Sunday, September 9, 2012

Seeing the Light on Vacation

My best friend Wasam (a Thai name) and I just got back from an epic road trip: two weeks, six states, two countries, six national parks.  It was a truly excellent experience, and something we'll both be cherishing in our memories for years to come.

At one point, Wasam said:
"Dude, everything we need is in this car right now."
He was referring to more than just what we needed for the trip.  He meant that we had the necessities for life, and a good one at that...  No fancy house.  No widescreen TV.  No junk.  Just a little clothing, some shelter (tent), some food, and a way to see the world.

The simple life really is a good life, but I don't want to bore you with a trite platitude.  Like many things in life, it is the process, the journey, the story which makes matters more interesting and enriching.  This story starts about fifteen years ago, with roots centuries deep.

One stereotype of mainstream Asian culture is an interest in displaying social status.  That's far from being unique to Asia, I know, but it has taken a special prevalence there, and has been made manifest through an infatuation with product brands in our modern era...

Nike.  Gucci.  Even McDonalds.  Wasam has often remarked how expensive it was in Thailand to buy Baskin Robbins; even a single scoop of their ice cream in Thailand would cost the Thai equivalent of a full meal for up to two people from a street vendor.  (In fact, Wasam has said that it is so cheap and easy to get food from the various street vendors that often families to choose that option over making dinner themselves.  But the quality is relatively high.  Imagine flipping the perspective to where a standard restaurant meal is served at Western fast food speed and cost, while McDonalds is a meal that people might save for a special occasion, and you'll get the gist.)

So fifteen years ago, when Wasam and I first met, he was very brand focused, but there was a small, quiet part of him that didn't want to be.  Perhaps it was from the example set by his parents coming through poverty to a position of financial comfort while maintaining some humility.  Perhaps it was just a growing repugnance with superficial cultural contexts.  I can't help but wonder if that's part of what attracted him to me as a friend.

As I look back on my closest friendships, I realize that there is usually one or more strengths that they have in areas where I am weak.  It seems that I want friends who will challenge me to grow and think in different perspectives more than I want friends who are just fun to hang around with.  And it seems like there is reciprocation.  My strengths are often weaknesses in my friends, so through the years we have grown stronger together.

Fifteen years ago, almost to a fault, I had practically no brand affinity, especially when compared to Wasam.

In the time that has passed, I've gained an appreciation for design and craftsmanship which had been sorely lacking.  I am willing to pay more when it makes sense to pay more, up to a practical limit.  Meanwhile, Wasam has nearly conquered the materialist-elitism instilled in him by his cultural upbringing in Thailand; perhaps ironically doing so in a country which is widely considered the most materialistic on earth; the United States.

Watching your friends and loved ones grow through the years is truly one of life's great rewards.  Challenging yourself to grow is one of life's most worthwhile endeavors.  If you need to gain perspective on where things are, what is important, and what needs to change, may I suggest a long drive with a good friend?


  1. Beautifully written.
    I am also learning to appreciate design and quality and working against my instincts to buy the least expensive thing only when I absolutely have to. It is a tricky thing to navigate communicating responsibility with material goods and getting caught up in status games.

  2. Thanks prarienymph!

    It sure is tricky. It is very easy to be seduced into the lifestyle or image "sold" with the brand as opposed to objectively looking at its true value. It's a hard lesson to learn, and a difficult one to teach to kids, as you may be finding based on your comment. But you've got some great strength in you, such that I am sure you'll find a way to help your little ones find their way.

  3. Nice story. It can be a struggle to live simply with the constant barrage of advertisers—reinforced by peer pressure (real or perceived)—telling you to be dissatisfied with what you have every moment of the day.

    Myself, I'm not too status conscious. I avoid wearing clothing with obvious logos. I try not to follow trends or jump on speeding bandwagons. I'm generally satisfied with what I have.


    Yesterday, as I followed the announcement of the new iPhone 5, I learned that I have to wait one more week to upgrade my (nearly obsolet 4s) to iOS 6. A week! (sigh....)

  4. Ha, even I am getting interested in 5. I guess all of the hooplah is potent on even the hardest of heads. ;-)

    I have faith that you can make it another week. :-)