Who’s more materialistic, the US or China?

I often hear Chinese and expats alike click their tongues in disgust at the flashy cars and loud attitudes of wealthy folk. There is both a need for and resentment of wealth, like a drug the Chinese just can’t quit. After a recent discussion with friends, I’ve been wondering just how China’s legendary materialism matches up to that of the US (I say US because it is my home country; if anyone from elsewhere has an opinion, please chime in).

If we consider that materialism describes a person’s need to have things in order to feel good, and not only to have things but for other people to know they have things, then I’d agree that China is a first-rate material girl.

When put in the context of societal structure, though, I think it compares pretty evenly with the US. In short, China has a less mature consumer market, and still considers having for the sake of having to be novel. The US, a far more mature consumer market, has long since swallowed the consumer’s pill.  Materialism is so infused in the US bloodstream that people are not apt to realize how materialistic they are.

First, let’s take a theoretical look at what makes China so materialistic.

I invite anyone to challenge me on this, but as far as I can see, there is no widespread ideology in China that transcends “the society.” Spiritual pursuits not tied to society were attacked under Mao, and while making a bit of a comeback in recent years, are not as deeply and widely understood and appreciated as they once were. Spiritual ideologies are distrusted and systematically marginalized by the powers that be because the existence of any higher authority than the Party is inherently a threat. As the focus is on society and not on the spiritual, anything that connotes higher status in society is highly valued — for face, and at face-value.

Speaking now as an everyday observer, I find that people in China are just practical and honest about the worth of a buck (such as asking how much money one makes, how much things cost, without any regard for how the person feels about being asked these questions). The vast majority of Chinese people have had to struggle for money, and so it makes for an obvious conversation topic and social yardstick.

It’s not a conscious thing, and I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, but America’s consumerism is so highly developed that people don’t realize just how materialistic they are — how much they depend on having things to define them. The best example of this may be the debate over Apple vs. PC.  The most heated debaters are often young adults, ages 20-35. This is also the age group with the greatest disparity of income (at least in one’s 20s, just out of college, more than half will not be gainfully employed). And yet as the debate rages over which computer is “better,” it’s clear that price has been disregarded and one’s identity [as associated with the product] has become everything.

In grad school (in China), only one of my 150 Chinese classmates had a Macbook, and she came from incredible wealth. Nearly everyone else had a small netbook, even though they also came from fairly well-off families. A handful had iPads. Meanwhile, most of my American classmates (about 100 of them) were borrowing heavily to pay for grad school — not at all on Mom and Dad’s penny (this distinction is important because as far as I know, not one of my Chinese classmates was paying for his or her own tuition). It often seemed that most of my American friends could not bear to go without their expensive electronics (Apple or otherwise), regardless of their employment status (none were employed; we were students). When my computer crashed, my American classmates were eager to exhort me into buying this-or-that computer, often stroking their own laptops as they did so, some even literally professing their love for it. My Chinese classmates, by contrast, told me where to get it fixed, and where was cheapest, and if I was set on buying a new one to make sure to get it overseas, where they adamantly believe electronics to be cheaper.

One could argue that Americans care more about quality than Chinese do, and therefore won’t buy stuff for the sake of having it as the Chinese might, but that does not change the fact that Americans still need [quality] things.  The issue lies more in Americans’ inability to separate material (especially techno-consumerism) from their identities.  America is so accustomed to its wealth that we are loathe to part with the products that make us who we are.  Working in sales in China, I can attest that “vanity over value” is still a ruling mantra (and can write about that another time). In the meantime, I think I’ve made my point clear: that America is just as materialistic as China, but it is so ingrained that people do not even notice when their own identities rest on things.

I invite discussion, and also encourage everyone to read or listen to an incredible commencement address by the legendary writer Jonathan Franzen, which also addresses the issue of self, identity, and techno-consumerism in America.

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14 Responses to Who’s more materialistic, the US or China?

  1. Pudding says:

    I would have to say that I somewhat agree. However it’s hard to compare China and the US.

    For instance, my hometown, I wouldn’t say is materialistic. Yes you get teenagers and a few people that have to have the latest greatest. Maybe they flaunt it. The overall feeling isn’t really that materialistic and in love with objects. However I get the materialistic feeling when I am in LA.

    With that, living in China I also get the feeling that people are in love with objects. They ask how much money you make rather than how are you. There seems to be an overly sense of striving to buy things. Houses, cars, bags, etc.

    But it’s just a feeling. And of course it depends on where you are. I’d say if you are in a poor area well, you can’t really be that materialistic. As in everyone is poor. Maybe you by a toaster or something. Living in the city that I do now…. I feel put to shame with the number of Ferrari, BMW, Porsche and every other thing under the sun. Everyone sits at Starbucks and shows off they keys to their cars, everyone has a Macbook Air, iPhone, iPad, etc. I would say that is materialistic.

    It’s the fact that you have an object, almost worship it, talk about it all the time, and show it off.

    I have a Apple Computer, but I work in an industry where that is pretty much the standard. The way it works saves me time. Helps me produce and feeds me. So having it isn’t really materialistic. But if I paraded it around and showed it off, well that might be another story.

    It’s interesting to think about, but I’d have to say with the whole “face” part of China, by and large it has to be more materialistic. It’s that part of face anyway?

  2. Chuck says:

    Not once was has an American woman demanded that I buy her a house and a car, much less on the first date as occurred multiple times in China. Advantage China.

    • Hannah says:

      True, but how many American women do you know whose salary is higher than her husband’s? Whose dream it is to find a nice, caring husband and leave him at home to raise the kids while she chases down stocks on Wall Street? A Chinese woman may be more straight-forward about her materialistic demands, but America’s consumer market is so highly developed and integrated into society that these demands are second-nature.

      Disclaimer: I think I do prefer the latter. I too want to puke when I see a rich-looking Chinese couple sitting in a cafe, texting on their smartphones and not talking to one another.

      • Potomacker says:

        I think you might be basing your notions of high earning American women on romantic notions of equality. Women the world over who earn paychecks still expect a male partner to earn more if he is worth her marrying him. Yes, there are a few women who work while their husbands raise children, but it is a new phenomenon, very rare, and I worry about the stability of the marriage after the nest is empty.
        To respond more generally, what separates wealthy Chinese from their counterparts in more developed market economies is that in China they are all nouveaux riches. There is no old money to set a different standard of comportment so every crass trait that comes from sudden wealth gets reinforced. On the upside, I enjoy how much Chinese women dress in much more ostentatiously on the street in clothes that American women, as an example, would reserve for special occasions. These changes will occur over time just as with all other nations even as much as the Chinese somehow imagine themselves outside the predictability of societal development.

  3. Dan Eelman says:

    In china I would buy cigarettes for 5 Yuan. They were the ones that were on the shelf beneath the cigarettes that sold for 250 Yuan- 50 times the price of a normal pack. It seems like Chinese will spend money on something just because it costs more. Vanity over value definitely.

  4. Matt says:

    I think one part missed in this article is how chinese use their material things. Working in an industry that caters to China’s nouveau riche, 5 star hotels, I see on a daily basis how the newly rich use their wealth to project a sense of superiority over others. Granted, this is part of nature of working in the chinese service industry, but the lack of respect shown to my (chinese) colleagues shown by some people is down right unfathomable. I feel that back in the US, at face level, there is a common level of respect towards other people across socio-economic statuses. In the end, this comes back to the chinese notion of “face” and that treating people in the service industry like garbage somehow increases their mianzi.

    • Matt says:

      One more thing, I don’t want to say that these things don’t happen in America. Because they do. Just not to the frequency and extent that I see in China.

    • Pudding says:

      I agree. The way people carry themselves, act, show off, etc is very different than the US. In fact it’s as if everyone here in China acts like they are their own boss, and is better then everyone around them. This is what you have to do some of the time.

      Even to get a girl, not all girls mind you, but you have to act like the bawls. Throw around money, act powerful and above people. But why? Because this is what they are used to.

      For me it has helped change me for the better. Because in the States I was overly shy. But being here has made me more assertive, driven, etc. But I can imagine that is can have a devastating effect on some.

      Whatever the case, when my friends ask what Chinese are like, or how the rich are. I tell time to imagine a person that is super rich in the States. What they would do on average. Be an A-hole etc. Then imagine that just about everyone even if they have no money acts like that. That’s the feeling that I get in China. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different.

      I don’t know how anyone can argue that the US is more materialistic than China. I don’t think it can be done. When girls starve themselves to buy a LV bag. When people would rather drive a BMW and live in a dump. Like actual dump. And it’s not just isolated cases. It’s wide spread. It’s hard to make a case.

      But you know. Whatever. If you can make some money off China being materialistic then you better hop on it. It’s not going to last forever.

  5. Pingback: The culture of things « little sacred space

  6. Pingback: Vanity versus Value in the Chinese Consumer Market | Seeing Red in China

  7. Matt S. says:

    I think the key point, which Hannah hit on a few times, is that all of these attitudes are reflections of where the society is today. I like the idea of US consumerism developing to the point that we don’t notice how deeply stitched into us it really is. But I’d emphasize a different reaction to the current situation in America.

    A lot of sub-cultures I’ve participated in when in America are very consciously and vocally anti-consumerism. In lots of these places, it’s something of a race to the bottom with material goods: the fewer you have/the cheaper they are, the more credibility you have within a certain crowd. That’s definitely an extreme example (probably specific to a pseudo-hippie background), but think about concepts like nouveau riche and general societal distaste for people who flaunt money. In many levels of American society, particularly the upper levels, showing off wealth is considered as tacky as having nothing to show off at all.

    We can sit back and feel good about this “tasteful”, “anti-consumerist” attitude, or we can recognize something more fundamental. The very reason that we sit back and make these criticisms is because we’re comfortable enough in our own wealth, because we have none of that insecurity as to our position in society (or more fundamentally, no insecurity about where our next meal is coming from).

    It’s always poor people who become rich that are most likely to show off their wealth (think: hip hop culture, Chinese entrepreneurs), and it’s always rich people who have been rich for a long time who feel comfortable condemning it. Of course I prefer the less commercial lifestyle, but I think we would be giving ourselves fewer pats on the back, and wagging fewer fingers if we recognize that we’re all a product of our circumstances.

  8. menganmuyun says:

    That’s how materialism is destroying the planet. And that’s why I always pray to Buddha that hoping I would never felt into vanity and if I did, wake me up.

  9. anonymous says:

    We live in a physical world, where thoughts only have value if translated into physical action, and physical action may result in products or services to satisfy the needs and desires that we experience physically and mentally. Thus, there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with placing emphasis on quality goods and products; they are simply a form of people wanting to fulfill our demands in return for money, which represents command over our labor. Can you eat a thought, and can a thought make you fly? No, if you don’t implement those ideas that you have for that new fertilizer or plane. Yes if you actually do something on a physical plane with the materials that you have or manufacture.
    The problem only comes when we place so much emphasis on these products that we forget what we really want at the end of the day. If you’re the kind of person who would die happy in the smooth, smooth velvet of your Louis Vuitton Handbag, then by all means, do adopt that extreme brand of materialism. If you’re different at all from that, and actually care about people and happiness, then I suggest that you reevaluate your priorities.

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