The world’s supply chain problems affect us all — from book releases to grocery runs

Chronicle columnist Vanessa Hua grapples with supply chain woes delaying the release of her forthcoming novel, “Forbidden City.” Photo: PhotoAlto / Getty Images

Forty-seven years ago — on April 15, 1975 — I arrived about a month before my due date. The night before, my mother had spotted a black tuft of hair poking above the arm of the couch, and thought my father was napping there. When she called out to him, he didn’t answer; the hair turned out to be Hubert the Lion, a stuffed animal from the local bank. Realizing her mistake, she started laughing and went into labor soon after.

More than 10 years ago, my twin sons, Didi and Gege, were born 3½ weeks early. When I learned that doctors wanted to induce me, due to the risk of pre-eclampsia, I called my husband, who was at the dentist waiting for a teeth cleaning. “The twins are coming today!” I said.

I urged him to finish the appointment. “You might not get another chance for a while,” I warned, but I was relieved when he rushed to the hospital instead.

From the beginning, I’ve preferred to finish ahead of time. My husband hews to schedules even more than me. Like my father, he believes that on time is actually late; a few minutes early is preferable, allowing us to get settled rather than bursting through the door, flustered.

But the pandemic has taught all of us that the best-laid plans are subject to change, even after more than two years of cancellations, postponements and workarounds, both elegant and clumsy.

My novel “Forbidden City” was originally slated for publication on Tuesday, April 19 — a birthday present of sorts that I’ve dreamed of since 2007, when I began writing it.

Then it was bumped a week due to supply chain issues. A truck delivering the paper to the printing plant had been delayed. I took the news in stride, until it was postponed again, a few weeks later, to May 10.

I sank into a gloom. It didn’t help that my physical and emotional reserves, for a variety of reasons, were the lowest they’d been in years. A friend commented that the delays must be feeling “like a baby past his due date.” Unfortunately, no labor-inducing pizzas or unexpected bouts of laughter would get my book into the world any faster.

Workers in protective gear unload groceries from a truck before distributing them to local residents under the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai on April 5. Photo: Chinatopix / Associated Press

In the fall, booksellers warned that consumers should order early if they wanted a particular title for the holidays. At the time, I believed that everything would be cleared up by spring.

Instead, daily headlines remain a drumbeat of supply chain woes: lockdowns in China delaying truckers; the war in Ukraine causing oil and gas prices to soar.

Retailers have started holiday ordering months earlier, too, to get ahead of anticipated shipping delays. It’s also impacting groceries. “The U.S. food supply chain is highly efficient, with low levels of redundancy, meaning that a seemingly small disruption in one part of the system can have cascading effects and cause food shipments to be delayed by days or weeks,” explains the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It reminds me of chaos theory. I’ve been thinking about the so-called butterfly effect, in which a small change can result in a large difference later.

That is to say, a butterfly flaps its wings, and in the resulting chain reaction, a hurricane swirls halfway across the globe. In 2022, it feels as if Mothra, Queen of the Monsters, is thrashing, creating turmoil for us all.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine put gas prices on the rise nationwide, as seen at a Shell station in San Francisco in March. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

I’ve realized, though, that slowdowns can serve as hidden blessings, giving me time to regroup and recuperate. Sometimes late is better — an ethos we can all keep in mind, exercising patience and acting with grace in dealing with setbacks, especially those out of our control.

And for a novel that took 14 years to write, with many ups and downs along the way, this final twist seems only fitting.



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