I just finished reading Factory Girls, the new book about female migrant workers in a major manufacturing city in southern China, written by the Chinese American journalist Leslie Chang.
Chang is married to Peter Hessler, who is the author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, which was the book that I read immediately before coming to China and which served as my bible on everything Chinese in my first months here.
Factory Girls by Leslie Chang
River Town was Hessler’s account of the two years he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English at a university in Sichuan (central China, hot and mountainous and jungly, known for its super spicy food). Hessler had basically no background in China — he learned Chinese in his two years in country, and educated himself on the history and culture after he arrived — whereas his wife, Chang, learned Mandarin from her parents as a kid and got a home-grown education in Chinese history from her mom and dad.
The perspectives these two people provide on China are enlightening and based on years of serious study and journalistic work that is always patient and compassionate and sometimes verges on being heroic.
The two people are also very different. Hessler essentially comes across as very intelligent and diligent, and good at describing peoples’ political views and histories, but he is weak when it comes to showing people as people. In his most recent book, Country Driving, which presents three stories — one in which he makes a solo road trip across China, one in which he lives in a small village outside Beijing for several years, and one in which he spends a few years tracking the development of a Zhejiang boom town — some of his most central characters never become much more than two-dimensional.
He tells us, for instance, that Jiawei, the youngster who is his neighbor in the village for a few years and who almost dies in a mad-dash trip to the hospital in Beijing, calls him “uncle monster”, but we never really find out if the kid is scared of Hessler, if he likes Hessler, or if he’s indifferent.
Chang’s book, on the other hand, presents migrant workers as stunning, headstrong individuals who make major life decisions as frequently as they change hairstyles, and who have real life crises and actually have emotional reactions to the things that happen to them. People express feeling to Chang and she’s able to write about them in a convincing way.
Part of the key to this, I think, is that somehow she gets close enough to these women so that she gets not only their story but also their ideas about themselves, their dreams for the future, however unlikely. She records not only their emotions but also their crazy and actually kind of pretty ideas and expectations for their own lives.
To sketch it out for you real quick, throughout the book Chang basically tells the story of two young Chinese women, Min and Chunming. Both grew up poor in the Chinese countryside and decided to emigrate to the southern Chinese city of Dongguan, near Guangzhou, the third-biggest city in China. Both rose from the factory floor to higher-paying positions. But Chang makes the smart move of not dwelling too much on the hardships they overcame as to focus on their lives, their ideas, their more uplifting thoughts and moments — the very things that the women themselves probably tend to focus on that make their lives better.
At different points the two women pause in conversation to reflect on their lives. At one point Chunming says: “Someday if I have the means, I would like to write…I would write only about the simplest, most ordinary things.”
At another point, Min reflects on the good parts of life in the Chinese countryside: “The life in the countryside was pleasant, but you could go from one end of the year to the other and almost never see money.”
At another point in the book that I can’t find at the moment, one of the girls reflects on the hard life she lived when she first arrived in Dongguan as a factory worker. The factory workers generally worked 12-plus hours a day, lived a dozen or so to a dorm room and got less than U.S. $100 per month in salary (this was just in the past five to ten years). Reflecting on that life, Chunming said (paraphrasing): If I had to go back to living the way I did then, I don’t think I would have the courage to do it.
These are revelations that Hessler never experiences, and they put Factory Girls on a level above Hessler’s work..the distance between them might not be great, but Chang’s ability to see the Chinese people as people and sense their feelings from tone of voice and the expressions on their faces, her ability to wait for the right moment to ask a personal question or to remain silent when she knows someone is about to speak, all these things make the people in her book real and the book very powerful, especially for me, now, living here.
I must say, however, that I had the same experience with Hessler’s book as I had with this one: once I started reading them, I barely stopped except to eat until I was done.
This is a muddled account of these books, and I guess I’m writing about them because each one has been so valuable to me in understanding the world around me here, and also has done so much to expose to me how much I still don’t know and will never know, and to explain to me why the Chinese culture is so hard to understand and why it has always been so hard to understand for outsiders.
A perfect example of this is in Chang’s book. Chang grew up speaking Chinese and learned a great deal about Chinese from her parents, and spent around five years in China before she began work researching the book. And still throughout the book we see how her identity as an American creates unbridgeable gaps between her and the Chinese people she’s trying to understand. Once, when she’s dining with a distant relative to learn about her family history, the relative quotes Confucius and when Chang doesn’t know the saying, the relative’s wife remarks, “A person learns the culture of the place where she has grown up.”
In so many ways, this is somber and depressing, but I guess it reflects the kind of culture that China tends to be — a place where tradition often overwhelms personalities so that tall ideas like nation, culture, history, status all overwhelm whatever it is that actually make a person unique, until the individual doesn’t matter anymore.
That kind of thing is changing quickly, or that’s what everybody says. In fact that precisely what Chang’s book is about — migrant workers like her two main characters move from the countryside to the city and learn individuality quickly, naturally, and remake their entire lives at a relentless clip, over and over and over again, until the idea of tradition seems like a slightly entertaining, and also a little sad, joke.
But then also there are so many ways that tradition is still an overwhelming force here. I’m using “tradition” really loosely here, but I guess I sense it when a student tells me that her mother told her to quit playing the drums so that she could study harder, or an acquaintance confides that he doesn’t love his girlfriend but plans to marry her anyway out of a sense of responsibility, or I spend an hour sitting in a meeting with a flock of people, most with heads passively erect, all listening to someone in some official position drone on and on to no purpose except because that person is an official, and so therefore everybody is just supposed to listen to him for some reason.
I have reservations, for some reason, about the idea of going to a place like China with the goal of understanding it, just to write about it in English and send missives back home. I have this image in my mind of these messages going back, through this long darkness, and then coming across strangely scrambled and mismatched, with only a little bit of the story being told and so much being misunderstood, misinterpreted. I guess I feel that way because I remember the stuff that I imagined and expected before I came here, and I realize now that so much of it was wrong, only a half-truth, a fear or paranoia that turned out to be untrue, or only true half the time, or only true for some people; and sometimes I don’t really know how to cope here except to get rid of all my expectations and try to just let my perspective go completely. Which at times feels like letting go of my morals, in a way, or at least most of them.
For instance when I see a woman beating a small boy with a stick on the sidewalk and shouting at him, or a peasant man beating his wife in the street, and some part of me wants to do something, but then a bigger part of me knows that my morals do not apply here, and the only thing to do is to keep walking.
And this applies to conversations, too, bigger issues. One of them begins with a T and is a big island not far from my city. Another one also begins with a T and is a big, very culturally significant region very far from here. When people talk at me about these issues, what do I do? What do I say? What do I even think? The only thing I can think, now, is that this is not my home, I know already that I will never understand it, and many of the morals I once had are now somewhat distant from me, in a way. I don’t question that they’re still there but I just can’t use them, sometimes, in some situations.
And sometimes that affects me in personal ways, too. Because I am not just an outsider here. I am not just a tourist, visiting here. I live here and all of my friends now (since Tsi, the other foreign teacher, left without saying goodbye and has not returned) are Chinese.
I am also someone who hates very much to have a bone-dry romantic life, and although for the first six or seven months here that is exactly what I had it has not been that way since then. And whatever romantic life I have had has been a strange one, and this is the area where I have most had to let go of whatever expectations I had before coming here. In order to have romantic relationships here I have learned that I have to let go of all of the rules, completely, including expectations that partners will be monogamous, that they will not lie, that they will not try to cheat me out of money, that they will not one day claim to love me and then the next day avoid speaking with me in private.
All of these things are huge adjustments and it helps to have guides like Hessler and Chang in dealing with them. And particularly Chang, because she is more apt when it comes to understanding how the culture affects the individual in a place like this. For example, in her book, after a long section on corruption in Dongguan, she connects the dealings of businesspeople with the private lives of her subjects in a short, sweet paragraph:
Married men who pretended not to be were the number-one dating hazard of Dongguan. Fu Gui, Chunming’s business partner, had been involved with one such man; Liu Huachun, the friend who had recently bought the Buick, had been tricked twice. In a place where people lied reflexively for work, deception naturally seeped into personal relationships. Lying was often the pragmatic choice because it got you what you wanted. Eventually your lies might catch up with you, but few people thought that far ahead.
Hessler, on the other hand, never saw that deeply into anyone’s personal life. In his first book, River Town, he met a few young men who complained to him about the complexity of their romantic relationships, but Hessler seemed too busy being appalled at their terrible decision-making abilities to be able to see why they might be making the mistakes they were making. And when it came to Hessler’s own engagement with the Chinese people, he never seemed to struggle much with defining his role in the community. In River Town, he has one encounter with a young woman who pursues him, who he suspects is a prostitute, and he mentions that he tells her to stay away from him and then ignores the love letters she subsequently sends him; in the second half of the book he writes that none of the male Peace Corps volunteers in his group had a romantic relationship with a Chinese woman.
All of that is maybe because Hessler is a born journalist, and was able to see himself as separate from the people he wrote about and was able to look at Chinese society from a bird’s-eye view, somehow (or at least as seeing individuals’ personal experiences as having little relevance to his own beliefs and views). And Chang also seems to have that ability. Towards the end of her book, Chunming, her main subject, is considering leaving her pursuit of success in her career behind to join a nunnery-like English school of seriously dubious merit, but Chang seems excited and gently encourages Chunming to do it. In the notes in the back of the book Chang writes that she was excited when Chunming talked about studying English because she thought it would make a good ending to her book (Chunming doesn’t join the school).
But while reading Chang’s book, I wanted her to stop Chunming from joining the school. It was obvious that the school was terrible and that she would never learn English there. But Chang wanted her to join. I had a similar feeling reading Hessler’s book. I wanted him to talk to the girl who claimed she loved him. I wanted him to let himself be part of the story, because he already was part of the story. The whole thing felt disingenuous — to read about these Americans’ observations of Chinese peoples’ lives and yet to get so little of the Americans’ actual roles in the story. To learn so little about what they felt, and thought, and why they said what they said.
These are all selfish impulses because they are about me. They are about my desire to learn about what I should do when something completely strange happens here. Like, to give an example, when I fall like a rock for a woman over the course of a month, and then she tells me she is moving away and asks me to go with her, and I have to decide, like, right there, what to do, and give her my answer in a language that I am still struggling to speak.
But then again the books are also grounding because they provide me with an example of what I should do when it seems like the whole goddamn world is falling apart around me here, and I try to think of what these two writers would do, and I know that in most cases it is just to stand still, and not say anything, and not do anything sudden or rash, and wait until the dust settles and go home and think about it. And then maybe write.