394: What a Black Market Shopkeeper Taught Me About Authenticity
Halfway through my week in Pokhara, Nepal, I’ve purchased three down jackets and a 40-liter backpack—all with a The North Face logo embroidered on them and all from tiny stores that spill out onto dusty sidewalks. I’ve spent a total of $82. I don’t know how the official The North Face store on the lakeside strip here stays in business. Just their graphic tees start at $30 a pop.
An embroidered The North Face logo is everywhere here, worn by almost everyone. My taxi driver told me he makes the equivalent of $140 a month, and he was probably wearing The North Face. (My taxi livery guy in Kathmandu was.) The waiters at the brick oven pizza place I’ve frequented wear red fleece sweatshirts as a uniform, and the logo on their chest is not that of the restaurant but of The North Face.
The trekker shop inventories include a light smattering of Mammut and Arc’teryx and a brand I didn’t recognize but assume is from Europe. No Columbia or Marmot or Patagonia, though.
In the shop where I purchased the backpack, the gruff shopkeeper pointed at my heart, and asked “Where you buy this?” On the other end of her point was the Patagonia logo on my puffy. A patch three fourths the size of my pinky finger told her I was different than her other customers.
She could have been asking to see if a local competitor had just grabbed a competitive advantage or to size up how rich of an American I was. Or both.
I took her question a different way. In a retail corridor overflowing with what I assume are all knockoffs, she could’ve been asking if I had the real deal.
Isn’t that the question our culture is asking?
We now have gender-specific apps for upgrading our Instagram photos. A celebrity on the cover of two adjacent magazines in the Target checkout lane can look very different, because each had its own photo editor. All reality shows have writers. Let that sink in a second. We don’t know if rock stars are actually singing on Saturday Night Live or how accurate their studio albums are. So many online daters have been duped by fake love interests that society gave the practice a name: “catfishing.” A growing number of celebrity religious “leaders” are telling us our holy books aren’t completely valid.
We are surrounded by fakeness, by post-production. We recognize the camera angles that make our butts look rounder, our thighs stand gappier, and our double chins pull taut. “That’s a composite image,” my professional-photographer wife warned, when I showed her a cool outdoors photo on Instagram.
That’s why authenticity has become a currency.
When people take their masks off—or discard their masks altogether—everyone takes notice. “Where you buy this?” they ask.
You can’t buy it, though. You can’t manufacture it, either. You definitely can’t fake it. People have tried that and flamed out. Or they’ve not tried it—curating a persona—and found it mostly empty.
Careful public editing can build your personal brand. It can even open doors; but it very easily becomes a covetous competition, a hungry addiction, and a thief of joy.
I don’t have enough distance from myself to know if I’m in recovery yet or just on the verge of it. I’m thankful that the awareness has moved to sensitivity and maybe even to healing.
What I do know is that I hope people ask me some version of “Where you buy this?” for the rest of my life. I want to be starkly known as a genuine person, the real Ryan George. As I obey what Jesus and the early church fathers have admonished, I’m finding legacy beyond Facebook feedback. As I unveil my struggles with true friends and let them share theirs with me, I’m finding fulfillment and intimacy like never before. As I reveal my journey online, I find more meaning in my life offline. Life feels more real, if that makes sense.
When you see me veer off the authentic path, I welcome you to call me out on it. Just know that I’m not trying to impress you with either The North Face logo or the Patagonia patch on my jackets.