Elizabeth Chin is associate professor of anthropology at Occidental College, where she also is director of the Multicultural Summer Institute. Her recently published book, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture, has been named a finalist for the 2002 C. Wright Mills Award.

My work as an anthropologist is aimed at enlarging our understanding of the ways in which poor and working class kids of color engage with consumption — and to challenge popular stereotypes. But turning the tables is also important. For about six months, I have been working on a journal of my own consumer life, which I’m calling “My Life with Things.” This week, you’ll see five entries from that journal. The project is highly personal, but it has a purpose that goes beyond self-documentation. As someone who has long studied consumption and is deeply critical of it, I’m painfully aware of my own deep ties to the world of consumption. Ultimately, it is my hope that this intensive self-observation can serve as a springboard for further exploring contemporary commodity consumption in all its aspects.

Monday, 15 Jul 2002

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

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What is it about American consciousness that makes almost all of us convinced that we’re poor while everyone else is living it up, except for the unworthy poor people, who deserve to be living like rats anyway?

I don’t even believe in those ideas and yet I have them some of the time. Especially the everybody-is-living-better-than-me bit. I drive around Los Angeles (or wherever I’m driving), peering into people’s yards, trying to imagine what living in their houses or neighborhoods is like, sizing up the worth of their real estate, deciding in a self-serving way that though they might have more material wealth than I do, their lives cannot possibly be as rich and rewarding (since as Dickens knew, being poor is so very interesting), and at the same time yearning in the most awful way to have whatever it is they’ve got. A river-rock craftsman front porch. Or Smith and Hawken gardening tools. A space-foam bed. A live-in nanny. Trust funds.

I remember hearing someone on the radio once, describing the United States as the richest country in the world and at any time in history. In Haiti, they call the rich people the “MRE,” which is short for the Morally Repugnant Elite. That’s me. That’s us. As a nation, we are the MRE of the entire world. And of all of history.

I realize how rich I am every time I go to the Third World, which is the only place outside of the U.S. that I’ve ever traveled. (Well, last summer I went to London, my first non-Third-World foreign trip, and thought, this is why people get into tourism; it’s so easy, you can just jump on a subway). What I learn, when I travel, is that I am not just privileged or not-actively-poor; I am rich. It’s a lesson that I appreciate, but it’s a lesson that also leaves me extremely uncomfortable, in part because some part of my psyche is truly dependent upon viewing myself as deprived.

To be an American (and I use that term on purpose, because I usually avoid it) in the Third World is to have the opportunity — even, perhaps, the obligation — to face up to some very big realities about one’s own wealth. Fundamental to this are the kinds of relationships that can exist between Americans and those who live in the Third World, because despite our ever-so-populist pretensions, even for liberals like me, it is simply impossible to get around the fact of our richness and their poverty. We want to somehow pretend that, despite being rich tourists, we can meet “them” just person to person, that our richness, which is invisible to us, shouldn’t matter to “them” either. We’re offended if we feel used. What if they don’t like us for ourselves but rather for our ability to waft in and then out of their lives, leaving a trail of dollar bills for them to follow, Hansel’s trail of breadcrumbs to our candy land of plenty?

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I first realized that I was an agent of the MRE when I went to Haiti. In the U.S., the closest I have ever come to an American president was almost running into Bill Clinton when he was on his first campaign, as I was going down the stairs at Grand Central Station and he was on his way up. Someone else actually stopped and talked to him. From 20 feet away, I could feel Bill’s charisma — and it’s not a lie, it’s that moment that made me vote for him. Not that I was going to vote for the other guy anyway, but that moment made it a positive choice, because all of a sudden I felt that I liked Bill.

In Haiti, getting close to the president was so much easier than some chance almost-encounter in a train station. Suddenly, I could do things like: go out to dinner with Fritz Mevs, one of the very richest men in Haiti. Perform in front of the president. Meet the minister of culture. Hang out with the man who is now the leader of the political opposition. Little old me from New Haven, Conn., and it wasn’t because I was politically savvy or especially beautiful or anything like that. (Although having an especially beautiful friend who was the object of Fritz Mevs’s lust was helpful.) Being American, and knowing people who worked for NGOs and USAID meant automatic entree into the highest rungs of society, at least to brush shoulders.

It was slightly exciting, don’t get me wrong, it was like walking into someone else’s life by mistake. But what was disorienting was to realize that this world of luxury and swimming pools, wealthy disaffected playboy sons of philandering wealthy husbands and beautiful tough Creole mothers, humvees and household servants, was somehow “my” world in Haiti, the one to which I “naturally” belonged as if I were born there. (Not that I could exactly be accepted that way, but where else were they going to put me?) I had to actively work my way down to the level of my closest friends in Haiti, or, God forbid, the slums of Cite Soleil. How could this rich self-indulgent world be my world? How could powerful political people be my friends? How could this be really my life and not some drastic mistake?

My work as an anthropologist is aimed at enlarging our understanding of the ways in which poor and working class kids of color engage with consumption — and to challenge popular stereotypes. But turning the tables is also important. For about six months, I have been working on a journal of my own consumer life, which I’m calling “My Life with Things.” This week, you’ll see five entries from that journal. The project is highly personal, but it has a purpose that goes beyond self-documentation. As someone who has long studied consumption and is deeply critical of it, I’m painfully aware of my own deep ties to the world of consumption. Ultimately, it is my hope that this intensive self-observation can serve as a springboard for further exploring contemporary commodity consumption in all its aspects.

Tuesday, 16 Jul 2002

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

When I go to Haiti, I usually stay with Florencia Pierre and her family. Florencia is one of about seven people who make up Haiti’s middle class. A particularly fierce woman in her forties from the island of La Gonave, Florencia comes from a large family and seems, through her hard work, to support a network of about 10 or 12 people. She’s a dancer, choreographer, and community activist, as well as working on and off for a Spanish nongovernmental organization. (NGOs have entirely different pay scales for “natives” vs. outsiders. Americans, Europeans, and Latin Americans working in Haiti for NGOs earn maybe $80,000 a year if they’re the head of a program, plus a housing allowance. Haitians working for NGOs might earn a tenth of that.)

Florencia has just finished the first stages of building a house outside of Petionville, and I’ve never seen it. But her old apartment in Petionville, which is often described as an upscale suburb of Port au Prince, had three small rooms and a bathroom, a total of about 500 square feet. Usually, about seven people lived there at a time. There was running water three times a week, which had to be collected in big barrels and any small container that were around. I calculated that we had about 200 gallons of water per week to use for our every bathing, toilet, and dishwashing need. I think that my family of three in the U.S. uses two or three times that much per day, and we don’t flush the toilet when we pee.

Intermittent electricity; a jerry-rigged refrigerator with a freezer at about fridge temperature and the fridge section somewhat lukewarm; no working telephone. (Today, most Haitians who can afford it just get a cell phone, because to get a phone line in your home takes several years and quite a few bribes — and even then, service is awful. Cell phones, by contrast, are quite reliable.) Bucket baths in cool water. No air conditioning. No fan. This, in Haiti, is living large for most people, who haven’t made it to the ranks of the Morally Repugnant Elite.

When I’m in Haiti, I don’t mind living that way. Amazingly, I find that I don’t even really miss all my stuff: my VCR, cable TV, built-in gas cooktop, washing machine and dryer. This is what’s so schizo: I like living without all the luxuries while I’m away, but when I’m at home I start obsessing about Chinese silk rugs and $400 vacuum cleaners. There’s something quite liberating about cutting the ties to all my crap, even just for a few weeks. Somehow, it makes me feel more human, more alive.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not the job of people living in the Third World to make me appreciate my life. What a disgusting idea. And yet, in a very real way, that is the biggest and longest lasting impact of the time I’ve spent in Cuba, Haiti, Peru, and elsewhere. The experience is fundamentally liberating: to go for a period of time with just a little bit of my normal complement of crap (one small suitcase, say) and to be perfectly happy. To not watch television hardly at all. To not go shopping as entertainment. In other words, to magically suspend normal commodity capitalist First World obsessions. To replace that with the realness of living poor. To use other people’s poverty as an antidote to my own alienation.

This is terrible, but it happens. The commodity is us. And because we are such earnest Americans, we think that everybody just wants to be our friend. Once we figure out that the fact that we’re rich is relevant, we feel, well, offended. We feel we’re not being treated like people. And yet we’re not really ready to face up to the ways in which we’re already touring other people’s lives for our own pleasure and satisfaction.

Now, there’s no doubt that it can be frustrating to be treated like a walking dollar bill — but in a way, isn’t that better than the alternative, which is all the occulted, mystified, fetishized dealings that we have all the time, in which we mistake things for social relationships? At least it’s honest. But we really hate having to factor the crass money stuff into our dealings with our friends. I’m not saying that Florencia treats me in that crass way, because she really doesn’t. But there’s still this truth: I’m rich, she’s not, and I can give her lots of stuff because I’m feeling generous, and if we’re good friends, she’s the one I will decide to be generous to, not someone else.

I’ve got friends higher up the food chain who choose to be generous to me, and I appreciate their generosity and I like to think that I cultivate and value my friendship with them utterly apart from their ability to give me stuff — but if I really face up to it, that’s only partly true. So when I arrive at Florencia’s on one of my trips, I’ve always got my rather small duffel bag packed with all my stuff, and then a huge suitcase stuffed with all kinds of things for her. Maybe it’s even a way of demonstrating my richness, my wealth, my privilege. I get enormous pleasure out of being generous to her, spending money to buy things for her and her family that I wouldn’t get for myself — but here I am in my 1,350 square-foot home with running water and electricity 24/7, and somehow, all these clothes that are basically new but I don’t wear them anymore.

In Cuba with Isaias Rojas, director of the company Ban Rra Rra, one of Cuba’s best folklore troupes.

This past March, I spent a week in Cuba studying folkloric dance. In Cuba, we lived like kings and queens — $25 a day for a converted convent room with a Monet-blue ceiling and marble tiled bathrooms (the nuns never had it so good), smoking Cohibas and sipping rum in the evenings, that all-Fidel-all-the-time channel soothing us from the television downstairs in the lobby. My Haitian friend Florencia has a daughter, Djenane, who is a student at Cuba’s International School for Sports and Physical Education. Djenane gets 100 pesos per month for spending money — about $4. So in one night, I spent all the money she has for five months. Of course, the U.S. is a rich country and it’s expensive to live here; what can you get in the U.S. for twenty-five bucks? Certainly not a charming room in an old convent where you feel transported, elated, special. Breakfast included.

My work as an anthropologist is aimed at enlarging our understanding of the ways in which poor and working class kids of color engage with consumption — and to challenge popular stereotypes. But turning the tables is also important. For about six months, I have been working on a journal of my own consumer life, which I’m calling “My Life with Things.” This week, you’ll see five entries from that journal. The project is highly personal, but it has a purpose that goes beyond self-documentation. As someone who has long studied consumption and is deeply critical of it, I’m painfully aware of my own deep ties to the world of consumption. Ultimately, it is my hope that this intensive self-observation can serve as a springboard for further exploring contemporary commodity consumption in all its aspects.

Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

You need it, my friends tell me. You deserve it. Here’s her phone number. The number of a nice Mexican lady, maybe an illegal immigrant, who surely will charge far too little to clean my home. But I deserve it.

Somehow, this is the last frontier for me, to have someone in my home (I’ve already got underpaid Mexicans cutting my grass, to my chagrin) to dust and mop and swab the toilets and do all that other stuff that I can never get to.

How on earth, though, can one person deserve the labor of another? I mean, my child deserves my labor on her behalf, but does my Ph.D. earn me the right to have someone do the dirty jobs in my home? And why is it — or is it — so different to have guys working outside in the yard? I can’t imagine how I’ll deal with it; I think I’ll have to run out of the house so that I don’t witness this person doing what I think I should be doing: cleaning up the family mess, sweeping the dust bunnies, spritzing handprints off the walls and toothpaste spray off the mirrors. It’s much too intimate. And a lot of what makes me uncomfortable about it is important to me: I don’t want to lose my discomfort with the idea. At the same time I want my house to be cleaner than I can get it unless I spend a lot of time doing it myself. Maybe I should care less about those little details.

But I’ll come home and the house will be magically clean. Maybe if only I didn’t have to deal with and get to know a real person I’d feel less guilty, maybe if I went with some big, corporate rent-a-maid service it would feel less exploitative. But if I’m going to do it, I feel obligated to have a personal relationship, to force myself to witness and acknowledge what is happening.

It’s a little bit like the way I feel about eating meat. Basically, if I’m willing to watch it die, I’ll eat it. Not in every single instance, but I’ve seen chickens and fish being killed, and I think it’s really important to see that there’s life attached to that thing on the plate. It has to be acknowledged. Same thing with work: People do it; don’t pretend it’s not the case. If you can’t handle how the magic happens, don’t get attached to the magic.

Now, I already purchase labor from other people all the time: my daughter, Benin, is in preschool, and that certainly costs money, and frees me to spend many hours in the office. They care for her, but it’s not the same. Then there’s all that indirect stuff — interactions with cashiers, for instance — but it doesn’t have that aspect of making me feel, well, guilty. Benin was just in the hospital with pneumonia, and I was grateful to pay doctors and radiologists to figure out how sick she was, to dose her up with expensive albuterol treatments and steroids, to attach her to an oxygen flow.

Why is paying the doctor so different from paying a maid? Is the difference obvious or not? The power differential is clear: When you’re a patient, the doctor has the power. With a maid, you have the power.

When I was a teenager, I had a job for a while cleaning the house of some friends of my mother’s. Down in the basement I’d do the laundry, put the shirts up on the hangers just the right way. Vacuum the stairs, dust, dust, dust. Can’t remember what else I did, but I do remember that after about the third time I was unbearably bored by the whole thing. Vacuuming the damn stairs again. The woman I worked for fired me because I did all the appointed chores but didn’t take the initiative to clean the coffee pot. She told me I wasn’t mature. Really, I was born a 40-year-old in too many ways; I was plenty mature. But I was so bored.

These days I don’t find housework as boring as I did then — there’s actually something a little restful about it, at least the usual stuff — but what just sends me off the deep end are all the messes my husband and godson leave around. Even after they think they’ve cleaned up. The dried dribbles of piss on the underside of the toilet seat. The splatters of spaghetti sauce behind the stove.

So I stomp around cursing and feeling put upon, cleaning and dusting and vacuuming and washing floors and wiping up spills that seem to be invisible to everyone else but if I didn’t intervene we’d be living in an absolute hellhole. It’s like swimming against the tide of indifference; I’m yearning to live in a lovely setting, with everything just so — a warm and inviting jumble of color and texture that’s homey and nice and clean — but I don’t think they care about it at all. So while they’re in their socks and sweats eating chips and watching the game on TV, I’m scrubbing mildew out of grout, putting stuff down the pipes so the drains won’t clog, and trying to decide what color to paint Benin’s room. They would never do these things. And sometimes I hate them for it. I really hate the way that they feel entitled to leisure and I don’t, which is clearly my own problem — but there’s the mildew and the dust bunnies and all that.

Maybe that’s part of what I’m thinking about buying — someone else who cares for and cares about my living space. I won’t be alone any more. I can complain to her and roll my eyes about them. She can say, “Tsk tsk tsk” and put on the gloves and whip out the comet and maybe I’ll feel happy and free.

It’s not much of an overstatement to say that I really do fear that my marriage will fray rather too much if we don’t get help in the home cleanliness department. And the reality is that a maid is a lot cheaper than therapy, but maybe it shouldn’t be.