As a dutiful patron of facts and figures, he is coyly informing me that I have now broken fast and that I’m choking down Chinese ingredients from the glazed food bar behind me. But like most Americans, I am becoming less and less confident about the big red and gold’s intentions for me, the consumer. So, I thought I’d just check in with myself and see how dependent I really am on Chinese goods, on a day-to-day basis.
Having previously renounced Wal-Mart made it a whole lot easier than I expected. And the only time I felt truly deprived was when I tried to buy a can of oysters at Ingles. As a lover of nuance and a connoisseur of particulars, I inform him that, “I have boycotted items labeled MADE IN CHINA, thank you.”
I first felt the pull to question Chinese policy when, as a teenager, I stayed glued to the television as horrifying events unfolded at Tiananmen Square to the tune of tanks rolling toward its Chinese citizenry. But not until a close friend visited China did I decide I had a personal bone to pick with Chinese leadership. The friend came back from a Fulbright scholarship abroad completely deflated by the effect of the dragon’s treatment of the environment. He cited sooty goop flowing through what would have been a stream and breathing air so polluted you could cut it with a knock-off Swiss army knife — all while getting his pants pocket cut open and emptied by one of those knives while riding on a bus.
Shopping for clothes, I get frustrated to say the very least, but not so much due to unflattering lights in fitting rooms as much as having my hopes dashed from fishing for labels of origin, finding tag after tag spelling, MADE IN CAMBODIA, MALAYSIA, CHINA and so on. It’s at this point that I begin to picture sweltering flourescent rooms full of young people that ought to be in schools — not in unmarked outposts of the industrial market complex. I’d just as soon scurry to the thrift store. In clothing stores, labels are scarce and unreasonably priced if you go by the standards set by the average American.
Not so long ago, I heard a report that Americans spend less of their gross income on food than most European countries. I don’t find this hard to believe when I spy the selections of fellow shoppers at Bi-Lo with their Bud-Light and packs of pork chops. From my perch of working-class privilege, I justify the cost of my roughly 60 percent organic, non-genetically modified cornucopia by not buying meats at the store. I quickly lose any savings I might have gained, however, when my husband purchases grass-fed beef from a local cattleman or when we dine out. Imitation soy-meats are tasting far better than when I first dabbled in vegetarianism, but soy bologna costs double or triple that of plain-old cold cuts. Research linking mental disorders in children to processed food should be compelling enough reason for my compatriots to keep payments low on the new, ram-tough, red truck in their driveway and perhaps raise the ole’ grocery budget to accommodate the occasional whole food for the sake of the little ones — or so you would think. But it doesn’t appear so. Besides, I nearly contemplated robbing the blind when I tried feeding my niece and nephew organic, fair trade foods over spring break week.
Now, and for the sake of this article, I research what it is we actually ‘need’ from China and now take a look around my own place. I see I own a few electrical gadgets that are almost all made in China. Now, I’m suspecting that my British-made guitar amp is comprised of useful little parts made in China, and decide I’m not even going to look at the our stereo components. So what about the materials in my coveted audio CD collection? And what about the cords flowing to my DVD player? My house is a now a veritable window to the world. Yes, my book light, which I jealously regard as my favorite portable luxury item, is a bonafide Chinese export through and through, and will now further foster my pre-existing insomnia.
Seems the Chinese figured out a while back what the average American’s most essential items were. Which leads me to another frustration as an American conservationist which I have to share with you. Most of the much touted and long-lasting, energy-saving light bulbs I look for are made in China, except for ones made by General Electric, which I finally found at Lowe’s. The thing immediately burned out after screwing it into my probably-hazardous antique lamp the other day. My husband doubtfully chuckles as I proclaim that I’m returning the burned out bulb for another one just like it because it was the only one labeled, MADE IN USA.
When my friend returned from China, his descriptions of the polluted waterways were so vivid I began having nightmares about them. Not that ours are perfect, but he described rills carrying opaque, black-brown organic compounds with them — a river in my home state of Georgia became a Superfund site because it was home to a nearby factory that made electrical cables. China is part of the deforestation of some non-G-8 countries and ruining habitat for gorillas in Africa, among their growing list of blatant acts of industrial colonialism. This is to say nothing of their occupation and oppression of Tibet, their alliances and business dealings with the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Myanmar/Burma.
According to the U.S. and China Business Council, the United States recorded a $214 billion trade deficit with China in 2006. So don’t even ask what the value of the US dollar is in China. Some lurch forward with predictions that the blunt club of boycott may harm the U.S. economy. Perhaps this would reveal manufacturing and corporate out-sourcing in the glaring light it deserves, at long last. And some beams of realization on those who have unconciously shifted their pledge of alliegance onto our so-called ‘economy’ from the pledge of alliegance to our country, where it once belonged. Remember our instructions as a people after 9-11? ‘Go shopping!’ I still remember how that first McDonald’s ad stuck in my throat following the grievous coverage of the collapse of the towers and that day’s attrocities.
As a defender of my right to clean air and water, I’ve come to understand my own country is no darling of mother earth. For example, our president’s refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol. But I am also aware that the USA enjoys at least a few labor laws and environmental strictures that, when enforced, are positioned to sometimes protect humans — and the planet — from the rampant greed found in the manufacturing sector.
Besides all this, I thoroughly believe that if we purchase goods that pollute, we should keep some of the by-product close by — just to remind us how much more we apparently love industrial lubricants and plastics than clear, clean-flowing water. Would that such awareness could encourage the world’s masses of poor away from having too many children, thereby reducing wanton consumption of the world’s limited coal resources.
Cynical? On the contrary. I have hope that through purchase power we can make personal decisions that stand to ensure that our young continue to have drinking water, topsoil and clean air. I stand fully aware that I am passively consuming ingredients and utilizing parts made by workers whose sweat ultimately funds coffers of corrupt governments and regimes all over the world, but one must start somewhere.
As of press time, I have gone over four whole months of not purchasing a single item labeled, MADE IN CHINA. To date, the goods I have missed buying are a pair of cheap work gloves at Lowe’s and that can of oysters at Ingles. When I get really tempted, I recall video coverage of the treatment of farm-raised fur animals in China. And if that doesn’t work, I think of that one overpowering image of a protester in Tiananmen square staring down the barrel of a tank.
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