Tom from SeeingRedinChina writes about his personal experiences with materialism in China- as always with him, worth a read:
As I’ve mentioned before, when co-workers return from overseas trips, more often than not, I hear about what they bought rather than what they saw. One friend told me he had spent over $25,000 on watches during a brief trip to Taiwan. Another said she had bought 4 new designer bags on a trip to Hong Kong. This binge shopping is shrugged off when people discuss how much they “saved” by avoiding China’s high taxes on these products.
The Party has realized the value in promoting the pursuit of material goods, as it bolsters the economy and maintains the status quo. The other day, the People’s Daily approved the idea that gov’t officials shouldn’t spend more than 180,000RMB on a car, which is more than most Chinese farmers make in 30 years, as if this was a reasonable way to spend public funds (they were heralding the Gov’t’s responsible nature in lowering the limit from 200,000RMB).
This growth of materialism in China’s more affluent areas surprised me when I arrived in Chengdu from the countryside of Guangxi. I actually experienced culture shock the first time I visited one of the large foreign supermarkets (Metro). My Chinese co-worker laughed at me as I marveled at all of the choices while slowly wandering down each and every aisle. To her, I was another country bumpkin (she actually used 土包子 tubaozi) exploring China’s big cities for the first time.
In some ways I was.
When I was in Guangxi, I tried my best to live simply. Students were either given a little pocket money from their parents who made much less than $1,000/year, or worked part time jobs that paid about 2-3RMB/hour ($.25-.37 at the time). Nobody had much money to spend, so it was pointless to dream of things they could never afford.
In the present, they felt fortunate for the little they had. They wore additional fabric sleeves to protect their jackets and sweaters in the winter, they moved carefully through the rain for the sake of their shoes, and almost never left a scrap of food behind during a meal. I greatly admired their sense of thrift, and I think my grandparents, who grew up in the Great Depression, would too.
This absence of materialism in the Chinese countryside was one of the things I most frequently praised China for. Now, living in Nanjing, the never ending pursuit of material goods that I see around me is one of the things that bothers me most. Possibly because just as Guangxi made me thankful for what I had, Nanjing just makes me want more.
I still can’t blame Chinese for this- coming so suddenly from having almost nothing, and then arriving at a time where ordinary people can suddenly afford so much… well, I understand why so many people get swept up in it. I’ve got to agree with Tom in the end, though- seeing so much uninhibited materialism can feel pretty depressing at times.