I received a letter from reader from the United States who basically wanted my advice as to where in the world he could go to find non-materialistic cultures and people who had value systems that did not revolve around money. I didn’t respond. Doing so probably would have come as a real buzz kill at best, highly pretentious at worse. I knew where the guy was coming from. In fact, it was a place I was once at myself.
As a young traveler just stepping outside of the USA for the first time at 19 I believed I was on some kind of a mission to find “my people.” I was looking for some remote tribe or something that was full of people who lived far beyond the world of dust — far from email and laptops and debit cards, who really understood the essence of life, who reflected my own purposefully assembled set of values. I envisioned myself being taken in and taught some kind of ancient wisdom, of being the chosen outsider who could go native — I probably saw that once in a movie.
Really, I was just looking for a group of “MEs” who thought like I did and lived as I envisioned myself wanting to life. It was self-validation that I was looking for. It wasn’t other people that I wanted, but myself.
Ultimately, it was really just a youthful play for status. When you’re 18 or 19, rejecting your superficial concept of your culture is fashionable; intentionally carving out what we think is our own, “different” intellectual path is part of our rite of passage.
Ironically, what I was trying to accomplish through being “non-materialistic” was very similar to that of those who strive for status through expensive houses, cars, and phones. Valuable material goods are statements saying, “This person is successful, smart, and/ or well bred enough to afford this.” I was merely substituting ideology for an Apple logo, and talking gruff about the materialism of others was just a statement saying, “This person is successful, smart, and/ or well bread enough to believe this.” Ultimately, it was the same thing.
But I was serious about my naive little mission, and I really went out there looking. Way out there. What I found instead was the polar opposite of what I sought.
If you want to find non-materialistic cultures don’t go to the poor, remote spans of the globe. These are the places where status symbols really mean something, where money impresses, where people are ranked by their possessions. These are the places where high value material goods are rarer, procure far more attention, induce more admiration, and mean far more.
If you really want to find non-materialistic culture don’t go to Guatemala, stay in the USA, go to Western Europe, Japan, Australia…. these are the places where almost anyone and everyone can have an iPhone and a car and can relatively easily acquire material wealth, so how can they be anything special?
A shiny BMW means something on Baily Avenue in the inner-city of Buffalo, but at the country clubs of Long Island, not as much.
The Chinese have a saying: làn dàjiē. This literally means worn-out street, but is used to indicate a status symbol that is over-saturated to the point that it becomes meaningless. The way it was put to me, it “means that if everyone can have it, everyone has it, it is not special anymore.” Kind of like how iPhones and Starbucks are becoming in China.
I once thought that being a poor, worldly, “non-materialistic” American would win me respect in the developing world. I though that it would get me regarded as being “different than the rest” or “the good one.” Instead it just won me confusion and scorn for being so spoiled as to have the privilege to turn my nose up at the things the people I traveled among would do about anything to be able to have.
This was probably way worse than being materialistic in the first place.