Imagine living a month without the ubiquitous 'Made In China' label on anything you purchase.
Now imagine that month is December.
One All-American family accepts this challenge from Chinese immigrant Tom Xia, who moved to the US as a boy and wanted to explore the material relationship between his new home and his native one.
The rules: One family must remove everything made in China from their home (temporarily) while not purchasing anything new with that label for an entire holiday season.
There is comedy and tragedy, but more than that as questions of family, success, and consumerism swirl around the idea of personal identity.
By Alicia Dwyer
One of the first things that attracted me to this story is its comedy.
I have worked on films dealing with serious subjects like the Holocaust, HIV/AIDS, bullying, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While I loved working on those films, I also found myself hungering for humour.
So, I was delighted when my brother and filmmaking partner, Michael Dwyer, introduced me to his friend Tom Xia. Tom made me laugh and when he told me about his big idea to challenge American families to survive Christmas without Chinese products, I thought: this is something worth following.
The concept touches on fascinating issues – globalisation, the intersection of cultures, and shifts in our imaginings of the 'American Dream' – yet Tom’s youthful pop-culture-inspired impulse to challenge his neighbours was instinctive and playful.
Soon, we found ourselves filming the improbable relationship between two families living side-by-side but worlds apart.
Following Tom and his 'Xmas without China' challenge also gave me an opportunity to focus on my own backyard. Immigration has transformed the suburb in which my own dad grew up; in recent years, Arcadia, California has become half Chinese American. Having witnessed my grandmother’s conflicting feelings about the neighbourhood changing – as a resident but also as a real estate agent – I saw in Tom’s story a way to explore some of those tensions from the perspective of someone who is both a Chinese immigrant and an American.
I wanted to capture how Tom experiences these worlds as both an insider and an outsider, treading lightly in the footsteps of great American humourists, engaging his neurotic experience of American life with a self-aware, self-deprecating, earnestness.
When I met his parents and the Jones family, who took up his challenge, I saw an opportunity to focus on these two families and make a movie in which both the Asian American characters and the white characters can move beyond stereotypes with the force of their humanity that vérité filmmaking can, in moments, reveal.
I am deeply grateful to both the Xia and Jones families for allowing us into their lives, and for taking us to unexpected places.
One of the most intriguing places that the story takes us is the intersection of consumerism and citizenship in American life.
"Who are we if we don’t make anything anymore?" Evelyn Jones asks Tom. Bravely taking on the challenge to empty their house of Chinese stuff and to not buy any more during a Christmas season, the Jones family experiences the sheer material difficulty of living without so many everyday things.
This is a considerable change for them, highlighting our dependence on cheaply made stuff. But what particularly strikes me is that the Joneses’ process also illuminates spiritual aspects of our consumer-driven life. If we can’t put up Christmas lights and buy presents, how do we celebrate Christmas?
Meanwhile Tom’s family, in seeking their American dream – to build a Colonial style home and even decorate their first enormous Christmas tree – are finding themselves embroiled in similar questions as they try in some ways to keep up with the Joneses.
When Evelyn Jones asks Tom if he’s an American citizen, his crisis around his identity brings together for me the material and spiritual questions, like what does it mean to be American in a culture where, as economist Raj Patel suggests, we are often encouraged to think of ourselves less as citizens and more as consumers?
I am deeply grateful to my team, including cinematographer/co-producer Michael Dwyer, co-producer/editor Juli Vizza and producer/main character Tom Xia, for taking up these threads with me to tell the story of Xmas without China.