Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

8-ft Inflatable Ghosts: Reverse Culture Shock, Part 2 November 22, 2009

Filed under: Culture — Jen @ 8:37 pm

Supposedly we’re in a recession.  That’s what I’ve been hearing for the past year.  Reading the news in Mozambique, I learned that times were hard in the developed world as the stock market suffered, currencies lost value, and people began losing jobs.  I warned my Mozambican colleagues that it would be harder to find funding for our projects since there was an economic crisis.

I kept hearing about unemployment rising, but my housemate and I discussed how we didn’t actually know anyone who had lost a job.  Then a friend of mine lost his job, and another.  Then my mom’s salary was cut back.  And my friend’s dad’s salary was cut back.  So maybe this economic crisis was more real than I imagined.

I was curious to see it for myself.  I envisioned For Sale signs in shop windows and restaurants out of business as patrons cut back on eating out.  I imagined more people walking or taking public transportation.

The reality is, I see no change.  To be fair, I have not visited every community in America.  I recognize that some places have been hit harder than others.  But in two months I’ve traveled to multiple towns and cities in seven states.  And this is what I see:  Just as much traffic, if not more; full restaurants; bustling retail shops; huge advertising; everyone and their brother on their iPhones.

And this is what constantly goes through my head – in a recession:  Really?  A fancy phone with all those apps?  Specialty cookie shops and chocolate cafes and frozen yoghurt shops?  $12 jars of gourmet jam?  Dog BAKERIES?  Really?  Eight-foot inflatable ghosts in your front yard?  Where exactly is the “cutting back” in all of this?

My pastor preached on grumbling the other week.  He used the passage in Numbers of the Israelites complaining about the manna in the desert (that God provided daily) and wishing they were back in Egypt (enslaved!) eating meat.  God basically said, “Alright, you want meat?  I’ll give you meat.”  Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. Three feet of quail!  But it was not a blessing.  The passage later states that while they were still chowing on their meat, the LORD struck them with a plague.  They wanted meat then they were drowning in meat and it made them sick.

The pastor made a comparison to us in America.  We wanted “blessings” and now we are drowning in them.  Drowning in our $4 lattes and 80,000 iPhone apps and 350 cable channels and 3,000 square foot houses and dozens of boxes of Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas and Valentine’s Day decorations.  And they’re making us sick.

I do believe that there are communities that have been hard hit this year:  people who have lost their livelihoods and their homes.  I don’t want to minimize their experiences.  But if I can still be overwhelmed in the cereal aisle at the grocery store or have a conversation about where to eat out or stand in a purchase line at TJ Maxx for fifteen minutes, then I can’t help but ask, “Recession?”

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6 Responses to “8-ft Inflatable Ghosts: Reverse Culture Shock, Part 2”

  1. Zach Says:

    First, I would point out that this is, of course, a matter of some perspective. You do happen (at the moment) to be in the one place of our country (Houston) that has, according to economic data, suffered the least. Go to Flint MI or Youngstown OH and prospects aren’t too good. Also, I suspect America’s excessive materialism stands out all the more after a stint in Mozambique (I know it certain does every time I return home after being abroad). We are a weird country with odd, sometimes conflicting, values. And we’re not very good at looking outward.

    A recession has different meanings to different groups. Ren might not have a job next year because of it, but that won’t affect us too much. I’m not too worried – she has a master’s and a ton of connections. We might cut back on things, but we’ll get by. But were we poor, minority, with only (if that) a high school degree…this wouldn’t feel like a recession. More like a depression.

    The issue with blessings, particularly if they’re material, is what we do with them. Do we share them? Or do we keep them all to ourselves? Does God mean for us to be wealthy so we can buy that huge house? Or does he mean for us support a missionary fighting corruption in Africa?

    Maybe the Israelites should have had a barbecue and invited the neighbors over.

  2. R Says:

    Yep. Because it’s my neighborhood you were in with the dog bakery. A dog bakery that we are all scratching our heads about, frankly…it’s just ridiculous.

    But it just opened. And it opened here because relatively, this neighborhood – this city – has been untouched. Sure, we know neighbors, or friends, whose jobs have been cut back, but they are the exception, not the rule.

    We were in Iowa a few weeks ago, and the recession there is like Zach said – more like a depression. People out of jobs and out of options. Stores shuttered. There are no places to go out to eat even if we wanted to – we drove for miles (and miles) to get to a restaurant. It’s like another world. And in Detroit, it’s practically apocalyptic.

    So…I understand what you’re saying, but I do think it’s a matter of perspective and context. *We* don’t feel it as much because we are blessed to have a very, very stable income – as D says, if his employer runs out of money, they just print more. That’s a really awful truth about why we even bothered to go into the dog bakery to see what they’re all about. But did we buy anything? Of course not. My dad almost (by 12 hours) lost his job. Were they cutting back? Oh, yes. Would it be possible to make it on my mom’s teacher salary? Barely. But they live in a massive house in a wealthy area. Sometimes the image isn’t always what it is beneath.

  3. Jen Says:

    I totally agree with what you guys are saying. I know full well that there are pockets in this country that are seriously hurting right now. But I didn’t see it in Michigan (any of the places I went in Michigan, including Detroit – in fact Detroit looks a lot better than I remember it from when I lived in A2), Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, Orange City (IA), Dallas, and Houston. Also, the whole point of this post is that it is from my perspective as someone who is returning to the US from Mozambique – that’s why it’s “reverse culture shock”. The materialism in this country is completely shocking to me, all the more so because we’re in a recession.

  4. Jen Says:

    Sorry, I just thought of something to add. My other point is, which I obviously didn’t express well, is that this recession has come across as being collective – that the whole country has been hit hard, when clearly it’s just pockets. Also, what is our collective response, especially in the church? If we’re aware that people have had to shutter businesses and foreclose on their houses, how is that affecting how we spend our own money or offer hospitality? What about “the poor and the sick and the needy”?

  5. Kacie Says:

    Yeah, it’s all a different scale, right? At the non-profit I work for, donations fell. people willing to support others in short-term trips fell. A friend or two lost their jobs, they found others. Some people didn’t get their yearly bonuses.

    But really, no one I know is in need, so yeah, i don’t have much sympathy for whiners. 🙂

    • Elizabeth Wright Says:

      Know just what you mean about the recesssion. Ireland is supposed to be the worst hit country in Europe and as you say, some people are suffering but we were listening to the radio the other day – a phone in – and people were complaining because they had been to an opera which was supposed to be wonderful (adverts said) and was actually awful. And these people had spent €100 each on the tickets – some people had taken family members for Christmas presents so had spent €400 – yes, they had a right to complain if the performance was so awful – but recession??

      And it’s much the same here in UK as we go around – the shops are full of people Christmas shopping, eating out and spending money all over.


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