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Original Essays | March 6, 2014 2 comments
I have this recurring nightmare that my mother is alive. She never died. I've made a terrible mistake. I have to call my editor. We can't publish... Continue »
Author's Reflectionsby Pietra Rivoli
I found that all over the world people like to be able to explain things to professors. It must be some kind of perverse thrill. Whether I was at a Texas cotton farm or an African T-shirt stall, people wanted me to understand their place in the global economy, wanted to explain to me how their small microcosm of globalization worked, they wanted me to understand how complicated, how hard, but also how interesting it was to face their challenges each day..
As I traveled around the world doing interviews for the book, I heard a lot of contrary views, opinions about cotton subsidies and trade policy, about China and about job losses. But I didn't meet any villains. There are no bad guys in my T-shirt's life story. Every business, every entrepreneur, every politician involved in my T-shirt's life was just trying to make their way in a competitive market, a market that often changes under their feet.
I wrote this book through tumultuous and often tragic times, through 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, through terrorist bombs in Europe and through a bitter contested election in America. But as I traveled from a Texas cotton farm to a Chinese factory, from Washington bureaucrats to a third-generation used-clothing dealer descended from Jewish immigrants, to Muslim importers in East Africa, I kept marveling at how well everyone got along. While bombs were dropping, these Muslims, Jews, blacks, and whites stayed friends because of my T-shirt. The yarn and cloth and clothing bound them together, world trade bound them together. They had no choice but to keep talking to one another. The little guys got along just fine while the big guys were fighting. Whatever the debates about trade, it was clear to me after my travels that trade is very clearly an instrument of peace and understanding. I feel privileged that everyone I wrote about is my friend now, and I hope the readers like all of the players in my T-shirt's life story as much as I do.
I have been teaching in a business school for a long time, so I know how easy it is to bore people with talk of trade deficits, or competition, or unemployment. But everyone loves a good story. Some business professors avoid stories in their teaching and research, concerned that stories lack credibility or intellectual heft. But as long as we do our best to tell the whole story, not simply anecdotes selected to prove our point, stories can go a long way in helping us to understand the complexities of trade and international business. I hope my T-shirt's story has done just that.
As a first time book author, I have had a few "pinch myself" exciting moments since the book was released. The first was when I learned that Time was reviewing the book, and the second was when I picked up the phone and found NPR international business correspondent Adam Davidson on the line. He loved the book, he said, and wanted to make an NPR series out of it. And then he gave me the highest compliment for a professor when he said the book had changed the way he thought about globalization, and even how he would report on international business in the future.
The National Public Radio series came together over a month or so, as Adam and I traveled back to many of the places that I had written about, back to Texas cotton farms and Chinese factories. On the radio, we had just twenty-four minutes to condense my work of five years and travels over thousands of miles, just twenty-four minutes to tell the biography of this most complicated simple thing. As I listened to the background sounds that Adam recorded for the radio series tractor noises, sewing machine noises, cotton gin noises, and the creepy silence of a padlocked T-shirt factory in Alabama I realized that I had never thought about the sounds that globalization makes. If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear it all working.