Monday, July 31, 2006


I've finally done enough shopping, driving, eating, reading, tv watching, and resting to comment on something really incredible.

one year ago i left this country to "expand my horizons" as my mother would say. I went to Egypt to serve and also to grow, to have my eyes opened, my mind expanded, my understandings of various things broadened, etc etc etc.

When I got there, I found my choices severely limited compared to living here. I expected some of this--the fewer choices of foods, of various consumable products, etc. I expected a limitation to be placed on my general freedom, since I am a woman. I did not expect quite the limits I found, but I eventually learned to live within them. I ate the same two cereals all year (until my dad came to visit with some Cinnamon Toast Crunch!), I drank the same two flavors of juice, I ate the same vegetables. I learned how to get around without getting harassed (as much) by going the same way, seeing the same people, taking the same taxi, not going to new places, etc. And I looked forward to the expansion of my freedom and my choices when I returned to America.

Well, now I've returned. I'm still a little limited--by my resources, by the fact that I'm mooching off friends and family, and the fact that I don't have a car here in Atlanta. But my choices here are incredible--I can go to the park, I can walk around the neighborhood, I can call my friends, I can watch TV, I can do all kinds of things and no one even looks twice at me.

However, one area where I've found the expansion of choices overwhelming is in the realm of shopping. During the past year, several products have expanded their product lines so the old products are nearly impossible to find. One example: the cereal aisle. No longer are there four types of cheerios (which is already ridiculous)--now in addition to regular, frosted, honey nut, and team cheerios there are berry cheerios, yogurt cheerios, multi-grain cheerios, and apple cinnamon cheerios. I didn't even see the yellow box. No longer do we have lucky charms--now we have lucky charms, berry lucky charms, chocolate lucky charms, and less-sugar lucky charms. Cinnamon Toast Crunch is now next to French Toast Crunch. Don't even get me started on Honey Bunches of Oats or Smart Start. The cereal options now run the full length of an aisle in the grocery store. The cereal bars (which have also expanded significantly) are on the other side of the aisle now.

Many people have written about what's being called the "tyranny of choice" (this link is to the best synopsis of the research article you would otherwise have to pay for...which is linked to in this article, in case you feel like paying for it). It seems that we have a lot more money and a lot more choices than we did 30 years ago (duh) but that fewere Americans report that they are happy. Apparently "maximizers"--people who strive to make the best possible choice each time (so, people like me, then)--are the least happy because they are constantly weighing options and second guessing and wondering if they made the best choice.

Now I've lived in some places where I didn't have a lot of choices--in Scotland I didn't have choices at all because I was fed every meal in the refectory and the only entertainment on the island was the (singular) pub or nature (gorgeous). I loved 99% of the minutes I spent there. In Egypt, things were different and sure, I chafed under the restriction at times, but as far as the grocery store goes I didn't feel limited aside from the lack of leafy green veggies. the whole freedom-to-be-a-person thing, that's different. But choice-wise, it was okay. And now that I've come back to even more choices than I had when I left, I am really feeling this.

Jason and I spent over an hour in the grocery store last week. Most of that hour was spent wandering, staring at all the new stuff and wondering why we need 8 flavors of cheerios. I think I was in the cereal aisle (by myself) for at least 15 minutes. I couldn't find anything. The boxes have changed, in many cases (I had no idea which kind of SmartStart I wanted because the box looks different!). There are three or four (or more) flavors of everything where there used to be one or two. It was crazy. I was almost paralyzed with trying to decide about things that, half an hour before, I hadn't known existed. If I had been on the cereal aisle of the western supermarket in Cairo, I would have had about 10 or 20 choices of cereal, more than half of which would have been WAY out of my price range. I would have picked up the same two cereals I'd eaten the previous month. If I'd been at ZamZam, our local grocer, I would have gotten corn flakes, and then stopped for bananas from the fruit man because Egyptian cornflakes are gross.

But, I stood in the aisle with my cart. I looked up and down. I walked left and right. I stared at 40 feet of five shelves of colorful boxes, and all I wanted was...everything. Honeycomb, Apple Jacks, those new not-Apple-Jacks, every flavor of Lucky Charms (except chocolate, eew), all four kinds of Captain Crunch, three types of Raisin Bran, and everything else that would fit in my cart. I couldn't choose the best thing, because everything looked good (well, not shredded wheat, but you know...). What was going to taste best? What was going to be healthiest? Would any cereal manage to be both healthiest and best tasting?

I left the aisle with SmartStart (heart healthy, with no weird dried fruit or anything), Quaker Oh's (nothing's changed there!), and Barbara's Cinnamon Puffins (again, nothing's changed--good ol' organics!).

I left the store with four types of berries, cool whip free (yum), veggies, bananas, and stuff to make an egyptian dinner. Speaking of which--did you know that Athenos Hummus has expanded from just two flavors to about 10? Red Pepper, Roasted Eggplant, Black Olive, Greek Style, Original, and more! Can you imagine being an Egyptian in a Publix for the first time? oh my, let the panic begin.

Has anyone tried those new dark chocolate m-n-ms in the purple package?

Here I go, maximizing again--seeing what choices other people are making and soliciting feedback trying to find out the best kind of m&ms to eat. really.

Seriously, I do think we have too many choices in this country. We have this idea that more is better (goes right along with "bigger is better"). But is it? Or are all these choices just taking over our lives? Arabic speakers who learn English often use the phrase "take a decision" rather than "make" a decision. I have wondered about this, because it seems strange. But here, maybe it's right, only in this country, the decisions have taken us--hostage.

No comments:

Post a Comment