Every Friday Afghan merchants gather at a secure section on the perimeter of my base for a bazaar that offers a variety of wares: wool carpets, antique rifles, tailored clothing, marble flatware, Afghan hats, bootleg DVDs of American movies, etc. Amahkbaru sells pistol holsters and protective vests at his stall. I met him the week I arrived in Kabul when I was searching for a holster better suited for my body armor than the Army-issue item I received. During the price negotiation segment of that encounter (“My friend, $30 is special price and only for you!”), Amahkbaru let fly that he has five children and he would trade anything in his stall for a bottle of good American shampoo. (non sequitur you say? Perhaps. But Afghans often employ language and reason a bit differently from what the Western mind accepts.) He claimed that only Chinese-produced hair care products are available to most Afghans, and then he added what I believe where both Dari and Pashtu expletives as a verbal rating of the quality of those Chinese toiletries.
You will notice in the photograph that Amahkbaru has a beautiful head of hair, full of curls and bounce. I could not let him suffer any further ignominy due to dirty limp locks, so I rushed to the base PX, purchased a bottle of Pert shampoo for $3, and then traded it for a $15 holster. I tried to explain to Amahkbaru that Pert is shampoo plus conditioner and perhaps worthy of two holsters per bottle, but I’m not sure he understands the product’s double-action. I got only one holster. Regardless, he was thrilled with the transaction, as was I. I now visit with him weekly at the bazaars and his hair looks terrific. (Also, he reports that his children are doing well.)
Before you draft your email berating me for taking advantage of Amahkbaru with the exchange, I would like to emphasize that these Afghan merchants are crafty fellows and would NEVER make a trade or sale if they suspected they were not coming away with a profitable deal. The items in Amahkbaru’s stall are over-priced and he knows it. He also knows that most Americans will not barter for 30 minutes for a $3 reduction in price. Amahkbaru clearly values American shampoo as several of my friends, on my advice, have swapped bottles for holsters. In fact, two weeks ago I saw that he had at least three bottles of the stuff stashed underneath his stall, and I asked him why he was stockpiling. “Save for the future,” he said,”and my wife now want the shampoo before even the dollar when I am home from business.” No non sequitur there.
A bit more about Chinese-manufactured toiletries
I have heard several Afghans offer unsolicited commentary on the substandard quality of most Chinese products. Many futurists predict that the next 100 years will be the “Asian century” led by China as that country of 1.3 billion people will leverage its population and resources to become an economic superpower. But I have some (unsolicited) marketing advice for the whole of Chinese industry: You might want to implement some quality control. The future doesn’t bode well for you if low-income people in developing countries shun your (markedly inferior) products. I would imagine that many Chinese themselves are avoiding Chinese products. A Malaysian Chinese friend of mine recently told me that he avoids purchasing anything made in China, and that he resents the reactive "smear campaign" against honest, hard-working Chinese people worldwide that these cheap exports promote. People around the world, both rich and poor, are beginning to prove that a low price and availability do not necessarily stoke a desire to purchase. Add to that recent media coverage of potentially harmful Chinese exports such as toys doused with lead-soaked paint, incendiary batteries, tainted pet food and structurally unsound bicycle frames, and you get the impression that the label “Made in China” is becoming the standard for “dangerous and defective.”
Many Afghans believe that Chinese companies and plants are able to manufacture quality items, but that international business executives simply choose to dump inferior products in Afghanistan as they consider the Afghans either too unsophisticated to recognize the low quality or too desperate to clamor for anything better. Also, the typical Afghan has very limited spending power and considers a simple bar of soap a luxury item, no matter what the quality and price. Chinese know-how and reputation also withstood a public beating here recently when a building that a Chinese firm was refurbishing suddenly collapsed, killing more than a dozen Afghan workers. The firm and/or the Chinese government are compensating for the tragedy by building a brand new hospital in Kabul, a generous and thoughtful contribution; but I wonder how many Afghans will be comfortable heading there for medical care once the facility is finished?
Where’s my stuff made?
The Afghans and their complaints about Chinese toiletries prompted me to investigate the origin of my own personal hygiene products. Currently I have no gripe with the performance of my Edge Pro Gel Vitamin Enriched Sensitive Skin shaving cream or Axe Stimulating Guava and Volcanic Stone Extract shower gel, but I encountered significant difficulty when I tried to determine the locations of the production plants. Not one of my toiletries stated on the label the product’s place of origin. Several included the product’s US distributor’s name, which I found very suspicious as the implication is that Desenex foot powder and Colgate toothpaste are imported into the US from some undisclosed location. Two products listed websites for reference, so I reviewed company information on Listerine and the aforementioned Axe body gel to find that those sites, too, failed to identify manufacturing sites. (I also read nothing on the benefit of cleaning your body with fruit extract and rocks belched from the Earth in a volcanic explosion.) I was ready to contact the Food and Drug Administration to inquire about regulations for disclosure on US products until I found, in a self-directed internet search, that almost all Listerine is produced in Pennsylvania.
I’m not sure why Pfizer, the manufacturer of Listerine, doesn’t highlight the fact that its mouthwash is made in the USA. I haven’t heard anything negative about Pennsylvania exports recently; and if the Democratic primary candidates can be believed, the people of the Keystone State are some of the most-hard working and honest folks around. Real solid citizens. Listerine is pretty much synonymous with clean fresh breath. Why wouldn’t Pfizer want the public speaking of Pennsylvania mouthwash just as they refer to German engineering and French cuisine?
Perhaps a few of my bathroom products are made in China. If so, I give a segment of Chinese manufacturing high marks for quality and consistent performance. My grade would be even higher if I could find Kung Pao-flavored toothpaste and Sweet and Sour dental floss. The Chinese certainly produce quality food. Even the neutered Chinese entrees typically found in American restaurants taste pretty good, if only faintly similar to the original. If China can lift its other, newer exports to the same standard, it just might end the 21st Century with another dynasty.