Oops I {Bought Made In China} Again

"If at first you don’t succeed, you're running about average."

--M.H. Alderson

Turns out Dunkin' Donuts, a Massachusetts-based company, doesn't have franchises near Michelle's college apartment or anywhere else in northern California. According to its website, Dunkin' Donuts is the largest coffee and baked goods chain in the world, "serving 52 varieties of donuts to more than three million people a day." Doing its part to elevate LDL cholesterol around the globe, one donut at a time. The west coast's donut / LDL needs are served by Winchell's. Not to be outdone by Dunkin' Donuts, Winchell's offers 70 varieties of "Warm 'n Fresh" donuts and bakery products. Now that Michelle is settled in for winter / spring semester and I'm back home, I'll stop by Christy's, my neighborhood donut shop, and get the chocolate old-fashioned I've been craving since New Year's morning. When our kids were little, on Sundays after church we'd drive them to Christy's Donuts. I know. Bad, bad parents. Bad Tina and Don. But now, these same kids run marathons, do yoga, bike to work, and eat hummus and lentils. So here's to irresponsible parenting. Here's to donuts.

I'm staying on the topic of donuts because they're soft and sweet and manufactured in the USA. And the thought of eating them helps me forget how badly I'm failing my Buy American resolution. Here's what happened:

After unloading our two cars and hauling everything up to Michelle's second-floor apartment, we assessed the situation. Michelle still needed bed pillows, blankets, placemats, a dustpan, a mattress pad, a shower curtain, more light bulbs and a bookcase.

We must've looked odd, huddled together, turning objects over in the aisles of Target, squinting at the tiny print on labels. Italy has inexplicably cornered the market on dustpans. Placemats: India. Light bulbs: Mexico. All bedding items: China. Day One of my pledge to buy American. It wasn't looking good. "That's okay, Mom," Michelle said, her blue eyes wide, one hand patting my shoulder. "I have enough money saved up. But what about the bookcase? I bet they're all made in China." An hour in, and she'd already become adept at locating the country of origin. We found the furniture section, searched the boxes. Miraculous. "Room Essentials" three-shelf bookcase ($19.99) was made in USA. "Dad and I'll pay for this," I said. "And the Chapstick you've got there."

Hey, Chapstick is still made in the USA? This isn't too bad. We're going to be okay.

The next day, reality hit. Michelle needed clothes. Jeans, tops, workout shorts, running shoes, casual shoes. We'd meant to go shopping before January 1st, but time got away from both of us. So here we were, in Target again. I'd left Don at the apartment so he could multitask: watch football, install a new kitchen light, hang the bulletin board, hook up the printer and computer. I called him in a panic. Michelle's cart was already piled with clothes, all of them made in China, and we hadn't even gotten to Gap and Macy's at the mall. "This is a disaster," I said. "There's no way this kid has enough to pay for all this. What an idiot I am. Just forget the whole buy USA thing. Everything's made in China. It was a dumb idea."

Don--who consistently remains calm when I freak out--decided we deserved a one-day exemption. "Look, your Dad just died, we had to get through Christmas, we needed to get Michelle back to college. I think you should cut yourself some slack. Buy what she needs. Just start over when we get home."

"But that doesn't seem right. Just saying I'm going to do it one way and then changing the rules in the middle of the game."

"Either throw in the towel or start over. I say start over."


Driving home in the rain last night, trying to see the white lane dividers in the mirror-slick black asphalt, I debated my options. I mean, hadn't the offshore manufacturing ship sailed? Wasn't it too late to do anything? And who nowadays would want to work in a factory anyway? This last question, which nags at me, is the one I've gotten hit with most from skeptical friends and family members when they hear about my New Year's resolution. Isn't our country shifting from manufacturing to services anyway? Aren't we, increasingly, a white collar nation? Aren't blue collar workers a thing of the past? Who would want their kids working in a Chapstick factory?

A few freeway exits from home, I turned on the radio and listened to KSFO's Barbara Simpson. Was it just a coincidence that she brought up a topic related to what had been on my mind? She was talking about how the last manufacturer of incandescent light bulbs in the United States ceased operating this past September. Due to congress's mandated environmental restrictions, all those new LED (light emitting diode) bulbs will now be made in China. Ms. Simpson said something like, "Is it just me, or does anyone else think it just doesn't seem right?"

A quick Internet search this morning verified that, indeed, the last General Electric factory--its roots trace back to the 1870s and Thomas Alva Edison--shut down in September, 2010. In turn, 200 people lost their jobs. Some of the workers had (happily, one would guess) worked in the factory for decades. They likely have no where to go but the unemployment line. Or a boat to China. On days when things got chaotic at home and Dad couldn't find his socket wrench or his newspaper or the last piece of Nana's butter-rich fruitcake--with nine kids, that happened lots--Dad used to say, "Know what I oughta do? I oughta stick you kids on a slow boat to China with a leak in it."

Is that where we're headed, as a country? To China? Doomed to sink? Is anyone checking the boat, patching it, keeping it air-tight?

I've compared my Dad to Thomas Edison. I bet Edison's mental wheels constantly turned, just like Dad's did. You could see it in his eyes. He would get that far off look, wondering about a malt-making machine or lighting equipment or hand-wipe dispensers for gas stations. He was always thinking, wondering, asking "What if…?" Inventors are, I think, an optimistic bunch. They wake up each morning seeing possibilities. Dad would sit at the kitchen table and sketch. "You know what, kids? I've got a great idea. Look at this." His possibilities became ours.

So yes, my Buy USA journey will continue. I want to find those products, honor their inventors, cheer on the companies gutsy enough to persevere. I have no idea what I'll find. Other than a chocolate old fashioned.