Buying Resolutions

This New Year, I made a resolution to buy stuff.
One of the great things about being an American living in China is that you get two chances to make and break resolutions — one for the Jan 1st new year, and the other about a month later for the Chinese lunar new year.  For months, I have needed a new cell phone, some new clothes, a sofa that doesn’t resemble a wooden plank, earphones for my iPod to replace the ones that broke, and a bicycle to replace the one that broke my heart.  After a full week of commitment-free vacation days spent in Beijing, I succeeded in none of the above.  I did, however, buy three energy-saving light bulbs.  And some toothpaste.
If you know me, you know that I tend to hate stuff.  Or more specifically, I hate shopping.  I used to think this problem was a form of well-rounded cheapskateness: Slavic thriftiness passed down to me from my immigrant grandparents, people who fled a soon-to-be famine-filled Soviet Union to end up in a soon-to-be Depression Era America.  But then one day after college, I realized I was spending a lot of money, despite living rent-free with my parents.  According to Microsoft Money, which tracked every credit card swipe I had made during the year, I was spending almost all my disposable income on traveling and eating/drinking out (and business suits).
I am, as a friend once put it, an “experience spender.”  I will never spend $200 on a really nice shirt, but would definitely spend $200 on a really nice meal.  I like to think that I’m not alone, that being an experience spender is a hallmark of the nouveau jetset.  Having stuff makes it hard to move, and the more you move, the more you abhor stuff.  Thank goodness for alumni email address, because most people I know don’t have any other permanent address.  My current mailing address is my work address, as I’m more certain I’ll be a my company in a couple years than in this apartment.  So buying a lot of things that I will have to schlep around the world, sell or throw out is highly unappealing.
But what about buying a few really nice things?  I admit, I have a Juicy Couture leather bag given to me when my friend was moving out of Hong Kong (and abhorring having stuff).  While I first fell in love with the bag for how the leather and metal chains swing obnoxiously into passersby, especially if you saunter down the street wearing (knock off) Prada sunglasses, I quickly came to admire it for its utility.  It has toted variously my laptop, two bottles of wine, an entire pomelo, and my bike helmet.  It’s a really sturdy and well-made bag.  So the other night, it wasn’t much of a surprise that I found myself (sarcastically?) extolling the virtues of Gucci:  “A luxury bag is the great equalizer,”   I waxed poetically, straight-faced and perhaps even sincere. “Some people who don’t have much money, but can still muster together enough to buy one really nice bag, can skip over the middle class and enter the magical world of the elite.  A bag lets them enter the fantasy vision they have seen in magazines and billboards and ads.  It lets them live the dream.”
Buying stuff has been the American dream for generations now.  And this year, the Fed and the US government have made a new year’s resolution itself: to resolve the coming recession by getting Americans to buy more stuff.  Over here in China, in the manufacturing trenches of the world economy, where people are chocking on the pollution created by factories selling said “stuff” to America, I sort of wonder if America doesn’t need more stuff right now.  America extols itself as being a service economy, in terms of what it produces.  But it seems to me to still be a stuff economy in terms of what it consumes.  I don’t really want to buy the world a Coke.  I’d rather go buy you a drink.
China has leapfrogged a lot of development steps, and maybe will leapfrog growth through buying stuff too.  China’s leaders are starting to talk up shifting into services as the next engine of development; maybe they’ll try to encourage consumption of services too.  Tourism’s growth has been explosive in China, and coffee shops are flourishing like blue algae in Lake Tai.  So maybe…
As always, it’s a fascinating time to be here.  I’m finally going to go buy a bike now, so I can go out and experience it for myself.
Yours as always,

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