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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Poorly Made in China

Peter Midland studied Chinese language and history in college before moving to China. After a few years there he returned to the US to get his MBA at Wharton. While many of his peers went into finance, Midland took the path not taken and headed for Guangzhou to consult for US companies keen to find a manufacturer in China.Poorly Made in China chronicles Midland’s experiences helping US companies navigate these uncertain, often turbulent waters. It’s an engaging must-read for business people and consumers. It’ll make you think differently about China and Chinese goods.

I learned so much from this book that begins with an unforgettable anecdote. Midland is outside with a Chinese client and the industrial stench is unbearable. Reflexively, he exclaims in Chinese, “It stinks.” Calmly, the Chinese man exhales from his cigarette and slowly responds. “I don’t get you foreigners. To me this smells like money.”

Well, right, but the N.Y. Times reported that as many as 700,000 Chinese each year die prematurely due to pollution. So it also smells like death.

I learned new terms like quality fade, quality erosion and quality manipulation, that are all rather self-explanatory, but scary that it’s actually a business tactic in China. Dealings with a shampoo and body wash importer reveal how this works. The first order or so that Midland’s client made were fine. All according to spec. Then, gradually, things changed. The shampoo’s ingredients were modified little by little till eventually, there was a problem because the shampoo would freeze when it got a bit cold.

As time went on the molds for the plastic bottles got thinner and thinner, till when squeezed they broke releasing the shampoo all over. The cardboard for the shipment got cheaper and cheaper till it would break in transit. With the shoddy bottles this could lead to a major mess. Retailers like Walgreen’s and CVS sure wouldn’t tolerate much of these hassles so the importer is sure to lose orders. Yet the factory management couldn’t see that the poor quality might effect their own business.

Once Midland went to tour a factory and everything seemed nice. Clean environment, busy bee workers. A few were rather clumsy like they were very new to the job. When Midland asked a few questions he was whisked out. Then they had him waiting. When he got bored he got up and walked around. Through the window he saw that the factory was completely empty. He’d asked about breaks and this wasn’t a break time. When the woman in charge saw him looking out the window, she freaked. It turned out that this was a big charade and that many new factories have showplace factories for the foreign clients. Some old ones do this too and the foreigners never see the real factory.

Every chapter is engaging and revealing. You’ll laugh, cry and think twice about buying so much from China. Interestingly, Midland points out how China is not learning to value quality as Japan and Korea did when they were at this stage of development. Something to ponder.

After working for a US community college in Guangzhou, I could see so many parallels. Chilling parallels.

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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in contemporary, non-fiction

 

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A Rabbit’s Eyes

Kenjiro Haitami’s A Rabbit’s Eyes is something of a modern Japanese Dickens story as Haitami focuses on some charming children from the wrong side of town and sympathetically reveals how worthwhile they are. I’m told that Haitami’s famous for writing about children. This novel focuses on the children who live by the town disposal (waste) plant.

At first, like the new teacher Ms. Kotani we feel a bit repulsed by the boy who collects flies and the whole area he lives in where ash from the incinerators fall from the sky like snow, except its all year round.

As Ms. Kotani decides to persevere, we come to know the children of the disposal plant, how bright and charming they are. Her colleague, the off-beat, unorthodox Mr. Adachi challenges Ms. Kotani to rethink her attitude and his presence and success with the students helps her to stay in the game.

Because she doesn’t let setbacks deter her, Ms. Kotani succeeds where others failed. She overcomes her sheltered upbringing to reach out to Tetsuzo, a silent boy who collects flies of all species and a girl who is developmentally delayed, who races out of class and wets her pants a lot. Ms. Kotani manages to get the student to help with Minako and they all become more compassionate as a result.

The first two thirds of the book had charm and while Haitami’s style doesn’t rival Dickens for imagination and I think his descriptions could be richer, more creative, he does manage to draw attention to a forgotten group. The last third of the book got bogged down in a bland blow by blow of a strike and protest of the moving of the disposal plant. While a writer can take on this topic, it’s hard to make it engaging to read. Still it’s a quick read that shows a different side of Japan.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in contemporary, fiction

 

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From The Writer’s Almanac

Lewis-Sinclair-LOC

Image via Wikipedia

I really liked this piece on Sinclair Lewis. Makes me want to read more of his books. (I did read Main Street.)

It’s the birthday of Sinclair Lewis (books by this author), born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885), author of Main Street(1920)and Babbitt (1922), and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

He left his hometown in Minnesota as soon as he could. He worked for newspapers and for publishing companies, wrote short stories for magazines, and wrote some potboiler novels and even a few serious novels, but none of his books did very well.

In 1920, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, who were editing the satirical magazine American Mercury, met up with 35-year-old “tall, skinny, paprika-headed” Sinclair Lewis, who was unknown in the writing world, at a mutual friend’s apartment. Lewis walked up to Mencken and Nathan, put his arms around their shoulders and tightly around their necks, and began yelling at the top of his voice that he was the best writer in the country and that he’d just written the best book in the country, to be published in a week — and being critics, the two of them should duly take note of this. He went on like this at high volume for about half an hour, and when Mencken and Nathan finally escaped, they went to a pub to decompress and concluded that he was an idiot. But Mencken read the book anyway, and was bowled over by it.

The book was Main Street (1920), about a fictional small town in Minnesota called Gopher Prairie, a place inhabited by “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”

Main Street was a huge sensation. No one had ever written such a scathing satire of small-town American life. Within nine months, it sold about 200,000 copies, and within a few years, the book had sold 2 million copies and he’d become a millionaire. In 1922, he published  Babbitt, which was also highly successful. He turned down the Pulitzer Prize that they tried to award him for his 1925 novelArrowsmith, and when the Swedish Academy called to inform him he was being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in literature, he thought the phone call was a prank.

Though Sinclair Lewis left Minnesota as a teenager and spent most of his life traveling or living in Washington, D.C., 16 of his 22 novels involved Midwestern towns or Midwestern protagonists. He said he found creative inspiration while “sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world — the Average Citizens of the United States.”

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2012 in American Lit, Writers' Almanac

 

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