Irrelevant Morning Pondering on Consumerism

This morning I was making breakfast and looked at the box of tea above the bowl of bananas sitting on an antique dry sink in my chamber of cooking. The label says “Manufactured in America.” What struck me about that was that the first ships with the flag of the new nation — the United States of America — were sent to trade with China to exchange furs for tea. Random, barely awake, no-coffee-yet kind of thought but still interesting.

It seems we’ve always been at war with someone about trade with China, even arguing with ourselves about it.

During my time in China — ’82/’83 — before Walmart and modernization really took off, I saw all the lovely but somewhat pitiful efforts being made to produce things foreigners — specifically Americans — would buy. I came home a confirmed globalist and had lots of arguments with my mom about that. Her point was that buying things from foreign countries took jobs away from Americans. About a decade later, she took me to Walmart in Billings, my first foray into that subculture. I was horrified by the sheer amount of stuff. It really overwhelmed me. Most of it was made in China.

My mom loved Walmart. I still hate it.

A worldwide consumer economy doesn’t seem to be new. I was thinking about tea, ivory, color and paint, the Silk Road, Venice, Roman jewelry and glass found in Viking archeological sites — this thing of wandering around with stuff and selling it to people in order to get different stuff seems pretty human, maybe should be included in the definition of humanity. Maybe it is, and I just don’t know it.

I’m a lousy consumer. I don’t have a lot of disposable income, first salient point, and the stuff I could buy with it (clothes and interior decoration, etc.) doesn’t interest me. And then, the stuff I buy is meant to create products of my own for others to buy. Yep. That’s it. That’s what we do, I guess.

This tea: I drink it in the late afternoon when my responsibilities are over. It’s a kind of ritual, I guess, and the dogs recognize the moment when the kettle goes on the stove as the moment they will be fed. I’ve realized (since COVID) how much certain things “mean” to the dogs and how they ground me. It’s interesting, too, that when they hear me fill the kettle, they know. I’ve lived with a lot of dogs, but never known any of them as well as I know these two.

18 thoughts on “Irrelevant Morning Pondering on Consumerism

  1. So much here. I was just telling my mother about my rituals around my morning Earl Gray with a squeeze of lemon.

    When I come home from work, I make a drink in a specific cup, the dog knows we are either going to the patio or for a walk. If I do not “take to my bed” at 8:30, she is herding me.

    • From living with Bear, the Akbash dog, I’ve learned so much about dog brains. Or maybe I’ve had the time to be more observant or maybe it’s from life beside a horse for a short time, but I realize that they are very wise. Their peace of mind depends on things going according to a schedule, a routine. Bear comes inside at 9:10 and goes to bed.

  2. And now we are busy “onshoring” as many things as we can again because we doubt the China will be a reliable source in the future.

    I always thought the US and China ought to be natural friends because we each can supply what the other is missing. No reason at all for military hostility because the two countries had different objectives.

    Then China got a a new emperor and everything went to hell. Xi seems bent on destroying everything that made China unique and special. Didn’t help that we installed a buffoon in the White House for a term.

    It is funny that Bowie did this song about American imperialism but now they seem to be doing it to themselves.

    • It seems like the whole world got a lot of nasty leaders around the same time. I also thought that the US and China should be natural friends, but… I see that song more as about the attraction of the west in the eyes of the Chinese back when Bowie/Iggy Pop made that song than about outright imperialism. To me it speaks to a long time mutual fascination. It was very strange in Shanghai to see all the buildings that resulted from American imperialism in the early 20th century and later to learn what life was like in Shanghai up until 1949. I think we’ve always wanted something the Chinese have and vice versa. When the first American ship sailed up the Pearl River to Guangzhou the Chinese thought the stars were roses and named us Mei Guo, the flowery kingdom… I don’t know what it is with people, honestly. ❤

      • I think Bowie was thinking about cultural imperialism. Like a McDonald’s in China would be some kind of despoilation, a diminution of what made China so desirable. It is a song of the 70s and 80s, after all.

        It has also been interpreted as a song about racism and interracial romance and even a song about drug use – China white in specific.

        The bit at the end was interpreted to mean that America is unfaithful in its foreign relationships.

        I just learned that the “official” video was censored. Here’s the original version.

        • I think we’d have to know what Bowie knew about Chinese history to know what he meant. British imperialism seems far more likely from the video than American given that Britain pretty systematically addicted the Chinese to opium which it got in India and brought to China by the ton to trade for tea. There is a British soldier and diplomat in the video and the drug allusion. There are visual allusions to Maoism as well as to China before 1949 — Shanghai was really the most cosmopolitain and glamorous city in the world. I won’t even try to interpret it. And I think the end means they got sand in those places where sand is very very uncomfortable 😀

  3. “wandering around with stuff and selling it to people in order to get different stuff” – in South America I met folks who did that literally. Wherever they went, they bought what was plentiful, then resold it in another part of the world. They had been traveling the world for 7 years that way. In Colombia (where I met them) they were buying and selling beads. Lots of people sold “Pre-Columbian” (before Christopher Columbus) beads. These folks showed me that most of those were hype and to look for signs of age on the beads (not that I had any interest in buying beads). They were selling Venetian glass beads while buying Colombian stone beads. They specialized in beads because they were easier to carry than, say, fossils or textiles or TV sets.

  4. There is a certain comfort in rituals. I didn’t realize how many “we” had until Larry passed and suddenly making the after dinner cup of tea became a painful endeavour, which I now take pleasure in once again and smile at the warm memories. Ophelia will bark at me in the morning until I say “we’ll put your collar on” and then she quiets right down even if I haven’t made a move for the collar. She recognizes it as a signal that I am indeed getting ready for our morning walk.

  5. It’s really amazing when you think about trade in the ancient world. Cloth and jewelry traveling across the whole of the known world! Carried on the backs of pack animals, along ancient routes that we can still follow when there’s no war! So many cities were founded on these routes to live off that ancient trade. Human history seems to come from the movement of “surplus” wealth.

    • It really hit me when I got $100 for Christmas. That’s what a tube of lapis ultramarine oil paint costs if the lapis comes from Afghanistan. It is nowhere to be found because of the sad turmoil in Afghanistan. And I thought I’m just like those medieval painters who had to pay an incredible amount of money just for a useable piece of lapis that had to travel so far on camels or donkeys to reach them, and there could have been turmoil anywhere along the route. It was worth more than gold. I felt so close to those artists and so sad for our world. I live in a place where you can buy everything; it’s all a commodity, nature’s a commodity, all of, one big cheap Disneyland, but it isn’t.

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