Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nonfiction | Striving for Success in China's Factories

With only two (!!) categories remaining on my seemingly never-ending quest to finish the Read Harder Challenge I began in 2015, I was finally able to pull a title off my existing to-read list for the "book that takes place in Asia." Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is a nonfiction exposé on the life of China's numerous (130 million, to be exact) migrant workers. The story is neither thrilling nor uncommon; instead, Chang chronicles the everyday existence of these millions of people that live a life entirely unrelatable to our Western ideals.

Set primarily in the industrial town of Dongguan, Factory Girls tells a common story - that of millions of girls who leave their rural towns for a life and job in the city. As the older generation stays planted in these small, rural towns, continuing a familial tradition of agriculture, the younger generation's future has changed due to China's modern industrialization. Children, particularly the girls, leave for the factories, becoming their families' primary breadwinners. With their migration comes a new sense of freedom and opportunity in a society where education is valued but legitimacy is not (necessarily), where success depends on street smarts, and where, it seems, anything is possible if you work hard enough and smart enough for it.

Chang is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent of Chinese descent. Unfamiliar with, and a bit wary of, her own ancestry, she explores this facet of modern Chinese society from a voyeuristic perspective through select women she follows over the course of three years. She chronicles their move from job to job, always on the lookout for something better, with little loyalty or regard to particular employers; she observes friendships and relationships that seem superficial at best, entirely artificial at worst. It's a world where better jobs often come after lying on your resume, where pyramid schemes and scams run rampant to prey on hopeful ambition, and where relationships can disappear entirely with the simple loss of a cell phone.

The strength of this book lies in Chang's straightforward way of reporting the story. It's not a dastardly tale of sweatshop work. The impression I get, in fact, is that the sweatshop horrors is the stereotype of yesteryear. Though the work is certainly more monotonous and demanding of time (6-day work weeks, for example) than we are used to, the conditions, based on Chang's telling, don't seem harsh or cruel. In this sense, it's not a story of drama and hardship; it's the story of how these migrant women are constantly working for betterment. There is no passive acceptance of life; these women strive to educate themselves for better jobs and new opportunities.

A factory run by TAL Group that makes US-brand apparel for such companies as
J. Crew and Hugo Boss; Photo via New York Times

Interspersed with the present-lives of Chang's migrant subjects is Chang's own family history as migrants to the U.S. after China's Cultural Revolution. Despite providing some context of 20th-century Chinese history, particularly in relation to Communism, this part of the narrative seemed superfluous to me; the intrigue really lies in the everyday lives of these women who have such different lifestyles and values. I am more curious about the future of these women, living in a city populated by people under 30. Do they eventually return to their rural towns? Or do they continue to live in these industrial cities, creating a new tier of the labor force, the "self-made women?" Perhaps China's industrial society still continues to evolve.

What's most remarkable about this story, as a Western reader, is our very real and legitimate connection to it. This is not a lifestyle or job contained within China's borders; rather, it's entirely a product of worldwide, and particularly U.S., demand for cheaply manufactured consumer products. These factories, and therefore these women and their choices and their lives, can attribute their very existence to our want of new iPhones. Or Nikes. Or 50" TVs. And how utterly distressing and perplexing is this?

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