So many milks! And coffee, coffee, coffee!

Americans don’t realize how rich we are. It’s so easy not to feel rich when we read about luxury homes sold in London, Paris, or New York for eight or even nine figures. Millions and millions and millions of dollars. Who can afford that? Not us, the vast unrich.

Yet what constitutes “rich” is obviously subject to interpretation—a point that is driven home whenever I teach my Survey of Third World Literature class. (Yes, the course name is outdated. I inherited it and hope to rename it, although I will say it does provide an opportunity to explain terms like First/Free World, Second/Communist World, and Third World. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are fuzzy concepts for many students born after the end of the Cold War.)

A few weeks into the term, someone will observe that the stories we’re reading all seem to be about poor people. Why do so many “third world” authors choose poverty as a central topic/theme in their short stories and novels? At which point another student with first-hand knowledge from travel abroad will speak up and tell them it’s because poverty is the norm.

Literature allows you to experience life inside the skin of another person. It expands your consciousness in a way no other art form can, except maybe cinema. So today’s post is about literature and cinema and real life and perspective.

My last year in college I had three Chinese roommates. One of them lived with me the entire year. Her “American” name was Daphne. Chinese students at my college chose American names for their time studying in the United States. Many of these names were clearly inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, although names like Florence and Gertrude also somehow made their way into the mix. When Daphne arrived at our apartment, she was literally right off the plane. Her flight landed in Columbus, where her sister, a grad student at Ohio State, picked her up and drove her over to Dayton. My other roommate and I had put up “Roommate Wanted” signs around campus with little tear-off strips across the bottom with our phone number. Daphne and her sister went to campus as soon as they got to town, found our sign, and called us.

Daphne had never previously been to the U.S. She had no car and and very few belongings. After her sister departed for Columbus again, I took Daphne food shopping with me. It was her first time in an American grocery store.

Once there, we split up to do our own shopping. I zipped up and down the aisles and eventually found Daphne standing in front of the dairy case. Just standing there, paralyzed. As I approached her, she turned with an expression somewhere between wonder and horror.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“So many milks!”

Suddenly I saw that dairy case through her eyes. Whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim. Gallons, half-gallons, quarts, pints, and half-pints. All the different brands, row upon row. The choices were overwhelming. I’d never thought about it before.

Have you seen Moscow on the Hudson? In this 1984 film, Robin Williams plays a Russian circus performer who defects during a visit to Bloomingdale’s department store in New York while his troupe is touring the U.S. One of the store’s security guards gives Williams a place to stay temporarily, taking him home to the Harlem apartment he shares with his parents, sister, and grandfather.

Williams’ first trip to an American grocery store reminded me of Daphne’s experience. Or, what I really mean to say is, it made me realize that Daphne’s experience was not unique.

First he asks where the coffee line is. During the Soviet era, according to one of my professors who had lived in Russia, you had to stand in three lines to buy something at a grocery store: the first, to select your purchase; the second, to pay for your purchase; and the third, to pick up your purchase.

Second . . . well, just take a look at this clip 🙂

How stressed are we by our arrays of choices without even knowing it? Or is it possible we actually aren’t stressed out? Have the incredible variety and bounty available to us led us to develop an ability to tune out extraneous information?

Maybe it takes the astonishment of newcomers to open our eyes to the freedom and wealth Americans take for granted.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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8 Responses to So many milks! And coffee, coffee, coffee!

  1. Andrea Schultz says:

    What a thought-provoking and interesting read! Thanks for sharing. I don’t usually look at my surroundings in terms of how they look to someone outside of the U.S., but I do often think about generational differences when working with my 4-H kids. Our country is very rich in technology, as well, and there are probably some in your classes now who have no memories of landlines.


    • Sally Cissna says:

      Excellent post, Katie. It reminds me of two things….one seeing the Russian bread lines on TV after the fall of the wall and then going and standing in Pic N Sav and scanning the bread selections stretching a whole aisle. First time, I was struck with what it means to be First World. And secondly, I don’t think we are stressed by having too much selection, but rather by trying to find the one we like among the many options…and then continuing to find it once we have decided that it is the one we like. For example, I like Dean’s Cottage Cheese…it is sold at Sentry and Woodman’s, but not at Pick N Sav or Target. But! My favorite English Muffins are sold at Pick N Sav and Woodman’s not at Sentry or Target. And so forth………………….sounds like a First World Problem.


    • Wow, you’re right, Andrea. When you think about the fact that my students today grew up with their palm on a mouse, it’s pretty mind boggling. Especially because I can recall miserable programming experiences in college standing in line to punch my cards, standing in another line with my “deck” to run my program through the card reader, and then waiting for hours for my printout to come back.


  2. I felt a little like that when I visited Chicago. How much money is being spent to keep up all these buildings and support all these people. Mind boggling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sure is. I do love Chicago, though. Even though it’s a world-class city, it’s still pretty true to its Midwestern roots. “Big Shoulders” and all that (full poem here at the Poetry Foundation website).


  3. Rose Didier says:

    Great blog, Katie! Insightful and spot on!


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