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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Back to Work

I arrived home from my pilgrimage to enjoy a vacation; I sent an email of resignation to my office from Beijing, certainly a first for the HR department. It was the earliest I could have done it, not having the new position quite lined up until Bob Dylan's 70th birthday, an auspicious day to quit. After using the hotel's 20-yuan-an-hour computer, I went back to my room and listened to Maggie's Farm on my iPod 61 times. (Well, not quite, but it is a ritual I observe when I quit a job.)

I have allowed myself a gentle re-entry: minor transitional activities out of the job and some lunches with friends, but mostly just ignoring housework and recovering from the nasty respiratory souvenir I brought from China. (One of China's major exports is phlegm. Since there is an ongoing campaign against spitting, I think they just send all the crud home with visitors.) Reading, writing, painting, watching DVDs, and practicing the new qigong routines--my days have been ordered by these activities. (I have failed to do any planned serious housecleaning and tomorrow I MUST renew my drivers license before returning to the work-world on Tuesday.)

I will miss the luxury of lying in bed half the day to read. I finished Peter Hessler's third China book, Country Driving, which I began before I left. I'd read both of his previous books, and always enjoyed (and envied) his pieces for the New Yorker about life in China. Towards the end, it seemed to point to the next book in my to-read pile, Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang, where it had been languishing since it came out in 2008. I did not know that the author is Peter Hessler's wife; they wrote the two books at the same time, together in Colorado. This seems very romantic.

Country Driving was a terrific re-entry read...I could feel vividly all the craziness of his highway and interpersonal adventures in China, but Factory Girls was the real surprise, about the most current cultural revolution in China, the huge migration of rural workers to the cities, where they find jobs gluing together shoes and punching machine parts, manufacturing all the things we don't anymore in the U.S. Even though the book relates the author's observations as much as a decade earlier in China, it still is timely; who hasn't heard the recent stories of suicides in Shenzhen sweatshops? (Oddly, my guide/interpreter wants me to acquire an iPad for her because it's cheaper in the U.S. But they make them there!)

Factory Girls gives my own transition from one job to another an odd perspective. The factory girls of Chang's book leave their village homes, holding up their half of the sky, and transform themselves in the city, with boyfriends, fashion, and an unexpected determination to better themselves. They never go back home except during that newsworthy annual trek at Chinese New Year, taking gifts and cash back to village families who have no clue what the girls are actually doing in the factory cities.

Chang confines her story mainly to the young women, and gives it an interesting twist: an interwoven family memoir about her own family's immigration from China in the '50s. It is good to understand one's own micro-history against the larger story of current events. Family events and personalities become integrated, make sense in a way they might not seen in isolation. There are lots of personal stories about and by refugees and victims of the turmoil of China's recent history (i.e., the past century or so), but Chang finds parallels to the current internal migration in the country. What could easily have been two books, is a marvelously integrated whole, which explains something about the Chinese mentality and character, and sheds a new, bright light on China that defies the usual stereotypes held by Americans who don't seem to realize that Mao is dead and a puzzling new New China has risen. (In some ways of course, Mao is not dead, in the same way that Qin, Han, Tang, and Qing emperors are not dead...that 5,000 years of Chinese civilization.)

I am wallowing in a historical moment of my own...I would really rather be retiring than just switching to a new office position. (But like lots of boomers of what used to be retirement age, not working isn't quite the option just yet. We're that 10 years younger generation I mentioned previously.) I'm thinking of these determined factory girls who claim their independence (from family, if not work), entrepreneurial spirits who will never live the life of their mothers. I cannot imagine the intolerable conditions of the factory--well actually I can. For a few weeks after my freshman year in college, I did a stint in a shirt laundry, working with mangles and hangars to process piles of wet dress shirts. It was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. Unknown to me, the laundry had gone bankrupt and I never got paid, but I did have an experience among some people with whom I had absolutely nothing in common except slaving for money. An old woman with grotesquely burn-scarred arms, a tough girl who told stories of beating up her boyfriend or her mother the night before, men who had maintained the equipment and kept the steam flowing for years.

"Why are you going to college," the tough bitch asked. I couldn't give her an answer she understood, I'm not sure I even knew then, but I did know I would not spend more than a few weeks in a truly sweaty shop. (Now I might answer, "To have the luxury to move from one office job to another with a trip to China in between.") I also did a brief stint in retail, selling wedding gowns in another between real-jobs moment, and after reading Factory Girls, I am certain they would have made higher commissions than I ever did, possibly ending up owning the shop. But quite frankly, I don't know if I ever have had their determination to create their own new futures. I was protected, pampered and lucky. I grew up in the U.S. My parents got through the Great Depression and WWII. And then I came along. And that was it.

2 comments:

Tao1776 said...

I was telling my acupuncturist about you today!!!

baroness radon said...

That's why my ears were tingling!