Born in the USA
There are a lot of websites out there and within that, there are a lot of travel blogs. It’s become a bit insular and a circle I know way too much about; so much that I rarely even read other travel blogs anymore (right now, when I have time, I like reading food stories or looking at home DIY projects and blogs as CP and I start do our own fun, hands-on projects in our New Jersey home).
But, in the travel blogging world, a post made waves a couple weeks ago as it took a critical look at living and working in the U.S. and how many of us are perceived.
I really would love for you to read it: An American Traveler Back in America
Now, this post struck me in all kinds of ways. In fact, after my first read, I just let it sit for about a week. I felt myself nodding in agreement. I also felt hurt and worry. Definitely a jumble of emotions. In many respects, I know exactly what she’s talking about and feel it deeply. I’ve written about it here — our over-consumption, how I chucked it all to travel, how I live on so much less money than I used to and am content and happy, how I learned how few ‘things’ we truly need, my own personal attempts to simplify my life, and strive to remember what is REALLY important to me in life: living, laughing, and loving (okay, and eating…but I like to share food with ones I love!).
Mostly I connected with the idea, that much of our society (and, I will add, other countries too) is on auto-pilot. But we are because, frankly, it’s all many of us are taught and know. It’s a myth we live by. You must work to make money to buy more stuff, marry, procreate, die. Many scoff at this, but from a broad generalization, that’s what many do. And why?
A line that struck me a lot:
Why? Why are we afraid of everything? Why do we put up with it? Why do we just accept having a massive mortgage and the newest smartphone and so many bills to pay that we have to go in to work over the weekend to earn overtime as the way? Why has money become our collective religion?
What about happiness? What about living an extraordinary life. What about love? What about adventure? What about joy? What about peace? What about laughter? What about soul?
I’m not saying you can’t have both shopping malls and soul. I’m not saying you can’t be over your head in bills and also be happy (though, show me who is) what I’m saying is why do shopping malls WIN? Why does the rat raceWIN? And, why money above all else?
It may seem like sensational statements, but I do feel that at the core, it is true. In my experience, far too many people here just “have to have” the latest shiny thing whether a phone or shoes or car. Thousands line up at the Apple store for the latest computer or iPhone. Not because they need it, because they want it and marketing and the masses tell them so. Sure, it’s okay to treat yourself if you can time to time, but mostly I just want people to really think and examine more what they are doing and what is important. Travel did help me understand how few material things I truly need on a daily basis and what is important to me. Does it mean I don’t have things? Of course not. But I am more thoughtful about what I need and consume and throw away. And I still prefer experiences and relationships to things.
I always like to point out how some see travel as frivolous and expensive, but, in general, if your friend, co-worker, or sister decides to drop $25,000 on a new car, no one bats an eye. But a crazy trip around the world? “How irresponsible!”
Some of what Kim was saying above reminded me of the concept of the book Ishmael and the ‘myths’ we are all taught from birth basically because it’s all our parents knew and all they were taught.
How do you break the cycle?
You can’t blame a lot of folks who have been fed this myth, this story for generations. In fact, it truly is a lot harder to step outside of it and look in and try to separate yourself from it and see what it is that you TRULY want out of life without letting the noise you ONLY know get in the way of your thoughts. Ya know?
Living in the USA
The post also made me feel bad. And I wanted to examine those feelings. Because I am back here in the U.S. (by choice) and not traveling as much as I used to, I’ve grown some roots again and I am happy. It’s all a balance, right? But being back, I find I have to work harder at continuing to be more conscious of life around me, more conscious of trying to conserve and not waste. There’s no doubt that we are a society of convenience and consumption. And I have to work harder to make the right choice, not the easy choice (a simplistic example: I will ride my bike or take a longer train ride rather than have a car or jump in a taxi). But this can be difficult when, say, I visit CP in New Jersey. There is no train to take and I can’t ride my bike as far with all the hills. So I have to drive (something I haven’t really done in 8 years since I sold my car and love not buying fuel and not polluting) and that bothers me. But it’s a compromise I have chosen to make to be with him. Some may not even understand that or think it’s a non-issue. But it’s a struggle for me because I don’t want to just close my eyes and be blind to my contributions to waste and consumption. I even joined Facebook groups in N.J. and asked about car sharing (very hard to find in the more rural parts). I found some small local transport, but it has very limited routes and hours. And of course, if you are American, you may understand this, it’s also just more ‘odd’ in the suburbs if I am taking some sad bus – people assume I must be down on my luck or lost my license from a DUI conviction. It’s so ingrained, that if I do the ‘different’ thing, there must be a ‘bad’ reason.
I don’t think you can escape being proud of where you are from or feeling nostalgic for ‘home’ wherever that home might be for you. At least I didn’t and I don’t want to. Although, when I travel, I say I am from Chicago, instead of the U.S. It makes it more specific since the U.S. is so huge and so varied.
And of course we have big things I may not agree with here in politics or rampant consumerism, but I think anyone in any country can’t agree with everything. But we also have it pretty good. People like to complain, but we have access to medicine if we need it (unfortunately expensive, but available), clean air, clean, drinkable water, a good infrastructure and far less ‘real’ corruption than many other places.
I am still proud and happy to be not only an American, but living here. Does it mean my head is in the sand? No. I keep learning. I keep examining. Could I be comfortable in Sweden or Germany or Hong Kong? Yes, I believe so. But, right now, I am comfortable here. And I want to be here. Life is what you make it. I can still build a community, compost my food, eat locally, and spend time with the ones I love…if I so choose.
My New Jersey
And not only did I feel bad for some of the positives, I felt bad for poor lambasted New Jersey, the state I’m from, and the state I’m returning to, to be with someone I love. She made a quick uncomplimentary remark because they were staying near a highway with lots of traffic, billboards; which NJ has, but so does every state if that’s all you see. New Jersey gets such a bad rap and it’s funny, because much of it is so beautiful — from the Appalachian Mountains in the west, to all the glacial lakes in the north, to the many charming colonial towns, to the forests, wetlands, and beautiful, natural beaches that are nothing like the “Jersey Shore” of reality-TV fame. I was happy to see many come to Jersey’s defense in the comments. Since I moved away 2o years ago, I’ve always come to NJ’s defense. Probably because my NJ, the part that I grew up in is quite idyllic, green, hilly, and lovely.
I guess the post made me feel bad, because then I questioned myself. Am I going back to a life I escaped? Am I caving in and conforming? Am I still able to examine my life and what I’m contributing to the world and those around me? Am I being too philosophical and analytical?? 🙂
Then I read through the 100+ of comments (clearly this post struck a cord).
This comment struck a cord with me too as I’ve thought the same thing about our comfort of being buried in an iPhone or sealed off in an air-conditioned vehicle:
When I came back from America after my RTW [Round the World], I remember being so frustrated at air conditioning of all things. I would think WHY ARE PEOPLE HERE SO AFRAID TO FEEL! Do they even realize how comfortable their lives are? WHY DO WE ROLL UP OUR WINDOWS TO EXPERIENCES!? Why do we shut any kind of discomfort out?
The author, Kim, later said this in a comment:
I like this quote from Pema Chondra:
“In life we think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem. The real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, then they fall back apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”
It helps me to remember that life is fluid. There is no SOLUTION, per se. It helps me enjoy the times when things have come together and to remember, when things come apart, that this too shall pass.
I’d love for this to simply be a dialogue and a discussion and I want to hear what you think. But I’d really like you to think about it. To examine it and not just give a knee-jerk reaction as I think that is all too often what we do. But what do we say when we examine ourselves and our lives?
Is this just a navel-gazing, “first-world problems” rant? Or is it okay to dissect this here with you, knowing about my good fortune to be born where and when I was, but still want to live with my eyes wide open?
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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Everything (or, at least, something) changes in your mind after a long trip. I am not the kind of person who might be considered as great consummer. Not at all. I buy what I need. I don´t care about technologies, a new cell, a lifting or whatever, I am happy with what I have. I am happy when I can save some money to travel. That´s it.
Thanks always for your thoughts Graciela. There’s definitely a different mentality after you travel, but some of us do have a bit of that before we go too. 🙂
Having lived in New Jersey, I also agree that it gets a bad wrap. I miss so much about living in that area – the trees, the shore, the close proximity to many large cities, etc. So don’t feel bad about going back there, it’s beautiful. And there’s something interesting that happens when we go back to our roots, things start to look a little different, and I think it gives us more of an open mind about our past. Rather than feeling like we had to escape something, it gives you the opportunity to see that yes you needed to leave to grow and develop, but it can now be more about becoming rather than escaping.
In regards to the consumerism in this country, it’s insane. People are made to believe that life is just about consuming, whether it be physically items, food, or information (how many hours do most of us spend online just consuming…). There’s a beauty in learning to consume less and be happy with what you have. I think we need to learn how to consume and be fulfilled moments and experiences instead of stuff.
Thanks Brandy! Good point about consuming too much info as well. So true to think about everything we consume…in our bodies, our brains, etc. And it’s still my life’s goal to show the gorgeous side of NJ, because it’s not even hard to find. Most of the state is pretty!
Mary @ Green Global Travel
Travel does change you, and you’re right that it’s like a cycle. It’s easy to think one place is better than your home for whatever reason such as how there is less consumerism or less pollution since it matches your lifestyle, but your home is still that. Things are steadily changing though, and every city is so different. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!
Thanks Mary. True that things are slowly changing, but some still hold on to old ways.
I’ve been thinking about this all day. It may seem silly, but the thing I’ve been fixating on is…the need for a ‘new car’. Of course, I have personal reasons for fixating on this:
I recently purchased a ‘new’ car. Well, new to me–but pretty darn new, and more expensive than any other car I’ve owned (after my trade in, I paid $15K). I’ve been driving the same car for the last nine years–paid off for the last four years–and I didn’t WANT a car payment. But driving my old car was becoming scary. And here’s the thing: I NEED a car. To get to work. And work is often very, very (VERY VERY) far away. The first week I had said new car, I put 1,600 miles on it.
Come winter, when it is once again snowing, I will still need to drive. Having all wheel drive (which is 90% of the reason I made this decision) will make me less likely to get stuck somewhere. Which means I will get to work. Getting to work has become my entire world. This winter almost killed me–literally.
And–it is important to note–I LIKE my job.
Related but tangential: twice in the past week, I have stood in line somewhere (to check into a hotel in St. Louis and just today, at the grocery store at home in PA) and the person working the counter was having a CONVERSATION with the person in front of me. Not a ‘how can I help you’ conversation, but a kind, friendly conversation. And in both instances, I was ENRAGED. Don’t they know, I mused, that good customer service SERVES customers and does not CHAT with them???? You see, I don’t have time to wait for casual, friendly conversation. I NEED TO GET BACK TO WORK.
This is the culture in which we live. Do I like it? No. Can I get out of it? I don’t know.
I don’t watch tv like a normal person; when I have a free few minutes, I watch old reruns–my favorite show is Little House on the Prairie. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen every episode at least twice (to be fair, I started when I was little). Today, while I ate breakfast, I watched the pilot episode, in which Charles Ingalls comes to town with his family, works really hard, builds a house, and plants crops. In doing so, he manages to support his wife and three children. The main premise of this episode is that he’s working six hours at the mill, six hours fixing some guy’s roof, and then six hours working his own farm (and then six hours sleeping). And I got to thinking–this is not possible anymore. I OFTEN work 18 hour days. I usually work 18 hour days. So does my husband. We have zero children, a VERY reasonable mortgage (something Charles Ingalls never had), and a recent but not too terrible car payment. Between us we have more than two Masters degrees. We have done everything we were told, and yet I’m still so stressed that I’m fuming, standing in line behind people having a nice conversation.
There’s something very, very broken in our culture. And I can understand how being out of it for a while would make this broken thing very, very apparent. But–and this may be THE PROBLEM–when you are mired down in it, you don’t have time (or perspective) to see it.
Hi Tracy! Thanks for your comment. When I was talking about ‘buying a new car’ it was actually in relation to the comparison of money spent on a car or money spent on travel. One is viewed typically as much more frivolous and unncecessary. Of course, some people just ‘need’ a car because of where they live, work, etc. I am able to not have one in the city and I love it and (as you know!) I held out as long as I could here in the NJ burbs. For your other note, I’m not sure I understand it completely as I’m usually upset with bad customer service when they don’t talk to you at all, but not sure I’d get enraged at kind, friendly conversation unless it went on forever. I think that’s something to be said about rushing and impatience in today’s world (not just in the US).
I haven’t traveled for a long period in time. I started working full-time after I finished university and that’s what I’m still doing now, besides blogging and traveling during weekends, holidays and when I can take my vacation days (luckily in Belgium we have 20 legal vacation days and I have 31 in total).
Yet I understand the sentiments and thoughts expressed in this post as well as in Kim’s post as I feel and think them too.
I do still spend some time reading other travel blogs (although I’d love to know what lifestyle blogs you read, on a site note) and so I read about how people are living ‘alternative’ lives… and I want to evolve in that direction.
I don’t think I’m cut out to be constantly traveling, but I try living with less. Maybe a silly example, but I used to be a real over packer. It wasn’t a problem as I’m rarely abroad for longer than two weeks and when I get back I just have to shove everything in the washing machine or back in my closet.
However, I started packing less, way less, and I felt liberated because of it. Why would I want the stress of having to choose between 15 tops if I only need 5?
I also used to go shopping A LOT and now I only go about two or three times a year with my mom and it’s more of a thing we do together than that it’s about what and how much we buy. I enjoy it more this way.
One other thing I’d like to address is how we look at this. I recently had a discussion about the economical system in Belgium with Boyfriend. I won’t go into detail, but it came down to the fact that each time this topic comes up, Boyfriend get really angry because of all the injustice there is. I completely understand him in his anger and frustrations, but I believe that we don’t have to look at the big institutions and politics because, no matter how idealistic you are, I think we need to agree that not many of us will be able to do something about them (or want to get involved with them, for that matter).
What we should do then? I think we should have a proper look at how we live our own lives and how we ourselves can make small or big changes to get to the lives we would want to lead in an ‘ideal’ world.
There’s so much that we can do ourselves and yes, society makes it hard to be different, but if society doesn’t reflect your values, then at least you should.
I hope I made sense a bit, ’cause it’s bed time for me now:)
Thanks Sofie! I’m the same with shopping, I rarely do it now and love having less — less choice, less to pack, etc. And I do agree that we can’t just say if ‘the masses’ aren’t doing something, then we shouldn’t. I do believe each person can make a difference….then it becomes the masses.
A lot of consumerism here in North America (from Canada here) is rooted in fear – fear of what other people think, fear of missing out, fear of the unknown. When you travel, you’re facing fears on a farily regular basis, and seeing afterward that it was not nearly as bad as what you made it out to be in your mind.
As far as your pride of your country, I am similarly proud to be Canadian, despite my misgivings regarding our current government…
Good take Frank. And good perspective about fear. Thanks for commenting!
Thoughtful stuff as ever. Reminds me of that great Louis CK speech – ‘everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy!’ As for the whole Buddhist thing of everything being impermanent, it’s a weird concept to wrap your head around, but so true. Kinda comforting and scary at the same time>
Thanks so much Jools. I LOVE that one from Louis CK. I always remember the one about flying in a metal tube and how amazing that is or how we get pissed if we don’t have good mobile service for a second. Good stuff.