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Where Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field – Travels Through the New China Paperback – 6 May 2008
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W hen Joe Bennett bought a five-pack of 'Made in China' underpants in his local New Zealand hypermarket for $8.59, he wondered who on earth could be making any money, let alone profit, from the exchange. How many processes and middlemen are involved? Where and how are the pants made? And who decides on the absorbent qualities of the gusset?This book tells you all you need to know -- in fact, probably more -- about this mystery of global commerce. Leaving his supermarket trolley behind Joe embarks on an odyssey to the new factory of the world, China, to trace his pants back to their source. Along the way he discovers the extraordinarily balanced and intricate web of contacts and exchanges that makes global trade possible -- and rapidly elevating China to the status of world economic superpower. He also grapples with chopsticks, challenges his own prejudices and marvels at the contrasts in one of the world's oldest, but fastest changing, societies.Funny, wise and insightful, it is another wonderful journey from the author of A Land of Two Halves and Mustn't Grumble.
About the Author
Joe Bennett was born in Brighton and since leaving Cambridge University has taught English in a variety of countries including Canada, Spain and New Zealand. He lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.
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i really enjoyed this book . not only informative but really funny.
i bought it becuase i enjoyed the authors other book about travelling around New Zealand called a land of 2 halves. both well written and very enjoyable.
"Each bunny-tail tuft of cotton, each boll, feels similar to cotton wool ... At the heart of each boll lies a seed about the size of an olive stone, detectable by touch but invisible in its cocoon of thin white fibers. Such fibers became my underpants. And I sense that I have got back to where I wanted to get to when I bought my underpants in Christchurch. Here in this yard is the raw material, the point where it all begins." - Joe Bennett, in WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROM
The purchase of a pair of underpants for $2.99 leads columnist/travel writer Joe Bennett to research and write about the nuts and bolts of the making of this piece of apparel, from raw cotton to thread to cloth to completed garment (with elastic waist band). Joe does this essentially on an impetuous whim despite the initial lukewarm response to his idea from his publisher. Happily for the reader, Bennett forged ahead.
Joe's quest for enlightenment takes him to Shanghai, to several cities in the east of China reasonably close to Shanghai, to Urumqi in China's far northwest at Asia's exact center, and to Bangkok, Thailand.
Most of the book is about China as the world's emerging manufacturing colossus of Stuff.
As a medium for Bennett's dry wit and perceptive ability, WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROM is every bit as informative and entertaining as his other travel essays, e.g. Mustn't Grumble and A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand. And there's recorded one poignant incident that should be familiar to every pet owner (of which I am one):
"And then my dog Jessie starts to die. She's thirteen ... The day before I leave (for Bangkok) I dig Jessie's grave high on the hill behind my house in the shade of a walnut tree. And I give a friend sealed instructions on how to bury her. On my last evening she's weak as water. I hope she'll die. She doesn't. When I have to leave for the airport in the morning she is lying on the deck. I kneel beside her and stroke her and kiss the top of her head. Her muzzle is gray but the fur of her ears is as silky as when I first stroked it thirteen years ago. In those years she and I have walked thousands of miles ... I say goodbye, kiss her again, walk away, look back and she has turned her head to watch me go. I go. I go to Bangkok. To find the source of the rubber in a pair of cheap underpants."
This passage almost reduced me to tears.
Come September of this year, Troy Parfitt's book Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas will be released. His travels in the People's Republic of China (PROC) led him to declare upon leaving it:
"Without question, I had met some nice people and had experienced a few gratifying travel moments, but I was weary of the constant harassment and annoyances ... Two months in China had been enough to cure me of whatever curiosity I had had about seeing it."
Conversely, Bennett's experience, though fraught with its own set of petty annoyances and his recognition of the racism the ethnic Chinese display towards internal minorities (such as the Uighurs), elicited a very different reaction about the PROC:
"Countless Chinese people have been good to this particular big-nose Westerner. They've made me smile. I like it here."
A reader of both books might be left to wonder what it is in the personalities of the authors that led them to reach very different conclusions. I suspect the truth about the PROC is somewhere between the two extremes. It usually is when it comes to reconciling extremes.
For me, the bottom line of any well-written travel essay is whether or not it instills in me a deep desire to visit (or not) the place described. Since I've already been to Hong Kong, which I loved, Parfitt's book caused me to vow never to visit any other part of the PROC; it was so consistently uncomplimentary of the place. Bennett's book brings me back perhaps halfway. Sure, I'd give Shanghai a go.
I've gotten to the point where, as with travel essayist Bill Bryson, I'm prepared to read anything Bennett pens. I guess that reaction from anyone could be considered by any author a measuring stick of success.
Joe Bennett has hit the nail directly on the head about what makes the Chinese tick, and he harboured many pre conceived ideas about the Chinese before his trip, and found to his astonishment that he was wrong on so many fronts. The Chinese are a great race of people, much more open and fun than you would ever imagine and Joe talks you through his discovery with skill and incredible wit. I found myself reading out loud long pasaages to my wife, who is pleased that she can now read it for herself as I polished it off in three days flat.
If you like Bill Bryson, you should love this, because in my mind, Joe has much more talent and so much funnier. I have now ordered many extra copies to give to friends who have visited me and those that are thinking about it. As well as ordering some of Joes other titles.
Well done Joe, you have described perfectly what life is like living in the wonderful middle Kingdom. Its a book I have enjoyed so much, I could start right at the beginning and read all over again.
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