After I secured my contract in 2010 to research and write The Unfair Trade, my state of mind quickly shifted from elation to trepidation. I’d made a huge promise to Crown Publishing: I would research and write a book explaining the unfathomably complex global economy through the interwoven stories of people I’d never met in a dozen different countries. How on earth was I going to pull this off?
The place that really worried me was China. I’d worked and traveled around the world but had never set foot in the most populous country on earth. I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin or Cantonese, and unlike the network of friends and colleagues elsewhere in the world, I had no such contacts in the parts of China that I planned to visit. And yet the book would not be possible without a significant dose of material from that giant, daunting, complicated country. Without it there would be no discussion about global imbalances or of the human costs of the distortions in our global financial system.
I needn’t have worried. In the end, China gave me my best stories. I’d like to think that was because of my dogged and astute investigation, but I honestly think it had more to do with good fortune. In fact, reflecting on how my China leg played out I am forced to admit that luck plays a central role in all journalism.
In Chapter Two of The Unfair Trade, the path that took me to Joe Bonadio, my “Average Joe,” and then on to an assembly line in China before returning to a struggling manufacturing firm in New Hampshire was paved with pure serendipity. It began at an online debt counseling forum, where I posted an inquiry asking if anyone wanted to share with me the story of their troubles with subprime mortgages. One reader, who later confessed to a case of mistaken identity, responded by telling the entire group that I was a fraud! When I protested my innocence and professed my bona fides as a journalist, Mike Bovey from the Consumer Recovery Network spotted my frantic posts and contacted me. His advice: steer clear of these emotion-laden forums and instead follow up with people who’d gone through debt settlement. He introduced me to Joe, who lived in Mt. Vernon, NY. (Out of all possible locales in the United States, it was right next door to the town in which I lived.) The self-employed drummer-for-hire proved to be a colorful, animated interviewee who would open my eyes to the bizarre rituals of credit card debt settlements. And when he told me how he’d blocked out the banks’ incessant collection calls by attaching a “Caller ID with Ring Controller” to his phone, I now had the object with which I would trace my interviewee’s life to that of laborer in China. After Googling the model number I was thrilled to find that although it was made in China, the device was invented and marketed by a Chinese-born man living 30 miles north of me in Connecticut, a man who would open up a whole new, unexpected story line.
James Fang had no qualms about introducing me to the factory that made his device. And when he offered to take me there personally during his annual visit to Shanghai, we realized that we would be there at exactly the same time. Months later, we had a rendezvous in the city’s French Quarter and then took a drive out to the Dingling Electric Co.’s factory on the outskirts of town. On the way, James shared some information that was, to a guy like me, manna from heaven. The reason he’d left China three decades earlier was that in the early 1970s he had been condemned to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. More than a sideline issue, his poignant story fed straight into one of the book’s central themes, one that dealt with China’s journey from Maoism to Capitalism and with the Sino-U.S. relationship that grew out of that.
Then, at Dingling, we took a walk down an assembly line, which gave them the key image I needed from China: a line of young women, all dressed in lime green uniforms, hunched over pieces of electronic equipment, in this case a circuit board at different stages of production. The first woman I spoke to was tasked with cutting an inch off the two metal pins that stuck out of a tiny component known as an EMI suppression capacitor, a thousand of which sat in front of her. In those two snips, repeated over and over again, there lay a stark representation of one side of the globalized world’s division of labor, the side that performs the monotonous, unskilled work that Westerners no longer do and yet which is critical to the production of all the electronic items that fill those Westerners’ lives.
The string of good reporting luck did not end there, either. Back in the U.S. and in search of an American company that had lost out to competition with cheap Chinese goods, I was introduced to Electropac of Manchester, NH. It made printed circuit boards, the very product that the Shanghai assembly line was working on during my visit. Steven Boissoneau, the former Vice President and son of the founder who was laid off by his own father after a flood of cheap alternatives from Chinese companies took giant bites out of Electropac’s revenue, turned out to be an articulate spokesman for a dying tradition of American manufacturing.
There’s no doubt that luck played a big role in bringing these stories to me, though I suppose I can claim credit for recognizing them for what they were and 0for retelling them in a way that will, hopefully, resonate with readers. But the best lesson to take from this experience is that of the richness of all human experience. If you get people a context with which to talk about their lives, you’ll more often than not find they have an interesting and meaningful story to tell.