My wife and a good friend recently went to Waffle House, a favorite of people in the American south since 1955 — both retirees and blue collar workers looking for a cup’a joe as well as late night high school and college partiers looking for some after-hours carbs to offset the evening’s, shall we say, intake. That is, the stools at its counters strike me as populated by a curiously inter-generational mix of people who wear their trucker’s hats ironically and those who wear them just because they do. And although I wasn’t there for breakfast I got a mug out of the deal.
A mug made in China.
So my question is: how far can one stretch the presumed authenticity of an item before something snaps?
I queried my class this semester about this very topic and although the room was filled with people who held the franchise in pretty high esteem as embodying something specific to their experience coming of age in the U.S., none of them seem bothered by the stamp that appears on the bottom of that mug. Imported consumer goods, though once signifying (for those old timers at Waffle House, perhaps) poor quality in the local imagination, are now (for the hipsters, maybe) a fact of life in North America (and in some cases — e.g., cars — likely signify for some people superior quality, despite various “Buy American” campaigns over the past few decades).
So just how far can you stretch a supposedly authentic thing before it’s judged a fake?
Is it as simple as saying that so long as the “Made Somewhere Else” stamp is discrete and on the bottom (“out of sight, out of mind”), so long as the diner mug has that old school hour-glass curve and the right heft to it, then everything’s ok (if so, then we do indeed judge books by their covers)? Or do we all ironically recognize that American-ness (much like self-identity being defined elsewhere, by others — by what we’re not), is just as manufactured as anything else — and lately a lot of that manufacturing is happening in China, and we’re buying it with a lot of loans from China too?
And, while I’m asking questions, just what do all those guys with the un-ironic ball caps think of the kids at the counter drinking coffee with their truckers caps carefully tilted at just the right jaunty angle?