The Chinese impact on America goes far beyond “Made in China” Mickey Mouse magnets and Christmas toys. Baby boomers are adopting Chinese children. College students are signing up for Chinese language classes in record numbers. Young and old are taking martial arts courses.
Yet Americans seem blind to China’s influence here - two-thirds say China has little or no relevance to their lives.
Aware or not, Americans stoke their fires with iron pokers, put their imported sweaters on padded hangers and outfit their children in Halloween bunny costumes - all made in China.
Western culture is flowing slowly into China, but China’s imprint on Main Street USA is growing fast.
The evidence is greatest at the store.
Americans can buy everything from the $1.67 Mickey Mouse refrigerator magnet on up. A red-white-and-black, battery-operated lady bug body massager made in China goes for $7.97. A five-piece wrought iron fireplace set is $39.97.
“Jungle Book” audio, video and book gift packs for kids are made in China. So are a pair of women’s tennis shoes. And bright yellow plastic boots for girls priced at $12.97.
While China has restricted the import of many U.S. products, Chinese shipments to the United States in August hit a record $5.9 billion, led by a surge in shipments of toys and Christmas decorations. Half the toys sold in America come from China.
American anxiety about the imbalance between what America sells China and what China sells the United States is one thing President Clinton will discuss with visiting China President Jiang Zemin.
It’s an issue that has upset organized labor. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile employees says apparel manufacturers are using low-wage Chinese workers who are denied basic labor rights.
But most Americans think they are not affected by what’s going on in China.
When asked what impact Asia has on their lives, 61 percent of 2,000 adults surveyed last month by the Pew Research Center said “not very much” or “none.”
“Asia is the blind spot in the knowledge base of Americans. They know more about Europe and Latin America,” says Esther Chow, sociology professor of Asian and Chinese studies at American University in Washington.
This is changing.
The estimated 801,000 Chinese living in America represent the third largest group of foreign-born residents, behind Mexico and the Philippines.
The State Department reports that since 1985 there have been 10,543 Chinese babies adopted by Americans - such as Janet Bass and her husband Elliot Staffin of Rockville, Md.
They adopted from China partly because they were dismayed by the country’s policy limiting most families to one child, which has led some Chinese couples to reject baby daughters in favor of boys.
“She is a perfect joy,” Bass says about her toddler named Alison who was found abandoned in a public place and taken to a police station. “We tell her ‘The Alison Story’ about this little girl in China and this mommy and daddy in the United States who wanted a baby. She says ‘Tell it to me again. Tell it to me again.”’
The Chinese influx is seen on college campuses as well. Although the number is slightly down in recent years, nearly 40,000 international students from China were enrolled at U.S. colleges in the 1995-96 academic year, trailing only the number from Japan.
As Chinese students struggle with English, U.S. students are signing up in greater numbers to learn Chinese. Enrollment rose by 36 percent, to 26,471 students, between 1990 and 1995, the Modern Language Association of America reports.
Americans also are signing up for martial arts classes, popularized by kung fu kings like Bruce Lee.
“There is no other part of the Chinese culture that is as popular as tai chi for health and exercise and wushu (kung fu) for discipline,” says Anthony Goh, president of the USA Wushu Kung Fu Federation.