Thursday, July 16, 2009

Factory Girls

Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China fascinated me. Chang is a journalist for the Wall St. Journal posted in China. In this book, Chang spends years getting to know two girls who migrate from their villages to factory cities, where they pursue fortune and opportunity. It's the story of the people who make the glue for our shoes, the molds for the plastics we use, our Coach bags, well, more or less everything we touch in a given day.

Chang becomes their confidant and thus learns all about their work, their bosses, the struggles to survive in a society that promotes movement and makes long term friendship or trust seem foolish. Chang discovers how dating works or doesn't in modern China. What do these women look for in men, how do they find it and how do they make do till the man with the apartment and good job come along?

The first part of the book centers on life scrabbling in the city how fresh off the bus or train, these girls, some as young as 15, manage to survive in spite of little education, no contacts, and no experience. I was completely engrossed to read about how the girls quickly succeeded and failed. Chang accompanies them to "finishing schools" that train workers in public speaking, success, people skills, bluffing your way through a job interview, and all the skills needed to make it. Chang also returns to the village with her subject to see the family and home. As a young Chinese-American who speaks the language fluently, Chang blends in well and is very much a fly on the wall, privy to everything. Both girls Chang follows are completely candid about all their desires and means of attaining them.

These girls may lack education, but they soon show themselves to be shrewd and bright. While they are exploited, this never stops them. One day, they're ripped off, the next they're off to the next opportunity without looking back.

Any language teacher will appreciate the chapter on "Assembly Line English," a new method developed as a get rich quick scheme by a man who's never taught and holds the
guiding principle that treating people like machines was the key to mastering English. After learning the alphabet and the phonetic sounds of the language, a student sat at machine while columns of English words rotated past. The student read aloud each word and wrote it down without knowing what it meant, week after week, until he attained the highest speed. He (sic*) then proceeded to another machine that showed the Chinese definitions of words; next he advanced to short sentences. At each stage, he wrote the word or sentence in English and said it aloud without comprehending its meaning.
once the student could reach "top speed" i.e. 600 sentences an hour could she start to learn basic grammar. studnets would work eleven hours a day on this and yes, they paid handsomely for such lessons.

My only criticism, and it was a real annoyance, was the two and a half chapters on Chang's family history. While her grandfather's story is interesting and significant, it belongs in another book. Once I'd turn a page and see the next part was about her relatives I slowed down, sighed, promised myself that soon I'd get back to the girls' story. I have no idea why an editor would let her keep these sections in.

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