We are on the tip of the African continent, visiting my in-laws in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. After an unexpected death in the family a few months ago, my husband and I decided to come out to throw his extended family an American Thanksgiving. Although the hot weather necessitated some menu modifications (for example, cold potato salad instead of hot mashed potatoes), we had a gorgeous turkey with cranberry sauce and gravy, stuffing, salad, noodle kugel, green beans, and an assortment of pies. My kids made foam turkeys for each place setting and a gingerbread turkey as the centerpiece. As per tradition, we all over ate and enjoyed one another’s company until late into the evening. The South Africans were grateful we had shared our American custom.
The next morning, however, we were horrified to discover that while Thanksgiving remains uniquely American, South Africa – and likely other countries as well – has adopted the more modern U.S. tradition of Black Friday. We happened to be at one of the area’s largest malls on Friday morning (for an animatronic dinosaur exhibition) so had a first-hand experience of the consumption hysteria. People with trolleys ( that’s what they call shopping cart here) loaded with TVs, designer clothes, and new gadgets pushed past each other to scoop up the next “Black Friday” bargain. The shops seemed to encourage this stampede effect by publishing in their ads how many of a certain item would be available at the discounted rate.
Consumerism has always made me a bit uncomfortable because I was raised to be skeptical of deals that seem too good to be true. Even if the hundreds of shoppers we saw were in fact paying reduced prices, they were almost certainly spending more money than they had. Credit is expensive in South Africa with high fees and interest rates on credit cards. Yet, conspicuous consumerism leads many to spend well beyond their means, perpetuating cycles of poverty. I wish I had photos of the number of shacks built from corrugated metal and spare bricks that have premium TV satellite dishes or BMWs parked out front. Living beyond one’s means is obviously not unique to this country, or to any group within the country. It is a global concern. Still, I can’t help but feel that America is at least partly to blame. The introduction – and rapid adoption (this was only its second year) – of Black Friday seems like a tell-tale symptom that American-style consumerism is contagious and spreading. After the warm and fuzzy feeling I had sharing my country and family’s Thanksgiving traditions, the next morning I felt decidedly less patriotic.