US: American dream fades as the East takes a hold

No longer is the mantra of American citizens ‘bigger better and faster’. They now look to the East for their lifestyle inspiration, says Polly Devaney

Non-Americans all over the world yearned to get their hands on American branded goods that lent status to a person merely by showing a branded label. American fast-food brands, fizzy drinks brands, jeans brands and car brands became highly desirable outside the US and embarked on their massive expansion programmes. People whose first language was not English preferred to learn the language of MTV rather than the Queen’s English. Everyone outside the “great land” looked to America to provide inspiration for how to grow and develop their countries.

But, those times of glorification of everything American, of “bigger is better” and the “consumer is king” seem to be a distant memory. While the US has long been a melting-pot for diverse cultures, we are seeing more and more the adoption and integration of certain elements of other cultures into the mainstream of American lifestyle.

Eastern culture particularly stands out as permeating many parts of American life today. Food is a prime example of this.

The deep fried chicken and burgers that made the American fast-food outlets’ fortunes, have been exported all over the world. Countries such as China and Japan that had no history of heart disease and obesity were suddenly showing rapidly increasing rates of both. America exported its heart disease and obesity-causing foods and imported food such as sushi from Japan.

Sushi is now big business in the US, with sushi bars springing up all over the country, especially in gyms and office complexes, as a healthy fast-food alternative. Furthermore, the rather unpalatable drink of sake, the Japanese rice wine, is becoming very popular in bars in cities such as New York and San Francisco, with or without sushi on the side. Added to this are the Japanese-style tea rooms that are opening up in bustling cities, providing an oasis of calm for stressed-out executives and an antidote to the fast-paced Starbucks’ experience. The Japanese department store Felissimo is doing a roaring trade amid the frenzy of Fifth Avenue, with its calm atmosphere and beautifully presented Japanese products.

Yoga is another example of something that doesn’t seem to fit easily with the US culture of bigger, better and faster. It is a far cry from the Jane Fonda-style fitness routines that were once almost a compulsory part of being American.

There are 1,250,000 websites devoted to the subject of yoga and according to the US Institute of Yoga: “Yoga probably arrived in the US in the late 1800s but didn’t become widely known until the 1960s as part of youth culture’s growing interest in anything Eastern.”

Yet it is really in the past few years that yoga has become part of the mainstream, having now overtaken aerobics as the most popular fitness class in the US, with 15 million people practising it regularly – a figure that has doubled in the past five years. As with most new trends, the rising popularity of yoga has spawned a multi-million dollar industry, with companies such as Nike and J.Crew developing special lines of clothing for yoga, and five of the top eight bestseller videos on being yoga instruction tapes. Not to mention customised yoga mats and other paraphernalia that have become best-selling items on many websites.

Feng shui is another Eastern import that has emerged from its niche and into mainstream American life. It was once something that few people understood the meaning of and most people sniggered at. Now it is accepted as common practice, even among the most competitive companies in the US.

Donald Trump, arguably one of the icons of US capitalism, made the news when he hired a feng shui practitioner to work on his New York property a few years ago. American hotels, warehouse buildings, doctors’ surgeries, television stations, restaurants, publishing houses, electronics corporations and accountants offices to name but a few, have all called in the feng shui experts and no one sniggers at them any more.

Along with feng shui, traditional Eastern religions such as Buddhism are also seeing a rapidly growing following in America, especially with celebrities. Of course it is well known that where Hollywood leads, the rest of America often follows.

The Japanese certainly have a talent when it comes to the children’s market and were responsible for crazes such as Pokémon, Nintendo and Tomagotchi toys.

The latest kids marketing phenomenon to hit the US from Japan is the Choco Egg. It’s a chocolate egg with a toy inside that children put together themselves. It seems a simple idea but the interest for the child is not only the chocolate and the self-assembly, but the fact that the toy, when assembled, is much bigger than the egg – usually to the great delight of the child.

Manufacturing ability does not stop Japanese marketers with a winning idea – despite their hi-tech reputation, no Japanese manufacturer can actually put the toys inside the egg so the production was outsourced to Italy. Choco Egg was launched in September 1999 and by December 2000, 15 million Choco Eggs had been sold. Demand is so great that the producer, confectionery company Furuta Seika, had to stop taking orders for a while earlier this year and has still not caught up with demand.

Now more than ever, Americans are looking to cultures outside their own in the search for satisfaction in their lives. The underlying factor seems to be a yearning for simplicity and balance – something that Eastern cultures tend to do so much better than Western ones.

Talk of alternative therapies and holistic remedies in Japanese-style tea rooms is slowly taking over from discussions in Starbucks about new cars and holidays. It may be happening slowly, but there is a general realisation in the US as well as the rest of the world that West does not always mean best.v

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive who is now working as a freelance writer in New York

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