After living in a collectivist society (Pakistan) for more than 18 years, I moved to the US, a country that prides itself on its rugged individualism and its concept of the American dream. In the US, a person can start from nowhere and still manage to be successful. Opportunities are everywhere, and the message is clear: Work hard and you'll get where you want.
American society celebrates individualism: Freedom of speech, independence, and the worth of an individual are some of the things that I associate with America. This contrasts with the conformity and collectivism that I saw in Pakistan. Back home, rules and conventional roles were important, and people who deviated from tradition were frowned upon. In contrast, people in the US have the freedom to pursue their dreams, no matter how crazy or unconventional they are. And while the economy might be crumbling and social mobility isn't exactly easy, a lot of people still manage to achieve what they want through hard work, luck and determination.
Unfortunately, the American dream is becoming more and more materialistic. I guess it was always a bit materialistic, but when I look at America today, I see a nation obsessed with shopping and buying unnecessary products. Previously, people aspired to have a nice house in the suburbs with a couple of cars. Now, there is no end to the products that people want: the latest IPhone, expensive cars, designer bags--the list is endless. The American dream revolves around luxury goods for most people. As Ellen Goodman put it, "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it."
Shopping is not a problem on its own; It's the obsessive accumulation of unnecessary products, along with the hope that buying a Chanel bag will somehow make you happier that is problematic. The things that we own often end up owning us, and that's what I see around me. People are obsessed with material goods. We're bombarded with ads telling us how a certain car/shoe/phone/soft drink will make us happier, cooler and more fulfilled.
People are trying to "keep up with the Joneses" by defining their worth on the basis of what they possess. Now it's not only about being richer than your neighbor; with the availability of social media, rich people can compare their status to that of people all over the world. There seems to be no limit to the ridiculous expenditure, especially when people are actually willing to spend money on solid gold bags, private jet planes, and diamond-studded vacuum cleaners.
This conspicuous consumption has its drawbacks. It wastes time, money and energy, and often racks up credit card debt. And even then it doesn't add any fulfillment to one's life.
Like most people, I'm attracted to shopping malls and expensive labels as well. But I've come to realize that shopping at Banana Republic or Gap won't do anything to make me happier. I already have everything that I need. I do not need to change my phone each time a new model comes out. I don't need a Calvin Klein jacket or a Swarovski vase or a $425 Jo Malone luxury candle. I don't want my life to be an endless pursuit of buying things that I don't need. My American dream consists of becoming an author and using my newfound freedom to fight for feminism and gay rights in a way that I couldn't do in Pakistan. It doesn't matter what brands I wear as I try to make this dream happen.
There's this quote that states, "Dreams shouldn't be about what you can buy -- they should be about what mark you leave in the world." The American dream is meant to be about more than just designer shoes and flashy cars; these consumer products don't do much to aid in the pursuit of happiness. A fulfilling career, family, giving back to the community -- these are things that really matter.