There has been a recent and burgeoning trend towards materialism in Chinese cultures, perhaps coinciding with recent economic booms. I witness this anecdotally whenever I walk down 5th Avenue in Manhattan and see a disproportionate number of Chinese people outside luxury retail stores. After perusing through some studies, I confirmed my intuitions and discovered that 68% of people from Chinese feel a lot of pressure to be successful and make money and that 71% of people from China are most likely to measure their success by what they own. Both of these numbers are the highest among all countries surveyed. Chinese consumers have now overtaken Americans to become the world’s largest buyers of personal luxury items.
From what I understand, Asian cultures, and especially Chinese cultures, tend to buy into the ‘saving face’ and ‘upholding honor’ mentality, wherein upholding one’s reputation is of utmost importance, maybe even the primary source of one’s motivation. The consumption of luxury items then, if we continue to follow this mode of logic, is the most tangible way of demonstrating one’s value and one’s belonging in said community.
When I speak to many Chinese American Republicans, lower taxes is the number one reason why said Chinese Americans support Republican policies. Even when these aforementioned Chinese Americans would fall outside the income brackets that would allow them to enjoy the most generous of Republican tax codes, the idea of one day making that much untaxed income is too tantalizing to ignore present day reality. To be clear, there is no real economic hardship here, just the prospect of one day being ‘successful and having more money’. By definition consumerism falls outside the realm of a necessity.
The idea, then, with lower taxes, would be more personal spending money to seek approval and acceptance by others. Lower taxes are a means to purchasing material items which are a means to seeking approval and acceptance by others.
We currently live in a Democracy in which all citizens can participate and have a voice in shaping their vision of this country. The Republicans cling to a Xenophonic platform in which White is Right and every other group a threat, whether it be Hispanics, Blacks, Muslims, and yes, even Asians. The Democratic platform, championed by Hilary Clinton, embraces diversity and acceptance, favoring pro-immigration policies, anti-discrimination policies, and seeks to appoint minorities in leadership roles within the public sector.
You can have a Prada bag or even a Porsche, but to hardcore Trump supporters, you are still just an Asian, a foreigner, someone who isn’t American and will never be, someone who will never belong. What good is all of that hard work, that financial success, those fancy material items, if you still fall so short of your ultimate goal of finding belonging and acceptance in America? What if I told you there was an easier path towards finding belonging and acceptance? What if it just meant voting for candidates who recognize you as American no matter what you look like, no matter where your ancestors come from? What if meant voting for a candidate who sees you and values you the same you want to be seen and valued?
Civic engagement requires effort, maybe even less effort than that required through private enterprise, but it symbolizes more than anything else who belongs and whose voices matter in our society. Historically, Asian Americans, despite their economic success, have been powerless against political exclusionary acts like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act or the Internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. Should Trump win this election and anti-Asian sentiments rise, just as they did earlier in our history when the white working class resented the rise of Asian Americans, economic success and material wealth will not protect us from not just the off-hand discrimination many of us face in our day-to-day lives, but the systemic legal discrimination that our forebearers faced. The stakes are higher than ever, but the path forward is clear.
Johnathan Yao currently works at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation implementing National Healthcare Reform through the Affordable Care Act. A descendent from China, he grew up in Princeton, NJ, and attended Yale University, where he received both his undergraduate degree and his Masters of Public Health.