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Davis, California

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Column: Soap

The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but its devastating impact lasted several decades. In 1990, my parents were among the many still fleeing the communist country. They miraculously made it to Malaysia and soon thereafter I was born. All I know of the island and of the refugee camp is that soap was scarce.

When our family relocated to the States a few months later, I had the luxury of bathing with soap twice a day. My parents never ceased to remind me of how lucky I was to have it.

And no reminder served to be more touching and more memorable than our yearly Christmas shopping when, instead of buying chocolates or perfume sets to give as gifts, we bought plain bar soap by the tons and shipped them to families in Vietnam.

For those of you reading this, buying soap most likely doesn’t carry the same joy that comes with buying new makeup or a new stereo system. It’s not a rare treat or a valued commodity, especially if you’re buying the bulk packages from Costco. But for those who live in places we cannot pronounce, soap (of any brand) is a cherished product, an indulgence among indulgences.

In fact, while many people struggle to find anything at all to clean themselves with, we struggle with choosing between moisturizing, brightening or exfoliating soap. They have nothing to choose from while we have too many choices. The plethora of choices is indeed a daunting task for first-world consumers like ourselves.

To start off, we have multiple brands of run-of-the-mill soaps advertised with exalted claims on our television screen, promising better skin or a great time in the shower. A woman lathers herself up and is immediately immersed in ecstasy and swept away to some tropical paradise.

Next, you have your specially scented soaps, only sold in body shops. These are strongly fragranced so that you’ll walk around smelling like candy all day long. They come out with a new scent every season and christen their newly developed mélange with clever names like Peach Delight or Country Apple.

And lastly, on the higher end of the soap spectrum, you have refined brands that cater to the elite – the ones who refuse to use the same soap as the plebian herd, and are willing to spend a good chunk extra to cleanse themselves. These smell of lavish botanicals and include costly ingredients like milk or rosemary.

I found myself in possession of one of these soaps not too long ago. A friend came back from Provence, France and gave me a bar of lavender rose from a “savon boutique” (soap store), wrapped in fine paper and tied with a tweed bow.

I was eager to pamper myself, to experience the exotic notes of the French countryside. But guilt arrested me. It was the guilt of a girl who was accustomed to using only what is necessary.

Does this feeling of guilt sound familiar? I’m sure we’ve all heard it ring once or twice in our consciences:

“Don’t throw away your food. There are people starving out there.”

“$130 jeans! $30 could get you a pair that looks just the same.”

And for me: “An expensive bar of soap is too excessive. It can’t do any better than a cheaper alternative.”

It’s apparent. Living in such a privileged society, we are blessed with a wide variety of choices ranging from the simply necessary to the obscenely exorbitant.

But should our abundance be a cause for guilt? Should we buy only what is necessary and feel ashamed if we do otherwise? Absolutely not. Instead of feeling bad for being blessed with prosperity, we could try appreciating our bounty.

Now, this by no means implies that you should buy $80 Polos of every color just because you can, or spend 10 bucks on another shade of pink polish that looks almost identical to the one you already have. Those 10 bucks could feed a famished child for a month.

But if there is a pair of earrings you’ve been eyeing for quite some time, a great set of speakers you want installed in your car, or a really luxurious bar of soap, don’t hesitate to get it.

Part of being blessed with choices is learning how to discern between what is frivolous and what is damn well deserved.

Tell MICHELLE NGUYEN about the unnecessary things you like to buy at michellen1990@yahoo.com.


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