Let me preface this by saying that I considered whether or not to post this entry. But I figured that I’d just go ahead and do it, image-control be damned. If I were reading a journal of a friend in a foreign country, I’d want a pretty raw version of that person’s varying states of mind. So there’s my disclaimer.
Eileen and I are in this place called the Plaza de las Americas; we’re on our computer and we have a free internet connection. Here we are, in shiny, silver chairs; within view is a Cinnabon, a Baskin Robbins, and a McDonald’s. There’s a fancy-ass deli, an expensive shoe store, a schwank little book store (which even has a trendy, powerful-sounding, American name: Link), a very nice movie theater, and about five or six over-priced restaurants. Jazz music is playing on the speaker system. There’s lots of glass and polished metal; and there’s even this place called “Evolution” where you can play internet video games.
We feel somewhat drawn to this higher-class Quito. I still don’t eat at McDonald’s, but its presence is, regrettably, comforting. We frequent the Swiss Hotel, with its delicious chocolate croissants, excellent sushi, and schwankier-than-schwank ambience. We’re here now at the Plaza de las Americas, seriously considering joining a gym called Physique, which calls itself a “wellness center”; we definitely prefer the fancier establishments’ workout facilities. The Swiss Hotel wins. Physique takes second place. And Hotel Quito is probably third. These are all very gringo-influenced and gringo-frequented spots. We pretty much spend half our time in the barrio known as La Mariscal, nicknamed “GringoLandia.” And of course, we dream of American food, American grocery shopping, even the comfortable anonymity of walking into a Radio Shack or a Panera or a Target and not being seen as someone who is foreign, white, and probably rich.
Back home, I’m not so quick to crave a visit to Panera and Radio Shack. The endless strip malls, which sap local character and identity, repel me; I tend to seek out multicultural and independent pockets: Lao Lan-Xaing, La Brioche, the Regent Street Coop, that Russian dumpling placed on State Street, the Farmer’s market, etc. We shop at Whole Foods, but we do so knowing that despite their being a nationwide chain, 1) they do sell some local products (Bagels Forever, Madison Sourdough, lots of locally produced meats and produce); 2) the products they sell tend to come from more conscientious, environmentally responsible sources; and 3) their advertising and the advertising of most of the products they sell is not as invasive and obnoxious and dangerous. I feel less guilty about buying a Switch soda from Whole Foods than I do buying a Pepsi from Regent Street Coop. But I don’t mean to be writing an essay berating the shortcomings of capitalist society. The point is not that you should also shop at Whole Foods; the point is that, however erred our thinking may be, in the USA, we try to avoid establishments that have bad track records when it comes to human rights, animal rights, environmental sustainability, or mental pollution. We think about who we are supporting with our consumerism. We can afford to. Here, if we support the local tienda, we either get poor quality (there’s some really bad bread on LaGasca), or we get sick. I’d love to buy my lunch on the street and thus help support local, poor merchants, but I’m almost guaranteed to get parasites. So we go to the Americanized Swiss Hotel, or other Americanized restaurants in the most Americanized barrios – a practice which furthers our image as the cultural imperialist.
The longer we live here, the better it gets. We have started eating at cheaper, less gringo places; we found a killer cinnamon bun at a small place on 12 de Octubre – which means we’ll never have to spend two whopping bucks at Cinnabon again. But the fact remains that I miss home. I would kill just to sit at an Au Bon Pain or a Borders or a Panera on a cool fall day, sipping hot apple cider and watching the leaves blow.
I feel like a sellout. But it’s not that I now agree with McDonalds’ food production practices or Ford’s implicit earth-killing messages in their ads. It’s just that commercialism, chain stores, and consumerism are American – they are part of America’s identity. And thus they are part of mine.
I am a patriot. Though I can talk with Ecuadorians easily and with surprising fluency about how the presidents of both of our countries are bastards; though I can launch into a polemic about how truly damaging American consumerism is; though I fear the idiocy we’ve displayed in Iraq and in our countless other less publicized, money-driven military involvements; though I lament the complacency and ignorance of my countrymen; and though the current Republican administration has attempted to co-opt the flag and the word “patriotism,” and even God as their own. I am American. I claim it. Proudly and shamefully.