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Safety When Driving: Wal-Mart, China, and the American Dream


Totally Awesome Picture of the Week 2.02

Finally, America’s own version of the Chinese fire drill is over. Close the doors. Time to move on. But in the wake of so many changes, as the anxiety and rage of all sides subsides, it is natural to wonder: what is America? What kind of a place riles itself up so much over choosing the right primary color? Of course, the question – what is this place? – is central to all the confusion. There is no shortage of ideas: it is Christian, or it is not; it is white, or it is not; it is a freedom-loving, can-do country where the American dream floats about like a gnat just waiting to be caught, a nation somehow wrenched from its true owners’ hands by people who have a different view of things, or it is not. But the defining game forestalls real progress; preoccupied with what it is, no one seems to care what the country is going to be.

Regarding that famous dream there are generally two accepted options – it is alive or it is dead. But dreams don’t die – people wake up, or they slip into comas. And dreams move on.

It is a matter of economics. Dreams are made, and someone needs to buy them. But if the consumers tighten their belts and instead focus on handmade, local fantasies, the product will have to go elsewhere. Some place where elections don’t knock things back to arguing over the blueprints every couple of years. Some place where real buildings are knocked down all the time and no one cares about blueprints.

Here it is. The American dream. Below that crowded parking lot, an easy escalator ride away, resides the symbolic giant either loathed or loved. Big blue. More than KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, or Starbucks, it somehow embodies that strange American way of life – whether it’s the one you’ve chosen or not. But more importantly, perhaps, is what lies in the foreground – not an old bicycle or a crowded bus or a black Volkswagen, but a genuine Recreational Vehicle, complete with a spare tire. The tire cover may not bear the image of America’s coveted bald eagle, but it is a majestic bird nonetheless.

Has China finally embraced America’s ways? Or is this the sign of ultimate theft? Perhaps the nation that for so long labored to manufacture the dream finally realized it could keep it for itself. Of course, there is the inevitable question: how do we know it isn’t a fake? They’ve done it with shoes, with DVDs, with all those other companies, so why not with this? Judging by the products on the shelves – chicken feet, skin cream, tea – the supercenter is no different from any other Chinese store, aside from the squads of employees in uniforms of unflattering bluejeans and red polo shirts. But the idea was always more important than the specifics, the cost more important than the thing. We could argue over what the American dream is supposed to look like, and even vote on it, but the truth is that dreams are shaped in the present by the minds imagining them.

Look again at the RV, sitting with such confidence, as if it were actually in a parking spot. Just imagine where it may have come from, where it could be heading – to endless highways and national parks, perhaps. To picturesque valleys and snowcapped mountains. Maybe not, but it is the possibility that matters. It is a dream, after all. And as that mobile dream-mobile passes us by, filled with cheap toys and shrink-wrapped chicken feet, and we sit brooding over who got shotgun and who got stuck with the middle seat, we will be left to contemplate that shiny white backside, along with its simple message: Safety When Driving. Platitudinous? Ironic? Some eastern wisdom? Maybe we ought to check our seat belts, just in case.

One Response to “Safety When Driving: Wal-Mart, China, and the American Dream”

  1. JadeDragon says:

    Clearly the American Dream has arrived when an RV can park at Wal-Mart in China. I’ve never seen an RV in China yet but what an appropriate place for the first one to be spotted in it’s native habitat. Wal-Mart in China sells plenty of “Made in China” stuff… wait, that is true of all Wal-Marts. In China though the Wal-Marts really cater to local tastes.

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