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Life’s a labyrinth. Here’s the latest installment in my China fascination.

A few years ago my mom, in a fit of midlife growth, suddenly decided she would teach English in China for several months, two different times.

A Vancouver BC librarian contacted me out of the blue a few years ago, here in deepest Dixie (of all places!) for information about a young Chinese woman pilot whose small plane crashed here in the thirties.  A Chinese pilot? A woman? Here? In the oat field that eventually became part of the country club golf course?  My dear colleague’s labor of love, involving contacts with people all around the world, resulted in the book Sisters of Heaven.

Then my book group read Haruki Murakami’s Wind up Bird Chronicle, and in its explication of modern Japanese culture (beautiful, lyrical, gritty, mystical, meaningful, not in the least dry like “explication of modern Japanese culture” would imply) an old soldier details his days of cruelty and deprivation in Mongolia in the 30’s.

I love Amy Tan and Anchee Min. My women’s book group read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and had a wonderful discussion.  Is the mindset toward women and children nowadays really as different from the culture that produced footbinding as we like to think? 

So China’s been much on my mind. I’m drawn to it. I hoped to go teach there myself and take my little one with so that she could go to Chinese kindergarten, though I’m still ruminating on that. With a good job, bills to pay, a letter of entree into the magnet school, and concerns about what my little one would experience there as a girl child in a culture that seems to be very hard on children in general, I haven’t made a determination there yet.

Now my book groups are reading A Year Without Made in China.

At first glance this book seems like just another product of the bottom feeding confessional literary (unliterary) circus produced by blog culture. Everyone thinks there’s something universal and saleable about their personal experience–my huge life crisis and the ensuing three months in each of three countries learning about three life tasks, for example. I LOVED Eat Pray Love, so don’t think I consider this always a bad thing. I encourage everyone I meet to have their own blog if they never have before, because everyone should, must, express themselves, and I don’t like to think of anyone missing out on the exercise in regular writing and internet use that blogging offers. I blog constantly, and every time a book comes out, I think, why not me? My attempt to cook a gourmet meal every day for 365 days. My wry, defiant chronicle of my failures in my first years as a mom (my blogging attempts fall under that category).

I just feel uneasy about it as really good writing/reading.

Anyway, A Year is a pleasant read. The author and her family are likeable– I like her even more because she’s a southern writer! and her work reflects the social trend toward more responsible, or at least more informed, consumption. But I wanted more. Everybody knows Made in China = Bad.  I wanted to know, exactly what is the problem with buying Chinese-made goods? 

I’m a huge Marxist– as in, I believe every human being deserves the basics of food, shelter, education, family, community, work, and the arts. When people do not have access to these, crime and criminal social injustice and cruelty ensue. Children are starving, being separated from their parents, starving, losing out on education, whether in Darfur or in the heart of urban America. I follow with a mixture of admiration and heartbreak the stories of nations and rulers who have at least paid lip service to the idea of each according to ability and need.

But paradoxically, and I hate to admit it, I believe (for lack of a better paradigm, but I’d be glad for someone to give me one) in a sort of Darwinist way that the developing world inevitably must go through the same paroxysms of cruelty and inhumanity that England and the US went through during the industrial revolution before we arrived at our (at least for most of us) comfortable standard of living.  I read once upon a time that if every single person in developing countries made just two dollars a day, they could eat and have shelter and some human standard of comfort. And the way to make this happen, the way for folks in developing nations to attain a standard of living somewhere above poverty is capitalism.  As companies from industrialized nations come in to purchase Chinese parts and products, they are (to varying degree) imposing more, um, American standards for safety, wages, and time.

Easy for me to say… living years after the industrial revolution, feeding at the public trough, in an air conditioned office, living beyond my means instead of recognizing how many have so little, how blessed I am to have all that I do, and saving up for a rainy day.  But I have the bourgeois luxury of musing on it from my armchair, and I think it’s my duty to at least think about it and try to make conscious choices in what I buy.

So where is China on that industrial paroxysm continuum, then?

Alexandra Harney does a good job of documenting the price for Chinese ascendance. In The China Price  she offers tons of documented facts, personal stories of Chinese workers and factory managers, and knowledgable commentary about the cultural context. She manages not to weigh in emotionally, although she does assign responsibility.

Chinese workers, most very young or with impoverished families to support, are killed and maimed due to horrible working conditions. Cancer villages and widow towns dot the Chinese landscape. Chinese pollution shows up on the West coast of the US. Chinese factory managers, whose hours are just as inhumane and whose pay is often just as low– or their personal funds are drained in their hope of staying afloat– use a numbers game and falsified documents to try to appear to be adhering to fair labor standards, because to adhere to fair labor standards would drive the factory out of business, and many officials charged with making sure fair labor and safety standards are in place turn a blind eye. Wal Mart’s inevitable and witless commentary is present as well.

Many Chinese workers and their families have turned to studying the law and combining forces to sue for benefits after injuries. The seeds of something better appear to be planted and sprouting, slowly. But according to Harney, we all pay The China Price.

The responsibility lies as much with the global consumer as with Beijing, she asserts. If the Chinese government spent as much time and energy policing factories as it does political dissidence, they could eradicate most if not all criminal abuses of workers and maintain China’s place in the world market. But our, the consumer’s, appetite for the cheapest goods is an equal contributor. In other words, if we as individuals are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

So bravo, Sara Bongiorni!

I look forward to seeing how our book club discussions shape up.

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