The other day, my son made a declaration that would have stopped me cold two years ago.
"For Christmas, I'm going to ask for a skateboard," he said. "It's the only thing I want."
My 7-year-old's declaration would have brought on an episode of parental angst if he had made it in December of 2005. That's because for all of 2005 my family boycotted goods made in China, and skateboards, like almost everything on the wish lists of the nation's children – dolls, action figures, video games – are mostly made in China.
Our boycott wasn't about politics or product safety. It was an experiment to measure the connections between my little family and China's booming export economy. We wanted to know if we could shake free of China in our lives as consumers – and whether we even wanted to.
The boycott upended our lives. Our son pined for Chinese-made light sabers and monster trucks. We placated him with Danish LEGOS. Broken appliances could not be repaired or replaced. Our son's sneakers cost nearly $70 when our only alternative was tennis shoes from Italy.
We bent boycott rules, even accidentally broke a couple. Then came Christmas, when we spent too much on German-made toys and jury-rigged homemade gifts (the handmade sleeping bags did not impress the kids). In the wee hours of Dec. 31, our son woke us with a cry of joy. "Tomorrow I'll be able to buy from King Kong!" he called into the darkness. (He meant Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.)
The end of the boycott felt like liberation. Life got easier as "Made in China" made its way back into our house. With three little kids and two jobs, easy can be irresistible.
Then, months ago, I again found myself looking out for the made-in-China label as recalls of Chinese pet food, toothpaste, and millions of lead-tainted toys grabbed the headlines week after week. Lead, so perilous to children, suddenly seemed everywhere. I canvassed the house for the metal jewelry that has been the focus of so many recalls. I signed up for a recall-notification service offered by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. I stuck a pacifier made in Germany in our toddler's mouth to prevent her from sucking on the Chinese toys strewn about our living room. I wondered what we'd do when Christmas neared, when the pleas for toys made in China would begin.
There was one thing that I did not do, however. I did not stop buying Chinese products. It wasn't that I minded the hassle of another boycott. It wasn't that I thought the dangers of Chinese toys weren't real. But in 2005 I had learned that we are too closely tied to China to think that we can turn our backs on it. The boycott taught me that self-reliance, at the level of the family and the nation, is a thing of the past. Nobody relinquishes independence without a fight, or at least a sigh. But that is what we have done, quietly and irreversibly, in turning to China and the rest of the world for so much of what we want and need at the bargain prices we have come to expect.
The boycott taught me something else: that I did not want to turn my back on China. I'm not minimizing its huma rights record or abuse of the environment, but I believe the solutions to those concerns and others lie in turning toward China, rather than away.
So I made a leap of faith. I bought Chinese building blocks for our toddler for Christmas. (OK, it wasn't quite a leap of faith. I called the company to verify they had been tested for lead paint.) I ordered snow boots made in China for her sister. When my son declared his longing for a skateboard, I headed for Target, found a board, and turned it over to find the words I knew I would see: Made in China.
I don't know if I'm making the right decision, but the world is a messy, uncomfortable place where tidy decisions are hard to come by, at least for me. So I will keep reading recall notices, but I won't toss China from the house completely. And when I watch my son step onto his new skateboard and take his first tentative glide, I will imagine him sailing toward the rest of the world, rather than away from it.