Crazy rich New Yorkers
“Crazy Rich Asians” is guilty delight, a respite from socioeconomic political realities. The implications for family businesses, based on the book by Kevin Kwan, are discussed in my Oct. 9, 2015 column, available at inquirer.net. Google it.
It might soon be superseded by its Western counterpart, Wednesday Martin’s “Primates of Park Avenue,” not a fictional satire but an all-too-real memoir of her experiences among the “glossy, well-toned, hypercompetitive, and megamoneyed” of the Upper East Side (the most exclusive borough in New York).
Martin and her husband just moved from the West to the Upper East side, a distance of just a few kilometers, but stumbled upon a world onto itself.
Martin uses anthropology to make sense of Upper East Side mothers. Similar to age-old tribal “council of elders,” they scrutinize prospective residents for entry into their enclaves (when Martin was on bed rest during pregnancy, the Board insisted on interviewing her while she stayed in bed, wearing “pearls and a jacket on top and pajama bottoms under the covers”).
After the condo comes the preschool. Martin becomes a “playdate pariah,” enduring multiple rejections from Queen Bee mothers who remind her of Jane Goodall’s chimp Flo, whose wiliness and ambition ensured that her offspring rose to the top. These mothers schedule their pregnancies based on preschool cutoff ages, wear medallions with their kids’ initials, jockey with each other in the hope of earning spots on playdates with the children of alpha couples.
“In a niche of extreme ecological release [with all needs provided for], in a highly competitive culture, ‘successful’ offspring are status objects—and mirrors. Promoting them, working assiduously on their behalf, is a vocation. Being a mommy here is a cutthroat, high-stakes career, stressful and anxiety-producing precisely because it is ours alone to succeed or fail at, leading to the success or failure of our offspring. And ourselves.”
Martin succumbs, “going native.” She searches endlessly for an Hermes Birkin bag, until her husband procures one of “gold with palladium hardware” in Tokyo, never mind that the bag is eventually discarded when her arm goes numb.
Is “Birkinquest” sheer frivolity? Literature professor Jeff Nunokawa tells Martin, “It’s not just that women—women of a certain class or social set—love the fashionable commodity. It’s that they are the commodity form.”
These women “want—need—to be a wanted thing.”
Setting out to remake her naturally slim body after pregnancy, Martin joins a Physio 57 class so agonizing that for three days, she could not move without pain. Afterwards she returns, “driven and compelled—to chase the perfect body for 57 minutes, to block out the world. I was hooked.”
Vanity? Not quite, since few women flirt with men. More of a bonding ritual with women who “strove equally to be beautiful for the men who were not there and for the women who were.”
Martin concludes, “My body wasn’t exactly my own. It belonged to the tribe, too.”
The cost of it all? Skyrocketing anxiety, the highest in Manhattan, medicated by constant Bloody Mary and Xanax. With the threat of divorce, decline in reputation and income, women resort to “year-end bonuses” from husbands who wield them as weapons of power.
One woman tells Martin, “My mother told me to get as much jewelry as possible from my husband. As insurance.” Just in case.
All is not lost. When Martin had a miscarriage, these women rallied to her side, with personal tales of woe.
“Once you control for poverty, illness, and hunger, money does not buy you happiness,” Martin says. “And it certainly does not buy you a reprieve from anxiety” and grief and tragedy.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.