SXSW Review: Xmas Without China


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I remember seeing an MTV news segment back in the early 1990s about the difficulties of avoiding products made in China, back when the Free Tibet was the pop culture cause du jour. The difficulty is now a near impossibility today. Just check the tags on the products around you, and just remember that most of the electronics you’re using at least have components made in China.

Manufacturing in China is kind of a hub for any discussion about the nature of globalization. You can approach the matter from different directions: ecological impact (e.g., pollution, particularly from coal), ethical concerns (e.g., the Apple/Foxconn factory issue), and economic realities of the 21st century (e.g., the rise of the Chinese middle class).

What Alicia Dwyer does in Xmas Without China provides other unique ways to approach the matter, though at a micro level and through the interaction between strangers who get ot know each other through odd circumstances. It all starts with a challenge: go the month of December (including Christmas) without buying or using any products made in China.

Xmas Without China Trailer

Xmas Without China
Director: Alicia Dwyer
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

The source of this impossible dare is Tom Xia. Born in China, his family immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. Culturally, Tom is somewhere in between, which seems to be one of those situations familiar to many Asian Americans living in California. After several news stories pop up about unsafe products being made in China, Tom decides to ask people around Arcadia, CA to try to go without Chinese-made products for the Christmas season. There’s no prize involved, it’s just a matter of accomplishing something too difficult to achieve.

And yet, a family does take the challenge: the Jonses, your average upper-middle-class suburban household. Not only is the name so quintessentially American, Tim and Evelyn are a slice of modern Americana: two kids (a girl and a boy), religious, caring. Watching the film, they remind me a lot of households I knew living in San Jose and San Diego. As they go through their home suddenly origin-conscious, they start to realize just how much of what they own has a “Made in China” label.

All of the goods made in China get locked into storage container in their front yard. Their house is left dim (light bulbs all made in China), mostly toyless, de-Xbox’d, and, worst of all, without a coffee machine. Just the act of removal would probably cause most people to abandon this challenge, but the Joneses somehow persist. It’s hilarious to see them try, and heartening as well since they’re such likable people. Tom checks in periodically to see how the challenge is going, and it’s the dynamic between Tom and the Joneses that enlivens the events of Xmas Without China.

Meanwhile in another part of Arcadia, Tom and his family are building a new house. It’s the culmination of a dream from Tom’s parents, and the sort of thing that typifies the immigrant experience (Asian or otherwise) in America: to work hard and to make it. Tom notes how the suburbs of Arcadia are dotted with both white families and Asian families, and how there’s a real mix of the cultures even though there are identifiers for the two groups. The dream house being built is comfortably in the Asian mode, though interestingly, Tom and his family are themselves product of different cultures, cultural ideas, and cultural aspirations.

Exploring these parallel stories, Dwyer winds up doing something a bit more interesting than just looking at the larger macro-level concerns about foreign goods and what they mean for the world. Ostensibly the film is about products made in China and how inexpensive they are, something made very apparent when the Jonses look for Christmas presents and gawp at the price tags. Tim even struggles to find a place that sells Christmas lights not made in China. Meanwhile, Tom’s family tries to decorate their home like the suburban lightshows common in most affluent suburbs at Christmas time.

Midway through the brief film, I started to notice a new kind of focus that had really been central to the movie all along. Rather than just looking at products, Xmas Without China is an exploration of cultural identity, family, and what it means to be American. I think what’s effective about this is the unwillingness of the Joneses or Tom’s family to pull out a soapbox to espouse their personal politics. There are a few exchanges between Tim and Tom that could have triggered major political arguments if either were tactlessly adamant about their stances. Instead we watch polite disagreements between neighbors who may not agree all the time but always want to understand where someone is coming from.

It’s these interpersonal interactions that highlight a greater sense of community and kinship rather than difference, which in a lot of ways is an example of the best aspects of the American melting pot. It could even be a small scale version of globalization at its best. In a roundabout way, the focus on the interpersonal/small scale also highlights the best aspects about Christmas — a truism, maybe, but somehow it’s not trite given the people involved. It’s so earnest.

Xmas Without China is by no means a comprehensive overview of the issue — I can’t remember any major mentions of worker’s rights, pollution, or outsourcing, let alone reasons why people would avoid buying Chinese products that go beyond safety concerns — but it never sets out to be one. The documentary presents a snapshot of what it means to live in a globalized world and what it means to be a product (both a person and a consumer good) of a globalized world in America. Think of Xmas Without China as the larger issues of production and culture filtered through a photo album, a home video, and a newsletter during the holidays — we see it from the ground and the porch and the family room.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.