If the 19th-century statesmen who pushed to open Chinese markets to the West were alive today, they might wish that they had tapered their Open Door Policy somewhat. Perhaps an Ajar Door Policy would have been preferable.
Sara Bongiorni, a freelance writer, wife, and mother of two young children decided to slam that door shut one Christmas morning as she surveyed the holiday's wreckage strewn about her living room. Realizing that most of her family's gift bounty hailed from that behemoth of the East, she asked one of the most frightening questions of this free-trade era: Can my family go one whole year without purchasing anything made in China?
In a market experiment in the tradition of the documentary "Super Size Me," where a filmmaker ate all his meals at McDonald's for an entire month and suffered the consequences, the Bongiorni family agrees to boycott all Chinese goods for one year. So begins her family's empowering and daunting journey toward finding out just how dependent they had become upon products manufactured in China. And it is a journey, literally, (albeit, one that sets the Bongiornis traipsing through every store in town in search of items without a telltale "Made in China" tag.)
What's most refreshing about Bongiorni's A Year Without 'Made in China,' is that, while covering an issue that could easily sink under sobering statistics on the number of US jobs shipped overseas, she manages to keep her book focused on one family's relationship to the global economy.
A necessary dose of "big picture" information finds its way in, but it does so in a way unique to one family's experience. Readers won't hear from World Bank experts here. Rather, they will learn about China's startling presence in the US market by accompanying the author on desperate missions to find children's shoes that don't cost a small fortune and through her conversations with people directly affected, such as one of the few remaining American lampmakers, a manufacturer who has watched his trade nearly vanish in the face of cheap imports.
It can cause a longing, even in those who never thought to check a tag before, for the days when "Made in the USA" was a common sight.
Also a relief is Bongiorni's unassuming approach to the topic. While you might expect a person who pressured her family into boycotting Chinese-made goods for a year – and then wrote a book about the experience – to write with an air of self-congratulatory moral superiority, this does not seem to be Bongiorni's intent. Her project was motivated by curiosity about the role one family plays as consumers reliant upon the increasingly omnipresent Chinese import, and whether it's still possible to break that dependency.
The boycott, sanguinely described as "a scavenger hunt in reverse" to Bongiorni's initially skeptical husband, Kevin, humbles the family to the core. They learn the hard way that holiday fun can be as elusive as the Easter Bunny when China isn't invited to the party. While it may not come as a surprise to learn of China's unparalleled role in Christmas shopping, what is less known is that nearly every American-flag decorated plate, napkin, and banner decorating your Fourth of July barbecue last month with was made ... well, not in the USA.
The struggle to find non-Chinese products isn't limited to holidays. We learn throughout the book that a boycott of Chinese products is tantamount to a boycott on convenience, and readers will feel the author's pain as she struggles to bring home both life's necessities and accessories.
While some readers might normally shy away from a book evoking such strong apprehension about the global economy, Bongiorni helps by interspersing self-effacing anecdotes throughout.
"There are upsides to living without China. On a rainy afternoon at Target, Kevin reluctantly returns a whoopee cushion to the dollar bin after taking a quick peek at its label. He pokes around in a couple of other bins, then turns away empty-handed. We are locked out of a huge segment of the market for what may generously be described as junk."
Some of the book's most amusing moments evolve out of the often-awkward conversations initiated with store clerks and telephone assistants in order to verify an item's country of origin. Bongiorni takes moral support where she can find it, even from a voice on the other of the line in an office 2,000 miles away.
In the end, Bongiorni declares that she might not be brave enough to try her experiment again in another 10 years, when China's presence should be even greater. But despite this, her family gained a sense of empowerment.
Bongiorni's story is an original reflection on what it means to be a consumer in America today, with both the overpowering anxiety of being trapped in a circle of consumption and the simultaneous irresistibility of buying more, more, more! Ultimately, however, it is an entertaining and ominous tale of things to come – to a store near you.
Tony Azios is an intern at the Monitor.