Is choice a right or a value?

US customs, trends and other cultural observations from a westerners third world perspective.

The Cultural Value: Choice.  For the sake of easy examples I will focus on food choices, however I firmly believe that our need for and value of choice goes much further then the restaurant or grocery store.

The Good: I think the best examples are the toothpaste and the cereal aisles at the grocery store.  There is an extreme amount of name brand choices and then, at least in the cereal aisle, a knockoff or store brand choice for each of the name brands.  At restaurants we choose not only our meal but what side we want, soup or salad, what kind of soup, what dressing we want, etc.  With each of these choices we are empowered to make things how we want them.  And if these choices aren’t enough, you can ask for special requests, no tomatoes? no onions? dressing on the side?  no problem!  Burger King has developed its whole advertising campaign on this concept, Have it your way.

The Bad:  What would happen if we were not given a choice?  If you walked into a grocery store and there was only one kind of everything.  Or even to make things a little more realistic, just the choice of two instead of 5 different things.  Plain or Strawberry yogurt. Chicken or beef.  Cheerios or Froot Loops.  Apples or Oranges.  White bread or wheat bread.  Just Colgate, no Crest.  Can you even imagine a world like this?

The Reality: Somehow we (I am including myself in this) feel hurt or put out when we are not given a choice.  Even if we like what we get or would have chosen the same for ourselves, we value the choice making itself.  There may be other factors involved but a mix of control and ingrained right to choice have a lot to do with it.  Letting someone else choose is a sign of goodwill and friendship, you have given up something (ie choice) to someone else and this is considered kindness in our society.

The PNG Perspective: Taro, sago, sweet potatoes and leafy greens comprise the majority of diets.  Depending on the season and the area various fruits, proteins, store foods and some other wild cards supplement the daily food intake.  Although there are some areas of PNG that value new ways of cooking their foods and mixing things together to create new tastes, for the most part Papua New Guineans eat whatever happens to be around.  If this is sweet potatoes multiple times a day or copious amounts of a certain dark leafy green or sago in the morning and at night, then that’s what it is.  Kids are generally not that picky because their choices are very limited but they do now what they are eating.  For example- as far as western food goes most of them will eat chocolate cake but not yogurt.  Some Papua New Guineans do like trying new things but it is often somewhat scary.  Jello is a fun food to introduce.  Although I think it is kind of like flavored sago, they are completely baffled by the jiggly goodness.  And if you eat at someone’s house you are rarely, if ever given a choice of what you eat or even how much you eat.  These things are decided for you.  And that’s just the way it is and they see no problem with that.

This Westerner’s Words: Choice is not a bad thing and it is something that I will continue to value.  However, America has taken it to the extreme.  Even places like Europe and Australia do not have the wide variety of supermarket food choices that we have.  Our cereal aisle is not a universal.  Coming back to the US I am often overwhelmed by the choices I have to make on a daily basis.  I currently have not eaten breakfast at 10 in the morning because although I am hungry, there are too many choices.   As each day goes by it does get a little easier and soon I might not think about it as much since choice will become ‘normal’ once again.  Despite my experiences I am still an American, I am still a Californian.  But I hope not to forget that the choice I have come to know and expect is not based on an inherent right but instead grew out of what American society values.

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