I will always remember my freshman sociology professor in the late 70s talking about why blacks in the ghetto often drove fancy Cadillacs: because they wanted to look important out in the world. (It was part of a lecture on how we present ourselves in society.) The liberal but somewhat naive middle class suburbanite in me winced — intellectually accepting the concept yet still thinking it was ultimately racist. But over the years I had friends from the black community who validated that thinking. Basically, being in a nice car out in the world, nobody knows how deprived your home life is.
Today, that “Caddy in the ‘hood” concept seems to have been replaced by technology. Or at least that’s the case in South Africa. Mtuseni is always raving about Apple this and Apple that. Although I have an iPhone (mainly because the antennas are better … and I still use the phone to actually make calls), I think Apple products are overpriced and over-precious — and I was a huge Mac person from the mid-80s. But Mtuseni can’t resist the company’s endless hype — or, lately, the peer pressure.
This kid goes through phones like potato chips. In the five years I’ve known him, I’ve had to buy him three. (I’m on my third phone in 12 years.) Though I balk every time and threaten “never again,” he can’t be without a phone because it’s our lifeline. So I always buy him a new phone.
Last fall his Blackberry was dying and their cheap data plan was being phased out, so he had to get a non-Berry phone. With almost zero wifi in the country and no more easy Internet access at college, he needed to upgrade to a smart phone to answer emails. Mtuseni can’t afford a monthly contract plan, and I couldn’t cover it because South Africa no longer takes credit card numbers from out of country — and god knows how much data he’d burn through with an open contract anyway! So I had to buy Mtuseni a full-price phone. He did some research and found an inexpensive Samsung model. And he loved it — for a while. But now all his new friends at City Year, who are better off financially, have iPhones. So he’s been griping about how bad his phone is and dropping not-so-subtle hints about an iPhone. His Samsung is barely six months old!
Yesterday he texted me some new Apple program offering “discounted” old iPhones in South Africa. I snapped and told him I’m sick and tired of hearing about phones. He got pissy and went to sleep — and I felt terrible. We hit these impasses sometimes, and they’re always resolved. One of the greatest things I’ve learned through Mtuseni is that it’s possible to have conflict and maintain a relationship. Coming from a family where people haven’t spoken to each other for years over long-forgotten slights, that realization is a game changer for me.
But it doesn’t change my mind on the phone issue. Like most parents, it’s a constant juggling act for me to cover my own bills, pay off Mtuseni’s tuition debt, and contribute to his expenses. But my main concern is that he has enough money to eat nutritious meals during the day and have warm clothes in his unheated shack during the coming South African winter. Whether he has a sexy bells-and-whistles phone for all to see is probably at the very bottom of my list. I bought him more clothes last week than I’ve bought myself in five years. He’ll survive with a lowly Android phone.
Fortunately Mtuseni is not particularly materialistic; he’s much more interested in helping others and his values are in the right place. Still, he’s not completely immune from the desire to keep up with the Johannesburg Joneses.
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