WASHINGTON Parents who are sticklers for buying American may have a rough time as they whisk through toy stores this holiday season.
Play-Doh, Etch A Sketch, Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars: one icon of American childhood fantasies after another is made in China.
''Almost everything here is made somewhere else,'' lamented Ervin Goodall, cruising down the aisles of a toy department in search of gifts for his grandchildren.
The ''made in USA'' label is found mainly on board games, but even that is a multinational crapshoot. The Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit game is American-made but with Chinese dice.
Buying American may make people feel good, but experts say it's often an afterthought.
''They say they care, but they just want a good deal,'' said Sidney Weintraub, an international trade specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent Washington research organization.
It's what's under the tree and price that count most.
''When I shop and see something I like, I get it,'' said Goodall, 54, of Washington, eyeing a made-in-China ''poseable raging Hulk.''
''I consider myself patriotic,'' he said, ''but I don't worry about where it's made.''
Americans' appetite for imported goods reached a new high in October, as the U.S. trade deficit with China climbed to a record $13.57 billion.
That same month, overall demand for imported toys and games went up $36 million, to $2 billion. At least 75 percent of toys sold in the United States are foreign-made, and about two-thirds of the imports come from China, according to the Toy Industry Association. Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and Canada are among other leading suppliers.
Many of the Chinese-made toys are products of American companies, which go to China and elsewhere in search of cheaper labor and other essentials.
Darrell Jones of Arlington, Va., pushing a shopping cart overflowing with toys at Target, said he wasn't surprised that most items he set out to buy his 3-year-old daughter were Chinese made a Magna bike and magic screen learning pad from Playskool.
''If it works, I have no problem with it being made in China,'' said Jones, 43.
After all, he said, ''Nothing is all-America anymore.
Justin Fruehauf, 27, another Arlington parent, said he studies consumer reports and is tenacious about buying safe and quality toys.
''It's important for people to keep buying American,'' he said, adding that he'd be willing to pay $5 extra for an American-made item over a comparable Chinese-made one.
Despite the foreign dominance of toy manufacturing, Americans still work in the business 32,400 in 2000 and many of the leading companies are American.
In the aisles at Target, the spread of multinational toy making is evident, with some parts made in America and the rest in other countries.
Pictionary, for example, has a timer made in Taiwan, playing pieces and dice made in the Britain and the rest from America.
Scrabble is labeled American-made, but its racks, tiles and letter bags are from China. That pretty much leaves the board and packaging as a U.S. product.
Taking a bath with Crayola is another worldly experience. The Bath Tub Finger Paints are from China but the Bath Tub Tints fizzy watercolor tablets are from the United States.
Indonesian labor produces Swan Lake Barbie and Happy Birthday Barbie. The plastic Volvo that carries around her friends Midge and Alan is from China.
Irene Johnson, 28, of Washington, will do almost anything to please her 8-year-old daughter this Christmas.
''I would like to buy something made in America to help our economy, but generally, I don't look,'' she said. ''When you're trying to please a child, you don't want to be the Grinch, to be the bad parent on the block.''
Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the United States remains relatively strong in certain high-tech fields, in advanced electronics, in science-based industries like chemicals and aviation.
He said China has not displaced U.S. manufacturing nearly as much as it has pushed other countries from the U.S. market. Most of China's gains in the first half of the 1990s came at the expense of Taiwan and other such manufacturing nations, not U.S. producers.
The areas where Chinese exports to the United States are concentrated are on labor-intensive markets: brooms, garments, shoes, toys. These are industries the United States has exited, Noland said.
On the Net:
Toy Industry Association: http://www.toy-tia.org/
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