Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Brogan’s Review: A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni

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.

Other reviews:

Devourer of BooksDuffbert’s Random MusingsLost LaowaiLotus ReadsRuby Red BooksThe Novel WordWritten in the Stars

Interview with the author: The Great American Apparel Diet


  1. The author sounds annoying but I am interested in the premise of the book. Too bad she didn't take it where she could have and made a real statement. Funny I haven't heard anything about this one in the media. Seems like she could have gotten a lot of press if she'd been "brave" enough to go after it! Thanks for an honest assessment.

  2. I read this quite a while ago and was disappointed in it too. I was drawn in the by the premise (I love "trying to do things for a year" books) and this one was one of the worst ones I read. I don't remember many of the specifics ... but I remember not caring for it much.

    A much better read and one that might be of interest to you is "The Big Turn-Off" by Ellen Currey-Wilson, which focuses on a mother trying to raise her son without TV. It was very interesting and much better done.

  3. Thanks for the review! This book seemed interesting to me but I think I'll skip it after reading your thoughts. It's one thing to give up consumer goods because she opposed low wages or child labor in countries like China. However, the fact that she doesn't mind buying goods made in other countries that are just as oppressive with their labor laws just doesn't make sense.

  4. Thank you for everyone for your comments.

    Jenners, I will have to check out The Big Turn-Off at some point, thanks for the heads up!

  5. I had the same thoughts and expectations as you when I saw this book. Quite disappointing to find out it's none of that.

  6. I don't know...I'm just getting annoyed with the plethora of "the year I did _____" genre.

  7. I agree with JT, the premise is getting old, although the idea is extremely intriguing. Thanks for the review, I did have my eye on the book, but I think I will just scower for it in a library rather than buy it!

  8. I've read a few books in the "the year I did whatever" genre and really enjoyed them (The Wishing Year comes to mind), but this one sounds like a bust, which is a shame because the premise is pretty interesting.

  9. I guess when I read "the year I--" books, I'm expecting either an experience that changes the person's world-view, or an initiative that may be continued (with some flexibility) for their life thereafter, a sort of beginner's how-to. But if it's just "the year I painted my toenails red every day" then what's the point?
    Anyway, better luck next time for such a book!
    And thanks everyone for your comments.