Category Archives: Consumerism

I need a new…

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

My roommate, who is German, came home from work one day and told me he had broken his shoe; the sole had fallen off while he was walking. They were the only nice pair of professional shoes he owned and he wore them to work every day. He went to a cobbler to try and get them repaired, but the cobbler had turned him away. So, he bought some glue and fixed them himself. Voila. He continues to wear those shoes at work every day.

It got me thinking about how many cobblers there were in London, which was something I noticed when I lived there. They were usually nestled in and around London Underground stations or squeezed into small shops in London City. And they always seemed to be doing a brisk business, including female customers getting heels re-affixed to pumps they pumped too hard.

I realized that in Europe, if your shoe breaks, you go to the cobbler to patch it up. The same is true in Africa, the only difference being the cobblers are often shop-less vendors sitting on the side of the road; that said, they are just as ready (indeed more so) to restore any shoe or flip-flop to wearable condition (and for small money).

This struck me, because as an American, my response to a shoe breaking was… go out and buy a new pair. Shoes and clothing are so cheap in the US (and have become cheaper over my lifetime), and there is such a mentality of consumption, that the “solution” to a broken shoe is replacement, not a repair. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes “If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one.”

But even if an item isn’t broken, I feel it has become a habit in our culture to simply cycle through consumer goods – throwing away old items as soon as they show the slightest wear or obsolescence, and replacing them with newer, shinier versions. I realized I’ve become guilty of this myself. For example, before January, I had never even owned a smart phone; during all my years abroad, I got along just fine with my £5 Samsung phone. But when my brother gifted me an iPhone upon my arrival in the US (albeit one from 2010), it became my new standard.

But, I soon grew out of it. Using it on a daily basis, I began to get annoyed with its slow operating speed (surely due to the fact that it was 4 years old and several generations old). Sure, it worked. But it often froze up and I had to wait a long time for applications to load. So, I bought a new one. Well, by “new,” I mean a used Samsung Galaxy II that I bought on eBay for $114. But still, a new-er phone. I similarly upgraded my laptop, from the piece-of-shit $280 one I bought in January when I was unemployed, to a nicer one I’m using currently.

Next thing you know, I’ll want a new iPad, and a new Kindle, and by the time I’ve replaced all those things, it will be time for me to buy a newer phone and a newer computer again…


Filed under Communications, Consumerism

Online shopping

Consumerism at my fingertips in my pajamas, mouhahaha.

Consumerism at my fingertips in my pajamas, mouhahaha.

My family were early adopters of the internet, thanks to my geeky father, who was a computer engineer at Hewlett Packard in the 1980s and 1990s. We had access to the internet in our house as early as 1993. And yes, for the record, we also had a Commodore 64 (which we used to play Paperboy, of course) and my earliest memories of using a computer meant STARTING MS DOS… C:\>_

I was also an early adopter of online commerce. As an enterprising cash-strapped teenager in the late 1990s, I used to make extra money for myself by selling on eBay all the random unused things from our closets, shelves, and attic… books, CDs, video games, and clothing. I must have made around $500 that way… a hefty sum when you’re 18 and yet to earn your own salary.

That was back in the day when eBay was still edgy and people were afraid of buying things online – they would nervously ask, “But is is secure to enter your credit card details on a website?”  Well, a lot has changed in the decade I spent living outside of the US. Nowadays online shopping is not only accepted, it’s the standard. And I’ve gotten sucked right into it.

Before I left the US (for the first time in 1999, and again at the start of 2005 after a one year stint in New York in 2004), I mostly sold things online, on eBay and Amazon and (which was bought out by eBay in 2000). Since returning to the US, I still sell things online, but now I also BUY things online. What things? Like, everything.

Not only have I gotten into online clothes shopping, but I also buy all of the most random stuff online. It all started when I needed an American-size three-ring binder to organize my American-size papers. I went to buy it at CVS and a 3″ binder cost $10.99. More than a tenner, just for a silly binder? No way.

So instead of buying it at CVS, I went home and looked it up on eBay, and realized I could order it for under $7, shipping included for free, delivered to my doorstep. Later, when I remembered that I also needed a hole punch and  a stapler, rather than go out to the store to buy them, I also ordered them on eBay, for a combined total of under $7.

During my period of initial excitement, which resulted in a flurry of low-value purchases, I did learn one important lesson: avoid ordering items from China. I ordered a stainless steel tea ball for brewing tea – for the grand sum of $0.95 – but it has a tendency to stick shut (I’ll need to replace it by buying a new one, which I’ll do online of course). I also ordered a beautiful flowing white satin dress from China, which turned out to be the crappiest, cheapest, worst fitting piece of sh** I have ever tried on in my entire life. So, I now limit my purchase to US-based sellers.

Long live online shopping! Now let me move over the to the next tab in my browser,…

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Save $3 when you spend $5... magic.

Save $3 when you spend $5… magic.

Americans love to save. And what better way to save than to spend? Using coupons of course! I am in the process of moving into a new apartment (yes, you will see me at IKEA this weekend) and, as part of that move, I signed up for the USPS mail forwarding service.

I was very impressed that USPS (a) gave me the option to register online for my mail forwarding, (b) offered me the service for free, and (c) as an added bonus, emailed me a “mover’s welcome pack” of coupons to moving-relevant retailers such as Target, Pier 1, Verizon, and Budget rental. Sweet.

I giddily printed them all out, satisfyingly cut them along the dotted lines like a kid in arts and craft class, and proudly tucked them into the file-folder compartment of my wallet. It reminded me of my childhood, when I used to accompany my mother to the grocery store (good old “Super Stop & Shop”). She would inevitably have a chunk of coupons culled from that weeks’ flyer sheets, which always came nestled in the newspaper (that was also back in the day when we used to get a lot more post).

Nowadays of course most coupons don’t even require printing my CVS coupons are sent automatically to my CVS card, and most coupons are read directly from your smart phone. But Americans still love coupons as much as always. Coupons were invented in the US in the late 19th century (first pioneered by the Coca-Cola company) and 48% of American consumers today use coupons (a higher figure as compared to other countries in the survey).

So, let’s get spending! I mean, saving.

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Shopping malls

What, you mean this isn't your idea of a fun Saturday outing?

What, you mean this isn’t your idea of a fun Saturday outing?

I went to the mall on Saturday. It was a a whole production, a full day out. My friend, who has a car, drove us out of the city, along humdrum highways, out to the soulless suburbs that housed the sprawling outlet shopping mall. The occasion was: (a) tax-free shopping day in the state of Virginia, and (b) a dire need on both his part and mine for fall clothing (prior to the shopping trip, my wardrobe literally consisted entirely of dresses – I owned one pair of pants).

My day at the mall brought back memories. “Going to the mall” was an integral part of my suburban youth in Connecticut. In high school, teenagers would hang out at the mall on weekdays after school finished. On the weekends, I’d tag along with my Mom to the mall while she did her shopping. It was the thing you did. What else, after all, was there to do in the suburbs?

I forgot how overwhelming the mall can be. A throbbing mass of humanity slowly ebbs through the mall like blood through arteries, except the arteries are artificial tunnels lined with bright shiny distractions and broadcast with muzak, and the blood clots up around corners and on escalators. And the flow slows down for strollers and toddlers and a troop of teenagers and that wobbling obese person in too-tight jeans who struggles to walk from Auntie Anne’s pretzels to Bath &Body Works and is blocking your access to the exit when you really need to get out NOW! Okay, calm down and breathe…

And then there is the food court. The food court is the pumping heart of the shopping mall beast. All those suburban blue-jean blood cells fixed onto plastic swivel seats in between the greasy smell of heat-lamp Chinese noodles and the pepperoni pheromones of Sbarro’s fat triangle pizza by the slice and the sweet cinnamon scent of Cinnabon. My slow loop of the food court reveals a falafel sandwich as the only remotely healthy food item. And there I am, another blood cell, eating my falafel, chomping chomping chomping, before continuing my circuit of the tunnels of consumption, buying buying buying.

I now own six pairs of pants total.

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Filed under Clothing, Consumerism, Food, Shopping

Invented needs

I can't live without this.

I can’t live without this.

I get confused and overwhelmed every time I go to the drug store to buy bath and body care products. There seems to be something for  every beauty need, including needs that I didn’t even know I had, less existed in the first place. A friend of mine mentioned that she once bought a special conditioner designed for cleaning her special makeup brush. Think about that for a moment.

When I lived in Somaliland, I remember there was one ubiquitous soap. It was THE soap available for sale in every market or street stall. It was called Top Soap and it was a powdered soap that came in a box; you just added water and it became sudsy. There was also bar soap called Warda.

We used Top Soap to wash our dishes and also to wash our clothing (both of which we did by hand, of course). We also used it for household cleaning. The guys I lived with even used it in the shower for washing their hair and body. That was taking it a bit far for me (I had brought shampoo and conditioner from abroad).

But, my point is, Top Soap worked for everything. Because soap is, after all, SOAP. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the US. Not only is there one type of soap for washing your clothes (“detergent”) and another type of soap for washing your dishes (“dish washing liquid”), but there are even multiple types of personal soap: hand soap, body soap, face soap, and hair soap (“shampoo”).

There also appear to be multiple ways of applying the personal soaps to your body, from a sponge to a loofah to a scrubber to a body brush. When I was living in Liberia, a friend of mine gave me a loose length of plastic mesh.  He used it for washing himself, and had cut off a piece of it and given it to me so I could do the same. It is nothing more than a long rectangle of polyester mesh, the same material that is used to make the mesh pouf sponges that hang in showers across America. It works as well as a shower loofah, or any other over-engineered self-cleansing shower accessory – all you do is rub a bit of soap on it (bar or powder, take your pick) and it quickly lathers up into a ball of soapy suds that you can use to wash your whole body (and hair, if you like).

In certain African countries, like Ghana and Ivory Coast, you’ll see vendors carrying strips of this polyester mesh on the street, and for a few cents they will cut off a stretch for you. Pair that with a bar of soap and, voilà, all of your personal hygiene needs are met.

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Yes, we’re open

I'm always open to taking your money.

I’m always open to taking your money.

I love the fact that I could spend today, a Sunday, shopping like it was any other day of the week. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the past several weeks since returning to the US, subsisting on a meager winter wardrobe of two pairs of jeans, six shirts, and three sweaters.

I woke up this morning and thought that I really need to do something about this, especially now that I’m in DC, where it’s obviously colder than California. I mean, the colder it is, the less you sweat, and therefore the less need there is to wash your clothing after wearing it. But, unlike in an African village, in the US it seems socially unacceptable to wear the same shirt multiple days in a row.

It was time to take action. But then I remembered it was Sunday. Darn it, everything will be closed. On the outside chance, I thought I’d check online for the opening hours of a few stores. Lo and behold, I discovered that all of the stores were open!

I had forgotten where I was: the United States of AMERICA, a land of total convenience, where consumption is unfettered by the boundaries of time or space. Well, the stores did close early on Sunday, at 5 pm or 6 pm, but “early” is a relative term – that’s the time at which many European stores close on the weekdays.

And good luck trying to find any stores open on a Sunday in some European countries. Several European countries have Sunday shopping laws that restrict Sunday opening hours.  In the UK, for example, the Sunday Trading Act dictates that “large” shops (with a floor area of 28 square meters or more) are only allowed to open for 6 hours on Sundays, between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm (small shops, like convenience stores, can set their own Sunday hours).

But America knows that what matters is not the labor rights of retail workers, nor spending time with your family on a Sunday, nor observing the day of Christian worship of God, nor giving small retailers a chance to compete against large chain stores. What matters is being able to buy anything you want at any time, be it Sunday or Monday, day or night – that is an American right.

Call me superficial or selfish, but personally, I find it very convenient; long retail opening hours are one of the things that make life in the US so damn easy. I can buy toothpaste at 10 pm, do my grocery shopping at midnight, stop into the 24-hour CVS at 3 am to satisfy my munchies, and pop by the Starbucks for a coffee at  quarter to nine at night (many cafés in Europe are only open during the daytime… nighttime coffee drinking at cafés seems to be an American thing).

But the sad truth is that the long opening hours in the US – both the late closing times during the week (e.g. 9, 10, or even 11 pm) and the regular Sunday openings – are probably just a symptom of the equally long hours workaholic Americans are spending at the office. Stores simply wouldn’t make any business if they weren’t open such long hours, namely hours longer than people are working. The moral of the story, kids: work hard, spend late.

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My phone is smarter than me

R.I.P. my dear Samsung.

R.I.P. my dear Samsung. You will be born again.

One day in London in September 2008 I walked home in the pouring rain, got utterly soaked, and chucked my jeans in the washing machine as soon as I got inside. The jeans, along with my cell phone in their front pocket, got a great wash.

The next day I set out to buy a new phone. My philosophy is usually “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and this time it was definitely broke. I went to Orange, a British mobile network operator, and bought a Samsung phone for £5 (about $8); it came as a cheap add-on to a monthly phone plan. It wasn’t even a flip phone – just an ultra-basic, tiny cell phone that fit snugly in the palm of my hand.

Now, fast forward some 5 years and 4 months. In that time, I  finished my Master’s degree, moved away from London after living there for nearly 6 years, spent a few months in Tunisia in late 2010 on the eve of the Arab spring, had a stint teaching in Somaliland, backpacked all through East Africa, moved to Liberia for two years, made numerous overland forays throughout West Africa, and circumnavigated the globe to visit far away friends before returning to the US.

In that period, I also dropped my phone countless times; broke it into a few pieces and reassembled it; moistened it in a few tropical rainstorms; shoved innumerable pay-as-you go SIM cards into it from countries ranging from Sweden to Swaziland and Bahrain to Burkina Faso; replaced the charger once or twice (or three times) when the wire wore thin; and even lost it in a Somali minibus once but later retrieved it.

It went through a lot of shit, but my trusty little Samsung stayed by my side the whole time, and never once let me down. I still have the little fellow, but he lives in a drawer now (it must be hard for him, after all his previous globetrotting).

When I returned to the US, my brother was so kind as to offer me his “old” iPhone, since he had recently upgraded to a “newer” version. He apologized to me that it was one of the older models; he said that he had tried to trade it in for some sort of credit, but he was told it was so worthless that he couldn’t get anything for it. Apparently it’s called an iPhone “3GS,” a model that is so high-tech it was discontinued in June 2010. Oh my God, 3.5 years ago. That was, like, a whole generation ago. I hear they are onto “5G” these days, whatever that means.

Well, this “old” iPhone is the first smart phone I’ve ever had, and to me it seems revolutionary, not retro. It’s like a whole new world has been opened up to me. A few points of comparison to illustrate my point…

(1) My Samsung had such limited storage capacity that it could only hold 100 or so contacts in the phone book, meaning I had to frequently delete the entries of people that I thought I wouldn’t need to call again (but not, mind you, the phone numbers of people who were likely to call me again and whose calls I wanted to avoid). Meanwhile, my iPhone seems to have synced with my Facebook and automatically populated my phone book with the phone numbers of all my Facebook friends. Should I be alarmed?

(2) My Samsung had that ORIGINAL default ring tone that you hear all over Africa, meaning I was never entirely sure if it was my phone that was ringing (hey, at least I fit in). The only way to change the annoying ring tone was to… put it on silent. My iPhone, on the other hand, allows me to stream music of any and every variety. (Although I haven’t yet figured out how to use it to stream the Samsung ring tone, for those days I’m feeling nostalgic).

(3) My Samsung had a choice of three or perhaps four possible background images for the main screen. For years, it was a stupid sketch of a boy catching a balloon which irked me every time I used my phone. I remember one day some random guy changed it for me to a much more attractive default picture (pixilated, of course) of a tropical beach. That improved my phone so much. I’ll never forget him, bless his soul. At the other end of the spectrum, my iPhone seems to also operate as a camera and let me take my own background photo. Mind blowing.

(4) The “space” key on my Samsung became stubborn in its old age, meaning I either had to press it repeatedly to produce the desired result, or simply send cryptic text messages devoid of spacing. Whoreallyneedspunctuationanyways? But this thing that they call the “iPhone” doesn’t even have a keypad. Can you imagine that?! A device without a keypad. You type on the screen instead. Astonishing technology.

Which leads me to my one question/complaint about the iPhone, after all my singing of its post-modern praises. With all this “touch screen” action, I find that the screen of my iPhone is just so… greasy. Am I missing something here? Or am I eating too much pizza by the slice? Or am I meant to be Windexing my iPhone? I went to Macy’s the other day to buy gloves before heading out east, and they were selling special “Smart Phone Compatible Gloves.” Maybe I should start wearing those, even in warm weather?


Filed under Communications, Consumerism