Re-Entry: Reflections on Consumerism

After six months of traveling and living throughout S.E. Asia, we re-entered the Western world, spending a month in Australia.

It was an uncomfortable reunion with the old life we used to be so accustomed to. Not only has our lifestyle transformed, but our views on what is important in life have changed immensely.

Twenty months ago, we started this new life by selling and purging everything we owned. Our house, our furniture, our clothes, and a house full of appliances, modern conveniences, and oodles of gadgets were all sold or donated. Everything that was part of our comfortable and safe lives — we now call our old “stuff” — no longer had an emotional attachment or place in our new lives.

 How our purchase decisions have changed

Now, our purchase decision habits are entirely different. Whatever we buy, we have to carry it on our backs. It forces us to ask ourselves, “Do we really need this?” As a result, what we buy are minor living essentials, like shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. We don’t buy things from other countries because we have no house to put them in and the thought of piling up with more stuff is nauseating. As for gifts, we will buy those in the country we head to before landing back home in Canada for Christmas.

We live out of two backpacks each, full of basics for daily living, such as toiletries and medical supplies, as well as, business essentials like our video and computer equipment to capture our travels. We carry limited clothes for various kinds of weather and activities. We also brought a few “luxury’ gadgets that make us feel like anywhere’s home, including our coffee press and tea steeper, and portable speaker to stream music. That’s about it. Surprisingly, having less and more basic items is easier than we would have ever predicted.

 How developing countries ground us

Traveling in countries so economically different from our own quickly reminds us of our privileged upbringing. We saw children who laughed and played with a bucket and stick and handmade toys and families celebrated in the streets for virtually any occasion in countries like Laos and Myanmar. Sure, people buy the same things we do — clothing, electronics, toys, and gadgets — but the motivation seems very different. They buy things they want. As Westerners, we need things to make us look good in the eyes of others, or sometimes, to fill a void in our lives with material possessions.

I can look back on my consumer behavior rationally now. Shopping in the Western world is a social activity, purely based on material consumption. Often, I bought new clothes just to have a new thing to wear in front of my peers, or because I was bored on a Sunday afternoon. The more we are away from Western countries, the more cynical I get about consumerism and how my marketing career exacerbated this kind of excess. I spent twenty years encouraging people to buy more!

 Getting excited about life’s pleasures again

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Sydney… Our first day in Australia

Landing in Australia made us appreciate the conveniences we took for granted in the past. We’ve simplified our lives so much that seeing so many conveniences and so many choices actually annoyed us a bit. However, it was nice to have a few pleasures back, like really clean clothes from a REAL washing machine!

On the road, we washed our clothes in a sink or tub, swishing them around in detergent and hanging them to dry. Washing clothes in a machine takes clean to a whole new level. That caked-on crusty residue of deodorant or ground-in dirt really does disappear. We felt so clean, like we had a new wardrobe! I bet you haven’t thought that much about your washing machine? An even more thrilling moment was drinking water out of a tap again! In so many countries, water’s not safe to drink so bottled water became an essential, regular purchase.

An uncomfortable night out on the town

My discomfort surrounding all this materialism became even more pronounced when a friend invited me to a girls’ night out in Sydney. Why not? I’ve spent months traveling, meeting, and connecting with people along the way, but I’ve largely spent most of this time with Troy. I figured I could use a rendezvous with ladies over a few glasses of wine, but I was unsure if I would fit in anymore. I have different priorities and different life experiences now. Would I have anything to talk about?

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This is all the clothing I have now.

First off, I needed an outfit. I fussed about making this purchase, as flashy, appropriate clothes were no longer part of my life. However, I would still need something other than summer clothes to avoid the cool winter air in Sydney. So, I bought the cheapest pair of jeans I could find, and then I was set.

My discomfort increased with the dinner location. Once we arrived, I quickly realized the restaurant was an expensive fine-dining establishment in downtown Sydney. I had just spent six months eating delicious meals often for $1.50 to $5 a plate, and now I was in a restaurant offering main courses at $30+ each. I wanted to make an excuse to leave, that I wasn’t feeling well, or I needed to go somewhere else, but I had no valid excuse. I thought about ordering the small dinner salad, but then decided I would enjoy the moment and this night would be an exception — my night to splurge.

Soon after I took the first bite of my $35-beef medallion entrée, I both felt guilty and didn’t see the value of its price tag at all. Even the 5-star service annoyed me, as a nicely folded napkin was draped over my lap after I returned from the washroom. I lost patience with the multiple cutlery changes — it was too much of a fuss and I thought how much water was probably wasted on such an unnecessary service. I never used to think twice about these kinds of restaurants when I worked full-time and often went out for dinner with clients.

Now I reflect and chuckle about my old life. Back then I would rummage through a hundred pairs of shoes and three closets full of clothes, and still struggle to find anything to wear for a night out. Today, I took a sink-washed “clean” shirt and shorts from the clothesline and my pair of Converse low tops for a day on the town.

 Our goals and priorities have changed to living a life on our own terms and traveling for as long as we can, that’s our priority now. Travel has done that. For us, it’s for the better.

About the Author Dorene

Dorene is a marketing consultant and freelance writer. She quit her 20-year career in marketing to redesign her career and lifestyle on her own terms by living location independent. Now with her husband Troy, she helps people who want to redefine their midlife and make conscious changes at TravelLifeX. She also trains & coaches travel and hospitality clients to improve their marketing at TravelLifeMedia.com

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