Reverse Culture Shock

by Richard Brown

Going back to the US for Christmas was the usual reverse-culture shock. It actually reminded me of what happened last night, watching Unmistaken Child, a documentary about a young Nepalese Buddhist monks’ efforts to find the reincarnation of his beloved and celebrated master. In one scene featuring the Dalai Lama speaking to a crowd, the video cut to a Claro advertisement featuring a hot young Latina dressed ‘office-slutty’ explaining how great Claro’s new stuff is. As you probably don’t know (I had to actually go to the Claro office to figure this out), Claro’s pay-as-you-go service favors the rich through its ‘cuenta de bonos’ (bonus account) scheme. This is the scheme whereby  whenever you buy saldo when there’s doble, triple, cuadruple, or even quintuple sales specials, you get the extra saldo delivered to your cuenta de bonos. They gave me a sheet that explains that the extra saldo you get when you recharge for 5Q lasts only for a day, the extra from 10Q, 11Q, and 15Q recargas lasts only 3 days, and the extra from 25Q lasts only for 5 days. If you recharge for 50Q or 75Q, it lasts for 15 days, and for Q100 or Q200 the extra saldo lasts 30 days. (At the bottom of the sheet, it says, ‘Exclusively for internal use. Do not distribute through print or electronic media.’ Oops.)

The company’s mostly owned by Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest man worth over $70 billion and one of the 80 people who are as rich as half of the world’s population (about 3.5 billion people).

So, brief interlude aside, what I was trying to get at was that the ad and the culture it represents clashed a bit with the documentary. (A very poor Nepalese man in the film, asked to make an unthinkable sacrifice, says, ‘If it’s for the benefit of all sentient beings…. then I must do it.’)

What I noticed most in the US this Christmas, besides the fact that my American frijolito phone is cheaper to use than my Chapin frijolito, were the parking lots. When I go walking with my 18th-century pal Benjamin Franklin (dude is FUN) I ask him what he notices about our surroundings. He often observes that the early 2000s are visually special for the shininess of all the steel and glass that our buildings and cars are made of, which reflect the lights that he is always distracted by.

The material wealth represented by hundreds of shiny, personal multi-ton machines of steel, glass, electronics, and whatever else in every parking lot outside of every super-market in the US is as impressive as the dreamlike smoothness of the roads, which, coming from Guatemala, is impossible not to enjoy. The roads are so smooth because they’re capped with a layer of tar, a petroleum product. El Dorado’s streets paved with gold never came to be, but we did manage to build our streets paved with oil.

What’s most amazing is that the people driving the cars on those roads still seem to think that so much wealth is concentrated in the US because of the country’s catchphrases: democracy, freedom, work-ethic. The idea that this wealth comes from the historical ability to mine, farm, drill, and reap the 3.8 million square miles of land taken by force by the United States’ first settlers is not very popular. (To say nothing of the idea, recently and increasingly endorsed by academic giants, that the cotton et al. produced by millions of slaves drove the industrial and financial development of northern states.)

So for Claro, Carlos, and the lords of the zones of El Petroado in every country, it was certainly a Merry Christmas. For everyone else, this graffiti springs to mind: Feliz consumismo y prósperas deudas neuvas.


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