Biting the Hand that Feeds

BY MARLA CABANBAN
Dec 15, 2010

So you think you’re not consumerist because you’re vegan and you like indie music? You’re just subscribing to another kind of brand.

I came across an interview with a lady named Bai Di who grew up in socialist China during the Cultural Revolution. She grew up with only two sets of clothes and a need for nothing more. Setting aside the more flawed aspects of socialism, something has always drawn me to this sort of austerity. I struggled to find the words to explain the fascination with living without much. I never felt like the privileged kid who went on immersion to live with a poor family for a weekend and then come back exactly the same way exclaiming, “Well, wasn’t that nice?”

 

93 "...But right now for the young people growing up in Cihina, it's me, me, me. And the whole culture buttresses that."

 

I think what I felt was envy. But to acknowledge that meant going against everything that was hammered into my mind since birth – that the accumulation of money, material things, and influence were the measures of one’s success.

Bai Di said: “I feel like capitalism is very good at creating a void in people’s psyche. It will teach you that the only way to feel okay is to want more. It is so consuming. When I grew up, I did not put much time at all in material stuff so we had energy to do other things for the greater good. We studied all kinds of subjects, and thought our presence was very much part of the future.”

The void that Bai Di was referring to was something that was all too familiar to me. I would call it the Beast. This Beast would make several appearances in my life and I called it as such because whenever it was there, it was my obligation to feed it. The Beast would devour whatever I offered up to it, and for a hot minute I would experience immense satisfaction and imagined happiness. Then my life ended up being devoted to those hot minutes. Devoted to these fleeting instances where I felt significant, just for the price of feeding this monstrous creature.

This feeling of significance was an addiction. And the addiction came in the form of endlessly feeding it. The thing is, when you have no idea how significance looks or feels like, you end up chasing things that you think might be it. It took me a long, long time to figure out that once it was something that had to be fed over and over again to sustain its level of satisfaction, the mere fact that I had to do it was a clear enough indication of a void: the Beast.

That’s basically the anatomy of an addiction. I chose not to see it because I didn’t care for regular shoe shopping, regular clothes shopping, or hanging out at places that I have deemed superficial and vapid. All right, I thought, I must be doing OK because I’m not a money-hungry yuppie who’s preoccupied with acquiring the latest gadget Steve Jobs is holding over my face, and that I have devoted my life to acquisition of good books, music, travel, and food – life-giving things, … right?!

Yet there I had it. It was right there in my face. The more obvious desire to acquire, and the less obvious mindset of lording myself over people who don’t prescribe to the same lifestyle choices I made.

Indie versus mainstream, vegan versus carnivore, herb versus alcohol. All of these are polarities that encompass the same spectrum of a desire to anchor identity to an already laid out set of ideologies and lifestyles.

What makes the trade analyst who travels all over Asia and tweets every unnecessary detail about it any different from the audiophile snob who collects hard to find vinyl and uploads a new album on Facebook every month to show them all off? Acquisition is the same soulless thing that comes in different currencies, and just because I prescribed to one, doesn’t mean that I was exempt from the same sellout game. Indie versus mainstream, vegan versus carnivore, herb versus alcohol. All of these are polarities that encompass the same spectrum of a desire to anchor identity to an already laid out set of ideologies and lifestyles.

I found that there was nothing wrong with having expressed preferences, but I have learned to assert my disdain at the choices becoming a subconscious machinery of keeping up with the Joneses, another manifestation of the void.

It bothers me that we’re living in a world that is relying more and more on brands to determine the sort of person someone is. A brand can be absolutely anything anybody freely attaches their preference to, whether it’s a band or a drug of choice. When you listen to some obscure musician no one has ever heard of, you must be some tasteful intellectual, oh joy. When your choice is blow, you must be rich and you must love hearing the sound of your voice. Even the choice not to partake in the brands, when done in pride and disdain is still branding.

Back when I was an even snottier kid, my judgmental antennae would only come out when it came to matters of music, but now all sorts of preconceived notions start coming out of the woodwork when people talk about the TV shows they follow, the causes they support, the blogs they follow, the places they visit. Having a Facebook profile these days also makes it a lot easier to condense all of these.

“Right now everyone is complaining even though they already have so much.”

I don’t want to be feeding any void anymore. The more I fed it, the bigger it kept getting. It took years of trying to keep up by way of showing up in events and drinking sessions, watching the latest movies, adding thousands of songs into my iPod (and not even listening to all of it), and updating my meager wardrobe to make me realize that this is tiring. It hasn’t done much to make me genuinely satisfied. It was only because I wanted to matter, because I wanted to be relevant.

This came to me during one of those times when I made the effort to sit still and just think. There was nothing wrong with wanting acclaim and friends but when that becomes your primary motivation for doing what you do, then it becomes another Beast to feed. The funny thing about all of this is that when you stop caring so much and go along your merry way with a good heart, then that’s when the validation of relationships and recognition start peppering your life in little ways.

I’m imagining a life where I’ll open my closet with nothing much to choose from and be perfectly OK with it. Or feeling nothing after a weekend when hundreds of photos from the previous nights’ festivities are uploaded without me in them.

I may disappear off the grid with some choices I’m now making and I may lose popularity points and even some friends in the process, but in return I’ll be given my emancipation.