I was sucked into the Vortex gift shop one Sunday evening while I was visiting Iowa City. I returned again on Monday to make sure I had not dreamed it.

The Vortex is exactly the sort of clever, crafty gift shop where I would once have stood and agonized over which clever novelty gift to get for whom. Who would best appreciate the Marie Antoinette action figure with “ejector-action” head? Could the Nelson Mandela combination finger puppet/refrigerator magnet be given alone, or would it go better, perhaps, with Joan of Arc or Karl Marx? Would a $2.95 tin of peach-flavored “ImpeachMints” with an enameled image of GW Bush make a nice stocking stuffer? Maybe the box of “IndictMints” with VP Cheney and Karl Rove in black and white prison garb would be a better choice?

These whimsical novelties still tickle me, but the context of my life has shifted dramatically since last I perused an American gift shop. My refrigerator now is in Da Nang, Vietnam. And the friends who visit me in my home, while they can speak and understand basic English, would be completely mystified by these artifacts of American culture. And, even if I could, with painstaking effort, explain the elements which combine to make these visual jokes work—there is absolutely no way that I could explain why I had seen fit to spend the equivalent of a month’s school tuition just to make a joke by purchasing an item that has no practical use.

The joke implied in the purchase of these items is that we feel that we are exposing the superficiality of American consumer culture. The larger joke, of course, is that we are making our statement by buying more stuff. Read the small print on each package. It says, “Made in China.” Who’s laughing now?