how the world sees america

American-Style Consumerism in India

Noida and Gurgaon, India’s outsourcing and call center capitals, are making big bucks from Americans, and spending a lot of it on U.S. goods from Pizza Hut lunches to Levi's Jeans. In these booming suburbs of Delhi, consumers and retailers tell me an "aspirational lifestyle" has taken hold. The growing Indian middle class has money to spend, and so they do. I'm wondering: are they trying to spend it like Americans, arguably the inventors of conspicuous consumption, or do they just really like listening to their music on iPods, nodding designer sunglasses to the beat?

For an American like me, the recognizable brands conjure a sense of home, even if this McDonald's sells kebabs or that Levi's offers a salvaar kamise. But talking to retailers in Metropolitan Mall, I wonder what patrons who’ve never seen the U.S. think when they buy American products.

On the surface, I get responses like “It’s just cool” and “I like it.” Fair enough. I don’t really think “Japan” when I buy Sony headphones. And if I do, it’s just a passing recognition of Japan’s strong track record in consumer electronics. Game over.

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Sharing a pizza at a Papa John’s in Noida, I ask a journalist and food enthusiast Manish Chaudry about the cuisine. His response is pretty straightforward: “I like its taste.” I wonder if I should push the questioning one way or another toward the U.S. But isn’t pizza Italian anyway? I realize I have plenty of questions, but they're all abstract, not the kind you ask casually over a pan of India Supreme pizza:

1) Does buying American goods reflect or translate into any particular understanding of America itself -- its values, policies, or national characteristics? Sometimes Hollywood can spur purchases by offering the image of a better, sexier, easier, fuller life. But is that America or a good sales pitch?

2) Is conspicuous consumption uniquely American? We seem to have popularized the ideas of buying on credit and living the suburban dream. Some people associate America strongly with capitalist materialism, occasionally for the worse. But as the Indian middle class buys more and more, it seems fair to ask whether this is simply development economics at work, or whether there some cultural flows from America influencing purchasing patterns and shaping India’s perceptions of us.

I plan to explore these questions further during my time here, seeking out locals with a range of professions, ages, rural to urban communities, etc. India's ties to America are heavily economic, outsourcing being a hot issue today, but the economic and the cultural often overlap and can prove hard to disentangle. I'm finding a huge web of subtle connections in my first few days, so any suggestions you have on how to tackle these questions, what types of individuals and what locations in India you're most interested in hearing from are most welcome.

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Comments (12)

Ester Bean:

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The Radon Information Center

A pakistani canadian Khalid:

Dear Sir / Madam
I am 46 years old, Canadian citizen and native of Pakistan (Muslim). I was an immigration consultant in Canada and as part of my business; I had an office in New York.
During 2001 immediately after the Sept 11, event the US govt arrested me on Oct 25, 2001 on anonymous call, as a material witness for the 9/11 world trade centre terrorist attack. A detail investigation by the FBI and USA Naval intelligence dept was conducted and I was cleared, but even then govt put me in front of Grand jury, and I was cleared and the case was dismissed by the Grand jury of the US Federal Court.
Approximately after 2 weeks , before I was released from custody the US Govt imposed a new charges of Fraud and money laundering , under the advice of my attorney , I pleaded guilty and I was sentenced to prison for five years (which was four years more, what I pleaded). In which I had already spent 3 years in Detention jail, during the case , I had about 14 months left to finishing my sentence ,(instead of appealing, I preferred to applied for Treaty Transfer to Canada, because if the case is in the appeal, defendant is not eligible for transfer back to his home country).
While at prison, I learned from the case manager Miss House, that my citizen was incorrect in the FBOP’s (Federal Bureau of Prison) computer system as Pakistani instead of Canadian.
Its important to note , that all of my Canadian identifications (passport , citizenship card , S.I.N , Health card , Driving license etc) were under FBI’s possession, with a great deal of concern, I wrote a letter to the Canadian Consulate in Buffalo, N.Y to notify such mistake and requested them to fix this problem. This is especially important for Treaty Transfer back to Canada.
The Canadian Consulate official sent a letter to the jail to correct my citizenship status, however FBOP ignored the request and the citizenship status in the FBOP computer still reflect Pakistani instead of Canadian (Note: - I would be required to obtain visa to visit Pakistan) .In contrast, the deportation letter received from US Immigration dept, Contained the correct citizenship status of Canada.
At the hindsight, I believe that the FBOP intentionally left the citizenship as Pakistani, so that they could retained me at their facility, while the govt is planning to file new charges against me 3rd time.
Approximately six weeks before my released date on Jan 30, 2006 I was notified by the FBOP that I was being transferred from Ellenwood, PA to MDC (Metropolitan Detention Centre) in Brooklyn N.Y, it was explained to me, that the purpose of this transfer was in preparation for deportation back to Canada, (after few days, I signed the immigration deportation papers, with my consular Miss Chen).
But immediately after my arriving to MDC Brooklyn, I discovered during a phone call with my family in Montreal, that RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) official had contacted my sister and brother-in-law regarding the whereabouts of my wife and my current situation, there was no explanation given by the RCMP official to the purpose of the call and he left his phone number and asked my wife to call him back immediately, my wife called the RCMP official and left messages in his voice mail. Then the official contacted my brother-in-law again and had asked him to tell my wife not to call again, because there is nothing good nor anything bad.
Meanwhile the AUSA (United States Attorney) office Investigator and FBI brought me to their office to be interrogated without an attorney present, even AUSA told in the court to the judge on March 16, 2006 that he arranged attorney for me before my arrival from Ellenwood PA to MDC Brooklyn, N.Y, on Transcript; page 11, Transcript line No: 14 to 23.
AUSA: - He (Khalid Awan) was writ in the cause of a grand jury investigation. He clearly had criminal exposure. So to protect his interest I made an application to the duty magistrate for counsel to be appointed.
THE COURT: - Initially he was brought here by a Court to testify before the grand jury?
AUSA: - That is correct, Your Honour.

THE COURT: - When he arrived here, you made arrangements for an attorney to be pointed to request him?
AUSA: - Yes, Your Honour.
This interrogation started with the AUSA office Investigator stating that my family will be arrested in Canada if I refused to answer their questions.
At this point I am certain that my family is in great danger for reasons that I am not aware of. I was scared that my family would be harassed by these people along with the Canadian RCMP official; I strongly believe that the RCMP is doing this intentionally in collaboration with FBI official to further harass me to admit charges that I never committed.
Without knowledge of the reasons why the Canadian RCMP agency was involved. I was surprised that RCMP official directly approached my family instead of me without proper explanation, and its also shocked for me, that how RCMP got the phone number of my family (because before my arrest, I don’t have any single record in any police dept, of any country).
I was intimated and pushed to the edge during this interrogation; I was determined to provide anything these USA officials wanted to make them happy even is the questions made no sense, because I want them to stop the harassment to my family.
On March 15, 2006 I completed the term of my imprisonment and was to be released from American Custody and deported back to Canada. Before that I was arrested again 3rd time, and charged with providing “material support to a foreign terrorist” and money laundering (to an organization and person, which are not designated by the USA govt and belongs to Sikh religion).
These charges emerged while I was still in prison and without the capability of providing any type of support. It was even difficult for me to get enough financial assistance to pay legal fees. I could not have provided any material support while I was in prison for five years and I could not launder any money because I did not have any.
AUSA filed three counts of indictment against me.
Conspiracy to provide material support.
Provide a material support to the foreign terrorist.
Money laundering to support terrorism.
(Please note, that in my previous case govt charged me for money laundering and fraud from Jan 1999 to 2002 and “its mentioned in the plea-agreement by the AUSA that no further money laundering charges will be brought against defendant from Jan 1999 to April 2002” even then govt indict me for money laundering from 1998 to Nov 2001 (Which is double Jeopardy and violation of 5th Amendment of U.S Constitution.)
In Oct 2006, during pre-trial hearing on the motions filed by my attorney the first two counts of my indictment were dismissed by the judge, stating that there is a lack of facts and figures.
After two weeks AUSA re-indicted me again. I believe this is a desperate act of the AUSA to cover up a huge embarrassment. Further this hastily drawn indictment was full of factual errors and creative legal theories.
Since I was first arrested by the American govt, I believe that I have been singled out, isolated and discriminated against primarily because of my race and religion, in addition to the fact that I don’t know any information that the American govt is trying to pressure out of me.
I do not understand the American laws and this is what led to my pleading guilty in the first case. I have difficulty understanding the new charges also.
I have been charged under, section 2339(a) of Title 18 of the United States code, which makes it illegal to provide material support to a foreign terrorist.
Please understand, I am not a terrorist, I do not know any terrorist and I have had no connections with or to any known or unknown terrorist. I have been incarcerated for last 5 years and I had no money to provide or launder.
The law enforcement have in America is pressuring me to provide information to them that I really do not have or know. I am a Canadian Citizen and nearly all of my family is in Canada, including my wife and kids. I don’t know any information to tell them to help their investigation.
Because of this, I am being treated unfairly and my rights under the American constitution are being violated. I am being held here in further detention against my will for crimes which I could have never committed, because I was in prison.
I believe that I am a victim of the discrimination that was outlined in the July 3, 2006 issue of Time magazine (Page 29, column 3). In this article section 2339(a) & (b) are discussed and criticized “as most suspects are charged under these two sections. However, the justice dept here in America admits that of the more than 218 guilty pleas that it has obtained, most are for minor investigation issues that are uncovered deeding the course of their terrorism investigation. This suggest, according to the article that the Attorney General’s office have is not concerned about the rights or fairness or the manner in which it achieves convictions for the people they arrest. Furthermore, criticizes have noted that one of the patterns to emerge from these domestic prosecutions is that suspect seen too incompetent to carry out the deeds they are accused of. The Deputy Attorney General acknowledges that the Dept of Justice’s goal is “preventions through prosecutions” and this is done with no regard for an individual’s rights.
I agree that these guilty of terrorism should be prosecuted. But as the above mentioned article suggest, innocent people should not be targeted because of their race or religion.
I am not a terrorist and I should not be targeted and treated unfairly and unjustly.
I need your assistance desperately in my case, as I believe that I am being treated unjustly here. I would like to send you my attorney’s contact information and provide you with legal documents related to my case, so that you may become more familiar with my situation.
Please also note, that I appeared in the court , for no guilty of my 2nd superseding indictment on Aug 02, 2006 and on Aug 03, 2006 FBOP officials placed me in the SHU (Segregation Housing Unit) out of these months, I placed in the SHU isolation from Aug 03, 2006 to March 6, 2007 for unknown “Pending Investigation” in these 215 days of my segregation and isolation, I don’t have a single phone call access to my family, no legal calls to my attorney and Canadian Council, my legal mail opened in my absence, no medical treatment for my injured shoulder (even I went for hunger strike for 3 and half day) I harassed by the various jail officials and lot of other problems too which already been submitted in the attention of the FBOP higher authorities, but no action taken on them, after writing the court, instead of receiving the response or any action on my complaints, jail officials removed /moved me from MDC federal facility to Nassau County Jail .
My suffering has gone on for far too long, and I need your help to bring my suffering to an end. I want to return home to my family, because my imprisonment was injustice and will remain a great injustice forever.
May God bless you and be with you in your efforts to champion the cause of human rights, and the suffering of innocent prisoners and restore hope, faith and love to peoples all over the world.
FBOP NO. 50959-054

Rishi Sahgal:


Thank you for your kind words. As far as Maslow's self actualization is concerned, yes, such a level of self actualization can obviously only be attained by those who have been able to overcome the bare and base necessities of life.

From a sociological perspective, I think that the coming generation of young people in the middle and upper levels of India's middle class will seek the level of self fulfillment that is described at the apex of maslow's pyramid. This trend, however, will also give rise to intra family and societal tension and reactionary tendencies. By itsvery nature, this level of self actualization implies a greater expression of individualism, which will butt heads with the traditional middle class social contruct which prioritizes family over the individual.


Does Indian consumption of products carrying American brand names say more about what some Indians think of America, or what they think of their place in India?

I would be very surprised if it were the former. It is a matter of historical fact that many countries have seen "fashion surges" for the products of countries that some of their people found admirable. Some of these also experience counter surges of consumer demand for domestic, "authentic" products. Neither are necessarily good or bad by themselves. An attraction to foreign fashion, though, is sometimes a sign of alienation from one part of society -- usually one that thinks of itself as better educated and more progressive in some way -- directed in a general way at the rest of the country. Reaction against foreign products (or brands) can signify a determination to assert national identity.

My impression is that both alienation and national identity are questions of significant importance in India, both historically and today.


Rishi Sahgal,

May I say I enjoyed reading your post and found your short analysis (and historical perspective) most interesting?

I sincerely hope to have the opportunity to read what many Indians have to say on the subject. More particularly, I would love to hear Indian views on (the early) Maslow's self-actualization being mostly accessible to the "more productive"... as they are more likely to be able to afford "spend(ing) on more abstract needs to fulfill (their) psychological needs"...


Steve Gregg:

America is not the originator of conspicuous consumption. You can go to any European museum and see conspicuous consumption was invented long before America came around. Ever been to Florence and seen the Uffizi or Pitti Palace? Simon Schama wrote of the Dutch rolling in wealth in the 17th century in his book "An Embarassment of Riches."

When your society becomes extraordinarily productive, the economics of your personal life change something akin to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. When you are unproductive, you are absorbed with spending on food and shelter. As you become more productive, you spend on more abstract needs to fulfull your psychological needs. Self-actualization, in Maslow's terminology.

This is not an American phenomenon but a human phenomenon. It only appears American because we are the most productive society on Earth, largely due to our devotion to individual rights and liberty. We welcome the Indians to join us. Good on ya. I only wish all of India suffers the horrible problem of conspicuous consumption.

Rishi Sahgal:

The question as to whether consumption of 'American' products correlates to the development of a wider understanding of American culture/society can not be answered in a simple 'yes' or 'no'.

The context of a more westernized consumption pattern is part and parcel of the broader opening of India's market and the increased ease and level of information flow, driven by the liberalization of mass media and improving penetration levels of the internet in middle class households. Young Indian's today are far more connected with golabl trends, which are driven by American culture in many ways.

At the same time, the assumption that 'conspicuous consumption' is an inherantly American phenomenon would be flawed. The desire to flaunt one's real or imagined wealth has been present among various sections of Indian society for generations, and is not limited to the purchase of western/american goods alone. The 'aspirational' Indian today is just as likely to spend lavishly on Indian food/pastimes/products as they are on ipods and Pizza Hut (where they are rather more likely to order a Paneer Tikka Pizza than a Pepperoni!)

Insofar as economic consumption patterns such as savings rates and debt etc, I think there is certainly a shift toward a more American model. Savings rates among the younger generation of Indian's is lower than previous generations, and younger Indian's are also more likely to borrow in order to fufill thier consumption needs. This has more to do with the fact that previously, the financial services sector was essentially nonexistent. At the same time, Indian's are still largely rather wary of spending too far beyond thier means. They may borrow money to buy a house or a car, but are less likely to indulge in the more reckless borrowing that has become quite commonplace in America.

I am hesitant to accept the notion that some are putting forth that India is blithely apeing American mores and culture. The desire for financial security is not typically Amercian. It is global. The desire for comfort is not typically is global. To want air conditioning in 45 degree celsius heat isn't American...its human! Furthermore, the desire to increase one's social standing through the aquisition and exhibition of wealth can not be considered as American, for it has been going on in most societies for as long as societies have existed.


The fact of the matter is that not every Indian can leave India for America even though they all want to do so.

So the next best thing is to bring some of America there.


The fact of the matter is that not every Indian can leave India for America even though they all want to do so.

So the next best thing is to bring some of America there.

US Techie:

I'm just back from spending an extended amount of time in both southern and northern India. I was struck by the "everything western (read American)is good" attitude within the 20-something techie crowd (both female and male). I was treated most deferentially by everyone-- More so then when I am in other countries (especially EU). Clothes, music, food, social activities all are patterned after the same things in the US. People were not nearly interested in what Germans or English people traveling with me had to say about their countries. Everyone wanted to know about the USA.



You are raising here very fundamental questions in relation to "How the World Sees America".

1. The first (that is the starting point, I believe) is the question of national identity:

1a. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be Indian?

1b. To what extent is being American defined by American-Style Consumerism? To what extent is American-Style Consumerism non-Indian?

2. The second question has to do with the culture of a nation:

2a. What is it that characterizes American culture? What is it that characterizes Indian culture?

2b. What does it mean to be Americanized and when does the Americanization of India begin?

2c. Does Americanization begin with American presence in a country? If so what kind of American presence are Indians witnessing, in India?

2d. Does Americanization begin with American influence in a country? If so what degree of American influence are Indians experiencing, in India?

2e. Does Americanization begin only with American culture substituting itself to a country's own culture? If so, how do Indians see American culture substituting itself to their own culture, in India?

2f. Can Indians give us prime examples of Americanization, in India, in any of the following: religion, philosophy, arts, literature, science, technology, etc.?

2g. Can Indians give us prime examples of the Americanization of Indian values, norms, institutions, artifacts, etc.?

To conclude:

3. How is the Indian body-mind-and-soul changing? How much of that is Americanization?

I would suggest an attempt to go beyond what so many North Americans call "perception" (as in the outrageous statement "it's all perception!"), which is, more often than not, a strange mixture of unsubstantiated and very superficial impressions. Besides, perception of a country is very much a function of the image that country gives of itself. I seem to have noticed many Americans who post here do not like the image America gives of itself abroad and are adamant that it does not correspond to what they believe America IS.

"Locals with a range of professions, ages, rural to urban communities, etc." are fine, more particularly on "mass" and "popular" culture. I believe, though, that it would be instructive for us to hear some Indians of high standing in their own field, with enough experience to know what has changed and what is currently changing precipitously, in India, if anything. They could help us obtain a more comprehensive and balanced picture, overall, of "India: New and Old", when all is said and done.

So much on "methodology"...

Wishing you well.


Thanks for the post. I say the American way of life is consumption. Few illusions have riveted the imagination of urban India so overwhelmingly as the myth of the `American Dream' with its emphasis on high consumption, compulsive acquisition and instantaneous gratification. A corollary of this illusion seems to be that the only way to accomplish it is through an Information Technology- and biotechnology-driven economy. The new elites of the knowledge-based economy, with their sumptuous salaries and fast and fun-filled lives, are the exemplars of the consumerist nirvana that the vast, rural hinterlands of India yearn to attain. Even if one concedes that illusions are the stuff of life, the deceptive notion that happiness consists of possessing things, regardless of the price one has to pay, needs to be subverted.

What lends urgency to this task is the disturbing evidence from the very America we tend to idolise uncritically. Partly owing to the insidious propaganda of the Western media and partly because fantasising about an unblemished world numbs the heartbreaking realities of our society, associating affluent America with social pathologies appears totally counterintuitive.

The whole text of my article is here.

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