Coming Back to America (2019)

Whenever I return from a long overseas trip, I try to share my thoughts about re-integration. My most recent trip around the world took about ten months, and I’ve been in the States about 10 days so far.

1. When I was in the Philippines, I complained economic development revolved around shopping malls. Well, investors repeat what worked in the past, regardless of geography, and in the one week I’ve been in California, my life has revolved around shopping malls. Sigh.

2. Retail differentiation is becoming nonexistent, causing more consumers to buy online — and countries more willing to demand tariffs against foreign competition. I went on a shopping spree yesterday, buying a new pair of shoes, two jackets, and a pair of casual pants. I didn’t need any of them, but at 50% to 70% off at the local outlet mall, the entire experience set me back less than 100 USD.

In the process of shopping, I realized every single clothing retailer had copied everyone else. Eddie Bauer, like Nike, makes DriFit shirts. Columbia’s jackets, like Eddie Bauer’s, have a side zipper pocket in the same breast area. For me, the main reason to choose one item over another came down to sizing, especially around the shoulders. Even in one store, a double XL would fit differently — Puma and North Face products seem to be the most inconsistent — and I continue to buy clothing and shoes made in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Jordan, or Indonesia whenever possible. Oddly enough, consumers don’t seem to realize the manufacturing location matters a great deal.

3. I had purchased many items online while traveling and was expecting outsized temporary happiness when I returned to my pile of self-bought gifts. Unfortunately, the pile of mail waiting me caught my attention first, and I haven’t had a chance to get to all the items I bought in an attempt to self-compensate for missing X-Mas, my birthday, etc.

Interestingly, I’ve already begun using the items I bought yesterday, indicating the mall experience could compete with online retailers if unique products are offered at competitive prices. The psychological allure of instant gratification isn’t going away anytime soon, so once physical retailers become more lean, an equilibrium will be reached between the virtual and the physical — assuming brick and mortar stores prioritize customer service.

4. America’s most noticeable advantages over other countries are its environment and convenience. Pollution is much lower than most other countries. (Even highly developed Singapore has issues due to its proximity to Indonesia’s active volcanoes.) As long as an American is in a major city, drinking tap water won’t be risky. Traffic may be busy during peak hours, but for the most part, the flow is remarkably smooth. I can’t tell you how lovely it is to know I can walk anywhere for as many weeks as I want without developing a cough — even though walking in most major American cities is uncommon because city planners and car lobbies (think: sales taxes) prioritize cars.

As for convenience, Americans have too many options, and they’re all easy to reach. In Guanajuato city, Mexico, a mountainous area, I had to walk up and down one block at a 70 degree angle just to get groceries — and that doesn’t include the two flights of stairs installed to make it easier for locals to reach the main street. I actually enjoyed the experience, but I’d often return to my Airbnb only to realize some of the products I had bought had expired, especially the yoghurt. The rougher terrain makes it harder for regular deliveries and also for store/tienda owners to make a profit.

Additionally, the lack of zoning or self-imposed owner restrictions sometimes meant two small grocery stores on the same small street often sold the same products. Lest you think competition would be more cutthroat, both employees would happily refer me to the other store if they didn’t have a product (my favorite brand of milk is Groupo Lala, but another brand, Alpura, seems to do a better job in some neighborhoods). Incentives for honest service increase when the same employee sees the same customers regularly.

5. History is easier to absorb in other countries because it’s all around you. Most people realize that after WWII, the American government was able to impose its policies and processes in other countries, most notably Japan and Germany; however, even before then, borders were ill-defined and countries, especially in Europe, were seeking to expand. Such expansion efforts often caused more powerful countries to run roughshod over smaller ones, in ways Americans and Europeans never learn.

Averell “Ace” Smith, in Commonwealth Club Magazine

Seeing cannons in Cuba near the water makes one realize the importance of naval power — at least until the invention of fighter jets. Seeing forts in Lisbon and Scotland leads to an appreciation of military strategies and the reasons behind extended conflicts, especially if retreating to Northern Africa to regroup was possible. Touring the former Ford Factory in Singapore teaches us civilians are always targeted in invasions and wars, regardless of the countries or groups involved. And so it goes.

In Singapore. Now a museum.

6. I have to cut this short because I have a job interview in 20 minutes… in a shopping mall.

Originally published at on March 26, 2019.

“Globalization needs regulation, but everyone is reluctant to demand it for fear that it may discriminate against them.” [McMafia (2008)]