Imports & Exports

Andy Li

The current political/media state has brought to the world’s attention how incredibly dependent and interdependent we–along with millions of people–are on other country’s products and services. An Apple iPhone does not just magically make its way into our hands: the physical hardware comes from somewhere, along with the intelligence, coding, encryption, and software inside the device. And what about the box it is shipped in? Or the paper label on the box? Where was that paper made? What forest did it come from? Which tree? How long ago did this process begin?

While it would be nearly impossible–or at least require a tremendous amount of effort–to track down the answers to some of the above questions, it is interesting to think about the journey of a product in general, and how it came to sit on our countertop or coffee table.

It is not simply that a package was transferred from one shipping or postal facility to the next; rather, said item would never have arrived were it not for countless individuals working in fields, forests, stores, factories, and shipping plants. And let us not forget the computer programmers and analysts, or people who built the robots that control the automated assembly lines, or the advertisers who brought that product to your attention in the first place. Even though we may have extremely compartmentalized jobs, we–as humanity–have created a tremendously successful economic and global trading system worldwide. It is only now that we are understanding how dependent and interdependent this system is, on a very practical level.

To switch gears for a moment, if you have not yet heard of her, world-renowned minimalist and organizational guru Marie Kondo is an expert in tidying up, and coaches others on decluttering and letting go of the superfluous. While her life’s work deals with the physical, material world, she reminds us that a clean, tidy space leads to a clear mind and greater respect for our physical possessions. Here, she mentions in her book the Japanese concept of yaoyorozu no kami/ 八百万の神, or, ‘8,000,000 gods’. In her words:

[…] it occurred to me that Japanese people have treated material things with special care since ancient times. […] The Japanese people believed that gods resided not only in natural phenomena such as the sea and the land but also in the cooking stove and even in each individual grain of rice, and therefore they treated all of them with reverence.” (Spark Joy 277)

Kondo goes on to explain that “there are three facets to the spirit that dwells in material things: the spirit of the materials from which the things are made, the spirit of the person who made them, and the spirit of the person who uses them” (Spark Joy 277).

When combining these two thoughts–that of supply chain lines and the more metaphysical spirits of all involved in that process–I feel a deep respect and gratitude for not only all of my material possessions, but also for all human beings involved in the creation of my current physical reality.

These were the thoughts running through my mind this morning. While I did not go nearly this in-depth with third or fourth graders, I wanted you to know–on a more academic level–the thought-process behind our brief conversation re: imports and exports this morning.

In class, students were given a partially-filled in chart with the names of all Spanish-speaking countries, and images of stickers of fruits, vegetables, and clothing that were “Made in” or the “Product of” some of the 21 countries. They were encouraged to hang said chart on their refrigerators, and search for labels both at home and when out shopping to begin to understand where our food and things come from. Students seemed to enjoy checking their clothing tags, as I cleared up discrepancies such as, “No, Indiana and Indonesia are very different places!”

If you feel like a deep conversation about product supply lines and Shintoism’s 8,000,000 gods might resonate with your child, feel free to bring it up at home. Conversely, if you just need to assign them a project for when they are bored grocery shopping, a “detective–find out where X was made” game can be a fun start.

My goals for students were simply 1) to recognize how lucky we are; and 2) to think about an item–any item’s–journey and its point of origin. While several classes had a similar discussion about this back in the fall, I felt it was particularly relevant in light of today’s current news and global trading situation. I have been fielding some fears in class, and this is a nice way to redirect the conversation. As always, thanks for reading my two cents.

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ASIDE: If you would like to know more about Marie Kondo, I have memorized nearly verbatim both of her books, and am more than willing to share.