Made in USA

January 10, 1995|By Russell Baker

ALMOST EVERYTHING Americans buy is now made outside America. You knew that long ago. I knew it too, but I hadn't really believed it until various women took me shopping in December.

This meant killing time in women's wear divisions of assorted marts. What a learning experience these marts afforded. I'd heard that marts were taking over the world, but I had never thought enough about marts to ask, "What is a mart anyhow?"

Nothing beats on-site inspection. As a result I now know that a mart is a store selling goods made almost exclusively in Asia and Central America.

During the hours women friends were shopping for perfection in female apparel I studied labels on women's clothing. Almost all of it, I was stupidly shocked to note, was made in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Honduras, Brazil and Mexico.

One mart was selling women's wear "Made in the United Arab Emirates." Something of a shock, that one. The idea of poor Arab women toiling for sweat-tent wages to produce clothes for American women clashed with my most ignorant and firmly held stereotypes of life in the Arab emirates.

Camel saddles, yes, yes. Had I wandered into that great mart's Gifts for the Guy Who's Got It All department and noticed a camel saddle for sale, I would probably have thought, "I'll bet that's made in the United Arab Emirates." But women's wear?

I, with my Western male white despicable arrogance, have ranted for years about American schoolchildren being dumb about geography. Yet all that time I'd been the true geography ignoramus, a dolt who didn't even know that the United Arab Emirates produced women's ready-to-wear.

Even more astounding was a label saying "Made in the Northern Mariana Islands," because that's where the B-29s that carried the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were based in 1945.

How stiff and stuffy a mind can become with a little age on it. I confess it: I recoiled from the idea of filmy women's apparel being produced in such nasty atomic ambience.

This is unfair to the Mariana Islands, of course, which are &L populated by Chamorros, Carolinians and Micronesians who had nothing whatever to do with atomic bombings. In fact, since the Marianas comprise a commonwealth of the United States and its residents are American citizens, its products were among the few examples of mart-quality women's wear that could truthfully be labeled "Made in USA."

We are talking here of how easy it is to shock a smugly uninformed mind that has a high opinion of its quality. Doubtless you, reader, have always known that those sturdy he-man outdoors garments advertised in that swell catalog of rugged stuff for rugged outdoors guys is all made in Asia.

Not I. I had always assumed it was laboriously hand-stitched by aged Indian craftsmen working with ancient tribal tools passed down to them from long-dead generations of caribou trackers and laborious hand-stitchers.

What a blow to this romantic vision of American commerce when I wandered into mountains of this very stuff piled high in one of those all-under-one-roof-mall marts. Every bit had been made in Asia, probably by the same hard-worked, nickel-an-hour laborers who turned out the women's ready-to-wear.

Thanks to long exposure to journalism, mine is a mind that does not bruise easily, no matter how grave the insult. My friend Clark's is made of nobler stuff.

He just telephoned angrily about a pot he bought at an outlet mart. Clark was not enticed by the Asian threads in which the mart specialized, but he couldn't resist the pot because it bore the "Revere" label, suggesting an old Boston tradition of workmanship. Back home, inspecting it, he found "Made in Korea."

"I feel insulted," he tells me, swearing to return to the mart and do something rude.

Poor fellow. Soon we will all here be Made in Korea, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka . . .

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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