The Shanghai Residency Pt-2 : Finding Tom Purcell

Tom Purcell joined Peace Corps at age 23. It was the summer of 1965 and his first assignment was to go work in Bassi, a small village in North India, about 20 miles east of Jaipur. The villagers, none of whom spoke English, took him for a British when they saw him the first time.  Sensing a faint resentment that had built for him, the headmaster of the local school explained it to people that he was from “umreeka”, a different country that was also a British colony once. A lot of people then didn’t know about the US and then he would  make a reference to Hiroshima. I personally find it amusing how those people knew about Japan when they didn’t know the US but that’s a separate discussion altogether.

Many years later, in the 1990s, I spent my early teenage years in Bassi. It was then I came to know about Tom Purcell. I also came to know that my father who was a college student back then often played the role of his translator. He was in fact 1 of the 2 college students in the whole village who spoke some English and thus being given the responsibility was inevitable. Tom lived in the village for about 2 years and worked tirelessly during his stint. People, who knew him, remembered him fondly – he’d helped start scholarship program at the local school, helped set up first public lavatories in the village, and most importantly, he was master at consensus building for solving problems compared to the other “foreigners” before him who came to rule, always used force and often guns.

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Review: The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy (Part 1)

In addition to “A History of the World in Six Glasses”, “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy” by Pietra Rivoli was included in the Semester 1 reading materials that the class received in late July.  Interestingly enough, the inclusion of the book was a “mistake” in that the material isn’t going to be covered during the London residency. But knowing that I’d eventually need to read the book, I figured this week was as good a time as any!

The front cover of the book sets a very high standard of what to expect from the material contained inside:

…has all the makings of an economics classic. – New York Times

After reading the about the life story of the author’s T-shirt, I have to strongly disagree. This book is no “Wealth of Nations” or “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, but rather a collection of seemingly disjoint anecdotes spanning history, politics, sociology and (sometimes) economics.  Worse yet, the author’s references to the changes since the first edition of the book felt too self-aware; by reading the second edition, I felt that I missed out on the evolution of thought since the first edition. Instead, the reader is just presented with two conflicting ideas in summary form, without necessarily developing whether the current thought improves upon the ideas stated in the first edition.

I think this book suffers from one major flaw: in trying to discuss all sides of the story without ‘demonizing’ any one group or taking too strong of an opinion, the reader never has the motivation to move on to the next page.  If you do decide to turn to the next page, the topic will likely have changed completely, leaving the story hard to follow. Overall, the book continually left me wondering “Why I am still reading this?” If the answer to that question was anything other than “for class”, I’d have stopped after the first half.

With all that negativity out of the way, there were a few interesting things that I learned from this book that made the overall read worthwhile.  The first half of the book, roughly covering growing a boll of cotton to making shirts to textile quotas, wasn’t particularly interesting, mainly because it was more focused on the government influence in the marketplace.  More political science than economics. However, the second half of the book covered what happens to a t-shirt at the end of its “first life” when it is donated to charity, which to me was a whole lot more interesting to read about.  It never occurred to me that a donation to Goodwill or the Salvation Army in the U.S. really isn’t that useful in terms of clothing Americans.  I’ll write about that in part two of my review.