Politics & Policy

A Neophyte in The China Shop

“You’re kidding me,” the cashier says, dropping her jaw in theatrical amazement. “Never?”

”Never!” I reply giddily, slipping my credit card oh-so-easily into the metal mouth of a little machine. “Until now! But I’ll be back!” I have to force myself to calm down, stop being so chatty, but the fact is, the excitement of this morning’s outing has gone to my head. My eye has the glitter of the Ancient Mariner: I want to rush up to strangers and tell them about my wondrous discoveries.

“Man,” the cashier chuckles, shaking her head as she runs her hand-held laser across the bar codes of innumerable absurdly priced, brightly colored goodies. “I ain’t never heard of nobody who ain’t been to Target.”

Target,” I correct her, like an idiot, using the Franco-phony pronunciation. She chuckles again.

Just then Paris and Molly come rushing back from a foray on the sales floor. “Mummy, racing cars!” one yelps, and the other holds up a rainbow-colored notebook with matching pens, and gasps, “Please may I get these?”

For a moment, I seem to catch a whiff of smelling salts and abruptly return to being the mother I have always been, whose answer to shop floor entreaties is generally, “No.” There is a fugitive return of the disquiet I felt earlier in the morning when I realized that almost every item on every shelf was Made in China. But two hopeful faces are shining up at me. The moment passes, and I hear myself say, “What the heck! How much are they?”

“$2.99!” Paris says.

“$4.99!” Molly says.

“Well, I suppose you can always use a notebook–”

The children rejoice, the cashier completes our transaction, and with a flourish I sign the little plastic window on the credit-card machine. Those smelling salts pass invisibly beneath my nose as I catch sight of the total–$300!–but I shake them away. I just bought children’s sneakers for $10.99, packets of ponytail elastics for $1.99 and racing cars for a mere $2.99. If you consider what I might have paid for these items elsewhere, why–why, I haven’t so much as spent $300 as saved $300! I imagine saying this to my husband.

“I see,” he remarks, some hours later, when the children and I are showing off our heap of cheap Chinese products. Molly and the girls are twirling around in cotton skirts; Paris, in his new cheapo sneakers, is zooming his cars around under the dining room table. I am finding that the lamp shades I purchased at laughable prices (“Only $3.99 apiece! Why, the other day I saw lamp shades just like these and they were…”) don’t actually fit the lamps I had in mind, and announce that I can simply return them. I know, sneakily, that in returning them, I get to go back.

In Victorian times, gin was known as Mothers’ Ruin. By the Seventies, uppers and downers were making mischief among mothers. Today, following in a long tradition of dangerous intoxicants consumed by housewives, we have cheap Chinese stuff. Happy Mother’s Day!

It’s only a few days later, when I’ve returned my ill-fitting lampshades and am once again prowling the floor, that the moral qualms that troubled me earlier strike fully. Pushing my cart along a gleaming aisle, I am beckoned by many hundreds of goodies, each of which our family might defensibly “need.” Around me, other women push identical carts to mine, loaded with beach towels, glass vases, vacuum cleaners, tote bags, t-shirts, boxer shorts, canvas sandals, plastic Popsicle trays, and toys, toys, toys.

The prices are magically low, and I feel that acquisitive throb start up again my chest. In to the trolley goes a dear little maternity sundress, a cotton nightgown, and socks for my husband–and, oh, look–

On a sudden corrective impulse, I begin checking labels: Phew, the dress was made Cambodia, the nightgown in Guatemala; but–and my heart sinks–it seems the vast majority of the goods for sale here originated in the world’s last major Communist tyranny; a country where bishops are imprisoned, where convicts are made into involuntary organ donors, where open expression of political dissent brings a truncheon on the back of the neck; a country which furthermore is in the midst of one of the largest military build-ups in history and whose attitude towards America is nuanced, to say the least.

But soft–here’s a sleek pair of sunglasses, really rather stylish, and only $19.99. I find the label: Uh-oh. The trouble is, I need sunglasses. Guiltily, I slip them into my cart beside a little handbag for Molly (also made in China, but, consider, a mere $9.99!).

I have to say; it’s an odd sensation to fall consciously into the grip of one’s greediest impulses, to feel them tapped by cunning manufacturers in what is, after all, a largely hostile power. Walking the floor of this popular store, I feel like an Indian, trading Manhattan for a handful of shiny beads; I feel like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, accepting enchanted Turkish Delight from the White Witch. I am aware enough to be worried about the consequences, but gluttonous enough to gobble what I’m offered. And, like I say, I do need sunglasses.

“Excuse me,” another shopper smiles, pushing her groaning cart around me in my aisle-blocking trance.

“Sorry,” I say, snapping out of it, “I just seem to have lost track of what I should be buying.”

She laughs with wry recognition. “Sometimes,” she says, “I’ve come all the way here, bought tons of stuff, and when I get home I realize I didn’t buy the one thing I came to get!”

We shake our heads, go-figure-style, and off she goes towards the cashiers. I put the sunglasses back on. Like a Seventies-era mother, hesitating over an open vial of tranquilizers, I wonder: Is this really a good idea? What is a thrifty, patriotic consumer to do? Should I avoid buying Chinese products so as to help reduce the U.S.-China trade deficit and reduce the chance that eventually they will shoot at us with weaponry purchased with our own dollars? Or is it preferable to buy Chinese products, trust in the benefits of competition, and hope that the brutality of communism is like every other problem, and will improve if you rub enough money into it? Should the modern American woman have an opinion on the yuan, the jiao, and the tiniest of fens?

“Darling,” says my husband, as I am unburdening my conscience that evening, after another splurge, “you do know that any measly spending we do will not make the slightest difference either to the deficit or the dollar?”

“I know,” I concede, “and I am, in principle, a proponent of free trade. But it is also true that as I have just finished reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I am especially alert to the moral dimensions of my purchasing decisions. Plus, I don’t want to help pay for the helicopters that will someday strafe our cities.”

He grins. “Why don’t you ask X?” he says, mentioning the name of a Senior Government Official who’s a pal of ours and a specialist in such matters.

The Senior Government Official is immensely reassuring. “The People’s Liberation Army is largely out of the consumer export business,” he says. “So China’s military machine is not benefiting from your purchase of sneakers and napkin rings from Target to the degree you might think. The machine is benefiting from the overall development of China’s economy, but at the same time, China’s interests in employing that machine in ways that counter U.S. interests are increasing at a more rapid rate than the military is expanding.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that a relief. He goes on: “The vast majority of goods produced for sale here are done so with foreign direct investment, so China’s trade with the United States is truly benefiting the growing middle class in China and the investor class in the U.S. Those $10.99 sneakers are contributing to someone’s freedom and your husband’s retirement fund,” he says: “Shop to your heart’s content!” I imagine saying this to my husband.

Yet I am still uneasy. “But–what about American producers?”

“It is better to buy American if you can,” says the S.G.O., his voice taking on a hint of the old cod liver oil, “But frankly it would be best to save your money. The deficit, as you know, is partly a function of our low savings rate and domestic economic strength. You could keep wearing your old sneakers, bank the $10.99, thus increasing the funds available to invest in this country and… reduce our deficit with China! Ta-da!”

I hang up on the friendly S.G.O. with new resolve. I have to return a couple of impulse buys to Target (which is good) yet have stimulated the economy by keeping most of the items I bought (also good) and if I leave immediately, I can keep from spending more (very good). Right?

An hour later, I am walking down the gleaming aisle, my heart pounding, my morality once again swept away like a trans-Pacific cargo ship in a storm. And as I pause to pick up some inviting object, through my mind runs the refrain: “Stop me before I kill again…”

Meghan Cox Gurdon writes regularly about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal.

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