about having more; it is about taking what we have, living with less, digging deep and making a difference which ultimately leads to being wealthy in one's life.