Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chinese Teenagers Make Shoes and Change the World

Factory Girls by Leslie Chang
As a person of Indian descent living in America, I often hear wariness and worry about China and the Chinese economy.  It is growing too aggressively, it's a strange mix of communism and capitalism, it's becoming an unchallenged power in Asia, and India needs to step it up if it wants to serve as a counterbalance.

But, as usual, knowing the macro-level information isn't nearly as interesting as learning the micro-level stuff - fine, China is a huge economic power, but what does that mean to the Chinese?  Leslie Chang's book Factory Girls makes it personal - and not just personal, but feminist.  AWESOME combination, if I do say so myself.

Chang is an American expat living in China.  Her family emigrated to Taiwan and then to America during and after the Cultural Revolution, and Chang moved there as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  Interested to see how life was changing for the Chinese, she moved to Dongguan, a huge city no one has ever heard of where there are factories galore and a massive migrant worker population, mostly female.  There, she met two women, Wu Chunming and Lu Qingmin, both who had moved to Dongguan from rural farming villages to make a new life for themselves.  Her interactions with them and their social circles over three years form the crux of this book and bring to life just how completely life has changed in China in just a short while.  Chang also shares her own family history, a fascinating tale of patriotism, rebellion and migration that made the Cultural Revolution much more real for me.

This book was SO INTERESTING.  Leslie Chang is a great guide through modern China.  Her family is Chinese, she's lived in China for years, and she's fluent in Mandarin, so she understands the culture very well.  But she's also American-born, very independent, and a great storyteller.  And the women she meets are amazing.  These girls just uproot their lives when they graduate high school, move to a massive city (and they're from seriously tiny villages, where they know and are related to pretty much everyone), obtain fake IDs and diplomas, lie about the vast amount of experience they have that qualifies them for all sorts of jobs, and then GET THE JOBS AND SUCCEED.  It's mind-blowing.

I mean, it's disturbing on many levels that there are people, say, constructing buildings who lied about their knowledge of construction.  And it's upsetting that education is valued so cheaply that schools are selling fake degrees as a side business.  But it's also crazy-impressive the way these women (and, to be fair, some men, but mostly women) just DO it and make it work.

There was so much that was so fascinating in this book that it is hard to pick a few things to talk about.  But I shall try.  There is a significant portion of this book devoted to just how hard the women are trying to learn English.  There are all sorts of systems in place to learn, but almost all of them are just straight rote memorization.  For example, one man has this whole machine that he created that just flashes words in front of people's faces, which they must then memorize, before they learn what the words mean.  And then they have to write the words down many, many times - again, without knowing what they mean.  And then they just learn to write faster and faster so that he can say that his best students can "do" (whether read, say, or write never was made clear) 600 sentences in an hour, as though this was a huge accomplishment, and it never occurred to the man that this didn't really mean that the students knew English.

Oh, and this man who came up with this brilliant system did NOT know English at all himself.  In fact, whenever Chang would slip an English word into conversation, he would ignore it.

And even the Chinese who did learn English were always better at reading it and reciting it than speaking in their own words.  For example, Chang sat in on a class where everyone had to read a paragraph and then describe it to the teacher.  The first student who was called memorized the paragraph word for word and recited that, rather than attempt to put the paragraph into her own words.  She was too scared of failing to try.  Chang then shed some light on just how obsolete the Chinese education system is.  (Apparently, it's REALLY obsolete.)

Chang also gave examples of people who had done really well in China's new economy, many who became almost overnight successes.  One was the author of motivational books on how to succeed, but the advice was really horrifying - basically, he said that you should lie to get ahead, and set all sorts of rules for interactions to make sure that people saw you as the boss.  And this man sold SO MANY BOOKS.  Chang pointed out that he himself didn't seem to have a real job and that he didn't have any real basis for the advice he gave - he just made it up and spoke well and wrote well and people bought it.

I realize that I am presenting a very chilling portrait of China, but that is not what I mean to do.  Rather, I mean to point out that the women Chang gets to know and spends time with somehow manage to do well and to continue being optimistic and excited about life even though there are all of these obstacles in their way.  They work really long hours, but still make an effort to go to English class after work, and they become frustrated with teachers who do not teach them what they want to learn.  They interview for jobs for which they're not qualified, get the jobs, and then learn how to do them as they go.  They send so much money back home to support their parents and younger siblings.  They look for love and one-night stands.  They fight for pay raises, attend night classes, practice self-improvement, and dream of becoming sales women and interpreters and so much more.  And then they just keep working until they get there - or they change their mind on what they want and then abruptly start working towards that goal instead.

This post is already really long, so I shall try to wrap it up.  I just feel like I learned so much by reading this book, and was thoroughly entertained while doing so.  And that's a pretty good bargain, isn't it?

19 comments:

  1. You've sold me! I've put a library hold on this one & hope to read it soon. :)

    Also, I know I owe you an e-mail and will be attending to it soon!

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    1. I look forward to receiving it! And really, when I was reading this, I was like - Eva would LOVE this!

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  2. Sounds brilliant! I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for it.

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    1. It really was so good!

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  3. I already own this book on my kindle, it was a bit of an impulse buy and until now I had no idea it would be this good. Off to read it at the soonest opportunity!

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    1. Oh, I hope you enjoy it, Sam - would love to hear your thoughts!

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  4. Great review. You sold me. I' will look for this book. I also want to mention it on my Global Women of color blog.

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    1. Ooh, what a cool blog! Can you share the address?

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  5. This sounds so interesting! I love learning about the macro by reading about the micro and women factory workers in China is definitely of interest to me. I saw a documentary about the making of Mardi Gras beads in Chinese factories that was super interesting (it's called Mardi Gras: Made in China)

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  6. I'm definitely reading this one.

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  7. Books like this make me feel very lucky to be able to read about those women's lives but not to have to work in a factory 10 hours a day... It's also so incredible, how people find the strength and courage to survive what many would call impossible to survive. I guess we adapt though, and we aim to be happy in whatever circumstances we are in. After reading a couple of books about China, especially The Good of Women of China by Xinran (have you read it?) I became really interested in women in China in general. I have Wild Swans to read on the subject next and I think I'll need to add this one too.

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  8. Wow. I remember seeing this at the library, and I may have even checked it out once but never had time to read it. It's sounds a little scary but these women are pretty awesome -- I am blown away by their determination. Need to move this up on the TBR list -- or maybe I can put in on our list for the library book group!

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  9. It does sound very interesting and despite the fact you could say that lying is bad, the determination must be quite inspiring.

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  10. This sounds fascinating, Aarti. I can't imagine the amount of courage it takes to leave a small village and then head straight towards the big city and start a new life. It is sort of shocking that they lie so frequently to get ahead, but I guess the motto "fake it until you make it" really works for them. I would love to check this one out, because I feel it would be very eye-opening for me.your review shares your abundant enthusiasm, and really has me curious about this book. Very enlightening review, and as always, written with panache.

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  11. Now I want to read this! The book does make China sound scary but the women depicted are kick-ass.

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  12. Years ago I watched the documentary "China Blue" and cried - this sounds like a completely different take on a similar situation. I will definitely look for it.

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  13. Since I liked this review enough to add it to the Global Women of Color Challenge, I decided to make you eligible for one of the books given away by Spinifex Press even though you didn't sign up. Hope you enjoy the book. Thank you for your fine reviews and projects. Keep up the good work.

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    1. Wow, thank you! I really apprecaite that :-)

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  14. I'd love a peak into how women in other countries get on. I'm always worried about the mass consumerism in the West that puts women like this in unsafe factories in China. I guess from their perspective it means opportunity but how do they really rise up? This book would be a good one for me to read and gain more perspective on this issue.

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