An Indian’s Reckoning With Consumerist America

Harshini Rajachander shares her experience of navigating America’s consumerism as an immigrant. She runs through the gamut of consumer personalities, from wide-eyed amazement at the abundance in ordinary supermarkets to reckoning with the excess and superficiality of American culture. It takes a layoff for Rajachander to reassess her priorities and defy the consumerist norms that permeate American society.

Via Nathália Rosa on Unsplash.

May 18, 2024 05:22 EDT

The first time I truly realized that I was in A-M-E-R-I-C-A was when I walked into the neighborhood Ralphs supermarket. It sat about a block away from my first apartment at the graduate students’ dorm of the University of California, San Diego.

The expansive freeways, the expensive coffee shops, the startling amounts of small talk, the shiny Teslas and the head-spinning automatic car washes: None of these managed to shock me as much as that supermarket.

The moment I stepped into the cereal aisle, America became a tangible, living reality.

Cartons and cartons of choices. Some I had heard of before through Hollywood movies and torrented TV shows. Others I had a painful time un-abbreviating, decoding and Googling. Cap’n Crunch. Fruity Pebbles. Kellogg’s cereals that weren’t just cornflakes. A health brand with an Indian-ish name I automatically eyed with suspicion. My gaze slid along the rows and rows of boxes displaying scores of unlikely champions. Cartoon animals leaped up at me. A rooster, the Flintstones’ dad, the bird from Rio, a tiger?

Are they the breakfast, or am I?

I picked up one with almonds on the front. Another with wheat and oats. They looked like they could be eaten by adults. No animals, no color, no loops, no hearts. Still, the daily intake guidelines screamed SUGAR. I looked at one, two, three more boxes. I gave up.

Multitudes of ways to break our fasts, but none that nourish.

“Ah,” I realized. “So this is America.”

“Asians love Costco”

Only later did I find out that Ralph’s was just a small neighborhood supermarket, and Trader Joe’s was not the mecca my thrifty grad soul thought it was. I was yet to meet their grander counterparts — the Costcos, the Walmarts, the Targets.

The first time I walked into a Costco, my neck creaked and my mind groaned as I swiveled my head round and round, trying to speed-read all the products and prices peppered around me. There was so much of everything, anything and nothing: TVs, books, clothes, furniture, food — both human and dog.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and suddenly I was a working, gainfully employed adult. A real one. Supermarkets no longer scared me. The bigger the better. I started chasing the high that only American retail can dish out.

I found myself joining a stereotypical cohort. I hate to admit this, but it’s true what they say: Asians love Costco, and Costco loves us. I fell for the deals and the discounts. I, too, hoarded oat milk and Melona bars. I jealously guarded my Costco card and flaunted my ability to buy packs of Nyquil to take back to India.

But…my household held only two. Three, if you count our dog. Costco stuffed us with more than we could digest.

We did not own a home. We moved every year. Our apartment sizes shrunk and expanded according to the neighborhood. But even a bigger square footage was somehow never enough to hold the previous apartment’s loot.

Costco’s 18 rolls of toilet paper couldn’t be crammed into any closet. The plastic packaging had to be ripped apart, the rolls split into twos and fours and stuffed into cupboards all around the house. Clothes had to be folded into white trash bags and thrown down donation chutes at the start of every move — bags full of t-shirts worn thrice, dresses tried on for size and formal pants that never got a chance to be ironed out.

In our previous apartment, there were dog beds everywhere: one stowed under the standing desk, another stashed away between the nightstand and the laundry basket, and a third nestled between the bedroom door and our bed. (That was the one we kept tripping over.) A lot of beds for a dog who preferred the couch.

The trouble with fitting in

Like many other immigrants, I tried to justify my presence in America by providing a home for its revered retail. We understand what America worships above all, and we are eager to show our allegiance. Taking on the role of a loyal customer helps us pretend that we could be seen as loyal Americans, too.

But, unfortunately for me, putting on an act took its toll. I got tired of paying credit card bills that were almost half my rent. I told myself that I had to stop falling for America’s tricks. I had to budget better. I had to stop indulging my need for Amazon’s fix.

And so, I started seeking out smaller shops: thrift stores, startups that whipped up a closet in a capsule, an online pantry delivery service that was also a B-Corp. Slowly, the river of consumption dwindled into a creek. But the water continued to flow. Try as I might, keeping finances and necessity in mind, I couldn’t stop shopping. I justified my choices as I continued to swipe, tap and add-to-cart. I rushed up and down my apartment’s elevator with those glorious bundles of brown, which, albeit smaller, visited my home just as regularly.

The day I got laid off was the day my stream finally dried out.

That day, I realized, “This, too, is America.”

Now that my hours were no longer paid for, I spent time on things that were priceless. I turned to books for company and solace. I spent days within the welcoming stacks of the public library, the one remaining bastion of community and gratuitous sharing of goods. I read widely and deeply.

I consumed books on economics and capitalism, sped through stories on climate change and the circular economy and dissected feminist discourses. I even comforted myself by slipping through stacks of crime fiction. I learned how America is carved and cut out, how society has been streamlined, how wealth has been funneled to the top and how workers have been exploited.

Slowly, page by page, my desire to click-and-pay died away.

At first, I had stopped needless shopping out of an instinct for survival, desperate to keep the money clasped within the warmth of my wallet. Later, it was out of spite. I vowed that, hereafter, my money should flow downwards, not upwards. I slashed away at my towering list of memberships and subscriptions. I gave away most of my books and belongings. I cut out my mother’s sarees and asked my Indian tailor to stitch dresses out of the remains.

“Only five a year!” I chided my mom when she wanted to send me new clothes.

Now, I boycott big box stores. I steer clear of social media and its temptations. I choose ad-free browsers and cookie-less caches.

In the grocery store, I wheel my cart within the rows of fruits, veggies and greens. I sprint past the pantry aisles until I find sanctuary among the freezers of milk and eggs. I shop at local New England farms, Asian markets and Brazilian bakeries.

My retail rebellion brought with it an unexpected benefit: a healthier body and mind. I eat better, my sleep is no longer withheld by a screen and my body benefits from daily exercise.

“Phew,” I tell myself. “America almost got me.”

I know what America is capable of. I divined what it needs. I can visualize what America values above all else.

And I, churlishly, deny it its profit.

[Cheyenne Torres edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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