personal challenge memoir #4: a year without made in china

i have determined that the folks who write reviews at goodreads are an amazingly charitable group, so the fact that this book has more one-star reviews that five-star reviews really speak volumes. personally, i wish there was some sort of dark limbo available between “it was awful” & “it was okay”. because i don’t think book was so awful, but it certainly wasn’t as good as “okay”. call this a 1.5-star review.

the premise: author sara bongiorni is a financial journalist & begins to realize that a huge percentage of the world’s imported goods are coming from china. shoes, clothes, toys, electronics, so much is being manufactured in china. & so she wonders if she & her family can go an entire year without purchasing anything that was imported from china. & this is where the book starts to lose me (we’re talking like not even three pages in): there’s no real reason given for this challenge outside of vague, idle curiosity. this book is a classic example of the kind of “stunt journalism” that has been sweeping the publishing industry recently (& which i can’t seem to get enough of, judging by my reading habits), but at least the authors of books like no impact man or not buying it constructed some kind of political premise for their activities, regardless of how half-baked they may have been. there are interesting reasons to do a no-china challenge–perhaps as a statement against chinese human rights violations? perhaps even specifically in the manufacturing sector? or if that’s not your bag, you could take the tea party route & claim you’re doing it out of concern for american outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. it could be because you’re concerned about quality control, after scares with contaminated pet food & kids’ toys covered in lead paint. something. anything! but bongiorni launches into this project with her husband & two young children in tow & absolutely no real justification for any of it, except that she’s hoping that her editor might be into adapting it as a story for work.

right off the bat, the family is cutting corners. they decide to start the project on new year’s day, so they stock up ahead of time on chinese goods that are soon to be off-limits, like a new coffeemaker. this is a hallmark of stunt journalism: do something for a year & if you could only do it by doing a bunch of prep before that flies in the face of your usual habits, well, who cares, because it’s not like you really mean any of it!

but it gets worse. bongiorni doesn’t seem to have equipped herself with any tools for finding non-chinese alternatives, & there are certain sectors of cheap consumer goods in the united states where chinese imports dominate, including clothing, shoes, & children’s toys. when her son begins to outgrow his chinese shoes & requires a new pair, bongiorni has a hell of a time finding shoes that were not produced in china, though a quick google search for “american-made children’s shoes” turned up several options. & that’s just american-made! bongiorni has no issue with foreign imports, so long as they are not stamped “made in china”. in fact, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that she doesn’t even have an issue with chinese imports, so long as they fool her with a tag that says “made in hong kong” or “made in macau”. she didn’t realize that these places are considered “special administrative regions” of china until like nine months into the project. when she needs a gift for a children’s birthday party (or even gifts for her own children, for birthdays or xmas), it doesn’t seem to occur to her to make something out of non-chinese materials, or to buy something from a crafter (hello, etsy!). instead, she looks everywhere for cheap plastic toys that are not manufactured in china. & then she feels that she is depriving her children of cheap plastic toys (which she at one point describes as necessities of childhood) because almost all of it is made in china. never mind that there are happy, healthy children who get by without plastic squirt guns from the grocery store.

her guilt becomes so great that she almost has a breakdown over denying her son a plastic light-up halloween pumpkin decoration. she caves & allows him to buy it with his own money, & is then shocked when he loses interest in it after a week. because he’s a little kid & little kids lose interest in EVERYTHING after about a week. just ask my “my little sister” doll. i agonized for MONTHS over whether i’d get that doll for the holidays. i was rapturous when i unwrapped it. a week later, it lay forgotten in the back of my closet.

my big issue with this book is that it’s founded on a cheap gimmick & the family didn’t really seem to learn anything from their experiment. instead of questioning american dependence on cheap chinese imports that enable people to have ten plastic toys instead of two well-constructed wooden or cloth toys, or fifteen flimsy cotton t-shirts instead of three well-made durable cotton shirts, they just tried to substitute goods made in other countries for all the chinese imports to which they’d become accustomed. & then they were disappointed when sometimes those goods were more expensive. americans will rely on cheap chinese imports for as long as americans feel it is their right & duty to consume consume consume–to have ten of everything when two would suffice, & when the rest of the world is making do without. but this concept was completely beyond bongiorni & it made for infuriating, yet tedious, reading.

(& DO. NOT. even get me started on bongiorni’s fantasy that perhaps her great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was chinese, which manifests itself in the occasional dark hair. it was really special that in such a politically vapid book, there was still room for a little blithe missing-the-boat on issues of race. like the part where she was nervous that a chinese american parent who sends his child to the same pre-school as bongiorni’s daughter would somehow take offense at the no-chinese imports project. because all chinese people, even those living in the united states, care what YOU buy, right?)

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One response to “personal challenge memoir #4: a year without made in china

  1. i gasped when i first starting reading this, and was all grumpy and horrified…for about 30 seconds. and then i remembered how DUMB “these” books are. that said, there’s nothing like getting riled about other people’s ignorance to fuel my personal ‘do-gooding’. thanks for helping me not waste my time reading it.

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