I’m at Book Expo America in New York City all this week, but here’s another review from my sister Brogan:
I picked up A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni for possibly selfish reasons. Because I’m pregnant and thus purchasing (mostly second-hand, but nevertheless purchasing) an entire wardrobe for the very short-term usage of a few months’ wear, I have been feeling vaguely self-indulgent lately. So when I saw this book I thought it might provide me with specific reasons not to purchase Chinese goods—things I no doubt already know but wouldn’t mind being reminded of—ranging from China’s human rights record to worker safety abuses to the relative environmental costs of transporting goods halfway around the world for the use of North American consumers. I even thought Bongiorni might give me a few tips as to how best to do this, not referencing individual companies, but just providing a sort of feel-good sense of the advantages of buying from smaller shops, engaging local merchants in conversation and so on. However, I have to say my primary reaction to this book was disappointment, eventually bleeding into downright annoyance.
Bongiorni is a business journalist, who decides one Christmas holiday to boycott all Chinese goods for a year. She has two small children—aged one and four—and her partner Kevin is also brought on board. Strangely, although at various times she reaches for the reasons she is doing this, she never actually endorses any, other than it being “an experiment” “to see if it can be done,” along with some vague statements about globalization.
Because her boycott has no ideological roots, buying items made anywhere-but-China is deemed acceptable. It is not clear to me why she’s so excited about Cambodian pants or children’s trinkets made in Thailand—how different are the stories of those countries compared to the Chinese one in terms of worker exploitation and loss of local (American) jobs? In addition, she’s so scared of offending people by her boycott that she actively eliminates opportunities to talk about it to other people, thus defeating the point, ultimately, of a boycott, which is to effect change through widespread consumer reaction. And she’s constantly reassuring herself that when the year is over she can go back to buying whatever she wants, which again seems completely self-defeating.
Without enough of a reason for a boycott, Bongiorni struggles to stick with it, and it becomes difficult to sympathize with her long whines and self-pitying tirades about how she can’t find the presents her kids really want. On the other hand, for anyone not that sympathetic to such an idea in the first place, one wonders why they would even be interested in reading about such a silly exercise. Bongiorni tries to be funny but at the expense of any real depth, which ultimately makes her appear self-indulgent, even as she is attempting to do something decidedly un-self-indulgent, namely sacrifice convenience in an attempt to explore a non-mainstream approach to shopping. Because there is so little intention behind her boycott, the whole idea comes off as being about her.
Bongiorni does mention a couple of interesting things, like that items made in the USA (or other countries) often have Chinese component parts, and that in some cases the manufacturers can no longer get those component parts from anywhere else. She also makes interesting connections with people from a variety of demographic backgrounds who support the idea of boycotting Chinese goods.
However, what drove me right around the bend was her approach to parenting, which seemed to focus on buying her kids toys as her primary way of relating to them. She feels an incredible amount of guilt at not buying her son (the four-year-old) every Chinese-made trinket he desires, and bribes him—her words—with Danish-made Lego to assuage his tears when they come into conflict over it in the store. She actually discusses the question of whether she is causing him to “suffer” by not indulging his every plastic Chinese craving. In a world where children suffer so many real ills, it feels offensive to have this consumerist attitude broadcast with so little thought.
What seems particularly strange is that Bongiorno consistently confuses China-the-country with China-the-people and China-the-economic-superpower. She traces an oral history of a Chinese ancestor in her family, and then claims she feels like she’s disowning this part of herself by boycotting Chinese-made items. She also says “the idea of swearing off Chinese products forever feels like holding a perpetual grudge against 1.3 billion people” (p. 215)—which is clearly a misunderstanding of the purposes and dynamics of a boycott.
It’s possible that I’m humourless—but I really don’t think so. In fact, I really wanted to like this book. I would even say that if Bongiorno had sat down and taken the time to write this book with heart and intellectual rigour, she could have written a good book. I had the distinct impression that she was more intelligent than she let herself appear, out of a sense of hesitation to be seen as too political or serious, which possibly explains my level of aggravation with this book. I’d say give this one a miss.
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Interview with the author: The Great American Apparel Diet