Poverty no barrier to keeping up with Joneses
by Trung Hieu
Australian Leila Brown was very impressed to see that all her Vietnamese friends had iPhones.
Leila, who makes US$2,500 a month working for an international organisation in Ha Noi, says she kept noticing many young people in cafes and was surprised to see such a luxurious device in their hands.
"I thought Viet Nam was still poor, and I did not expect that so many young people could have such high incomes!"
Leila uses a phone that cost her some $200. She says the iPhone is still considered a luxury item in her country. If people are not well-off, they have to really love new technology to buy such an expensive product.
She was even more surprised to learn that, in Viet Nam, it is perfectly ordinary for a person with a monthly income of $300-400 to have an iPhone. Even many unemployed people still manage to buy iPhones to keep up with their friends.
"All my friends have iPhones, so it's humiliating to use an old, cheap phone. Even if I had to eat instant noodles every day to save money, I would figure out a way to buy an iPhone." This is a common mentality among young people. Viet Nam is a developing country, but in its large cities the number of iPhone users is equivalent to or higher than in other richer nations.
When my friends and I heard that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would be visiting Viet Nam, we assumed that he would fit our idea of a rich and successful businessman – that he would travel in a "super car" and wear brand-name clothes. We were therefore surprised to see him wearing a simple pullover and jeans. The way he acted and travelled was also simple.
Many Vietnamese youths, even though they are not as famous or successful as Zuckerberg, try to show themselves off and impress others through their material possessions.
For example, whoever meets Bao Linh would think he is a successful young man: he wears luxurious clothes and sits at expensive cafes with his iPhone and iPad on the table.
But if you follow him home after your meeting, you will see him returning to a cramped room that he rents with three friends.
Linh graduated two years ago but he still hasn't found a stable job. To sustain his glittering appearance and "to avoid the disdain of others", he borrowed money and lied to his parents in order to purchase his "toys" second-hand.
Thai Hoa, 32, is a State employee whose monthly salary is VND3 million ($140). His wife keeps a small confectionery shop and makes enough to care for their two children with a bit left over for emergencies. But Hoa has asked her to empty their savings to buy him a new iPhone. Once he had the device in hand, he would be ready to spend even more money on updated versions.
Hoa says he does not love taking photos or listening to music, but prefers to go to cafes with friends.
"Therefore I should have an iPhone," he says.
Young with limited funds do not really need these gadgets, but they still try to buy luxury items because they feel they must ‘keep up with the Joneses', as the saying goes. The problem is that the race is endless.
When Hanoian An Vinh complained that his motorbike was too old, his parents proposed to buy him a new one.
But he didn't want a new bike, he wanted a car.
"You see, my friends don't have to wear helmets and inhale dust on the streets like I do," he says.
Vinh says he feels "ashamed and humiliated" every time his friends drive up leisurely in their cars. When they go for a long trip, he has to hitchhike.
Many schoolgirls, although their parents are not rich, still lament and ask for money when they see photos of their friends on Facebook showing off new skirts, cosmetic and bags.
Not only girls, but also many grown women have plunged headfirst into this "movement". They are not models, actresses or heiresses, but they still feel outclassed if their bags are not Hermes or LV and their cosmetics are not Chanel.
All that results from this luxury competition is a waste of cash. The iPhone is expensive because of its many excellent and useful applications, but many people use it only to play games, like a piece of jewelry. The cars that they buy to show off to others, despite huge costs and high taxes, cause traffic jams.
This lifestyle is OK for the very rich, but actually many people who own such items still grimace when their wives ask them for money to buy foods or other necessities.
During parties, men tell their friends to drink expensive Chivas or Hennessy and eat plenty of gourmet food, but when their wives ask for money to buy milk for their babies, they don't have any money left.
Perhaps in one sense the competition is a good thing, as it pushes people to strive for a better life and thus boosts social development. But that only happens when people are really afraid to lose out in terms of qualifications, competence, dignity, and success.
Sadly, many people today are simply afraid of losing out in terms of their appearance.
Well-known actress Viet Trinh recently told newspapers that she used to crave luxury goods and lust after the possessions of others. "But nowadays I don't scramble for wealth anymore," she says. "Today I don't get agitated when I see someone has a Louis Vuitton purse or a diamond watch worth VND4 billion (nearly $190,500)."
Trinh has experienced many ups and downs in life, and she says the ability to know what is "enough" is priceless. — VNS