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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

On The Job: The Made-in-China Challenge

Sara Bongiorni, Warren ’88

 
     


On a steamy Tuesday morning last July, I found myself in a place I never dreamed I would visit: the green room of CNN’s New York studios, waiting to go on air for a live interview.
In a haze of nerves I focused on odd details. Muffin crumbs on the carpet. A cup of milk abandoned on the table beside a tower of wilting fruit. It took me a couple of minutes to notice the huge window behind me with a view of Columbus Circle and a bright green corner of Central Park.

When a gruff, shorts-clad soundman appeared in the door and motioned for me to follow him, a question popped into my head: How in the world did I get here?

What got me to CNN ’s green room was a book I had written about my family’s yearlong boycott of Chinese products in 2005. It wasn’t a protest. We weren’t standing up for Tibet or for factory towns in Ohio and North Carolina that have been offshored nearly to death. We weren’t worried about lead in our kids’ Chinese toys, either. Our boycott was an experiment, one that began on a whim on a gloomy Monday, two days after Christmas, when I noticed that most of the gifts scattered across our living room floor—and so many of the other things in our house: the lamp on the piano, the dog’s chew toy, every light and bulb on our Christmas tree—were made in China. It struck me as I sat on the sofa and did a bleary-eyed postmortem of the holiday that it would be easy to dodge the labels Made in India or Made in Italy, and especially, Made in USA. Outrunning the tag Made in China would be the challenge.

I turned to my husband (Kevin Bongiorni, Muir ’87), pale and equally bleary at his end of the sofa, and posed a question: Was it possible for a middle-class family like ours to go a year without buying anything made in China—and would he like to try?

His tired eyes told me two things. It was probably not possible. And, no, he would not like to try. (I overcame his reluctance, but his skepticism earned him a nickname that I secretly stuck on him all year—the Weakest Link.)
From the beginning the boycott was a collision of the personal and the abstract. When our son, then 4, needed new shoes it took me two weeks of frantic mall trips and phone calls across the country before I located Italian-made sneakers. (They cost almost $70, an obscene amount, and I bought him just that one pair of shoes all year to compensate for my excess.)

We boiled water for coffee every morning after our drip machine broke and the only affordable replacements we could find were made in China. Kevin stole —he likes to say borrowed—sunglasses from the lost-and-found at our kids’ preschool when he needed new ones and the only ones that fit our budget were made in China. We were barred from the market for humane mousetraps (I made my own), birthday candles (we used votive candles on our cakes instead) and the monster trucks and light sabers that our son dreamed of all year.

We inadvertently broke boycott rules and then resolved to do better. I worried about Kevin sneaking Chinese goods into our house behind my back. I dreamed about the boycott. I consulted the CIA World Fact Book to double-check whether goods made in Hong Kong were also off limits to us (they were). As December approached, we made lousy homemade Christmas presents, spent too much on toys from Germany and waited for the year, and our boycott, to fade into history.
I had worked many years as a business writer so it should have been natural to think of a book, but the truth is I wrote all of this down only because I ’d run into a writer friend in the boycott’s early days.

“ Something is going to happen, ” he told me, and then he instructed me to take notes. I didn’t know what he meant, but I did as I was told.

As the boycott wore on, something did happen, something bigger than our run-ins over sunglasses removed from the lost-and-found and tug-of-wars with the children over Chinese toys. I began to see that my family was tied to China in countless little ways, and that the idea of self-reliance, at the level of both the family and the nation, was a thing of the past. We were too connected to China, and to the rest of the world, to step back from those ties now, as tempting as that sometimes seems. I worry about human rights and the hardships of Chinese factory life, but it was too late to think we could solve those problems by pushing China away.

Which brings us back to the book. By late 2005, I knew that if I had a story to tell it wasn ’t one that would use politics or trade statistics or even economists to come to life, much as I like economists. I wrote the first couple of chapters and told my imagined readers exactly how boycotting China had impacted our lives, throwing every marital spat, worry, misstep and dream into the telling. I bought a book on writing a nonfiction book proposal, followed it to a T, and then sent it to the literary agent of a friend-of-a-friend. The agent told me to loosen up my storytelling even more—advice that I took. Finally I got the thumb’s up from the agent and waited as he began to shop the project to New York publishers.

Then I waited, which is something I am used to doing, because everything takes me longer than it takes everybody else I know (11 years of marriage to buy a house, 13 years to produce our first child, you get the idea). This time I did not wait long. It took the agent —I still can’t bring myself to say my agent—about a month to get a couple of nibbles, and then an offer. I wasn’t about to get rich on the advance, but it did put me in a financial position to spend the summer of 2006 sitting at my laptop and racing against a November deadline for the manuscript (and the arrival of our third child). I beat both deadlines by two weeks.

The book hit stores at the end of June 2007, just as a streak of international recalls of Chinese products began gaining speed. The phone began to ring. People from improbable places called: NPR, BBC, Newsweek. On a hot Monday I got a call from a producer at CNN who asked if I could get on a plane and fly to New York —that afternoon. I got on a plane and flew to New York that afternoon.

That ’s how I got to the green room at CNN. And as I followed the sound man through a maze of dark corridors and curtains leading to the brightly lit studio, I knew what I would tell the host, John Roberts, if he asked me whether American consumer life without China was possible these days.

Not a chance.

Sara Bongiorni, Warren ’88, lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her book, A Year Without ‘Made in China’, was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2007.

RELATED LINKS

Sara Bongiorni on NPR

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A Year Without 'Made in China', the book

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"I worry about human rights and the hardships of Chinese factory life, but it was too late to think we could solve those problems by pushing China away. "