Jan 01, 13
Read in October, 2012
This book explores two related topics: the conditions and situation of female migrant workers in China, and the author's family history in China (she is American but her family immigrated in the mid-20th century). The former is much, much more compelling than the latter, which to me seemed meaningful for the author but ultimately not compelling enough, or connected enough to the broader story, to warrant being included in the book. Some of the interesting things I learned from this book:
--employers withhold the first two months of a worker's pay, and one who leaves without approval (which is difficult to obtain) means forfeiting this money. Nonetheless this often happens, if better positions are available, as climbing the ladder from floor worker to supervisor or especially positions like secretary is well worth it.
--China has 130 million migrant workers, three times as many as immigrated from Europe to America over the course of a century
--money sent home is the largest source of wealth accumulation for rural families. In contrast with prior generations of migrant workers, women (or, really, girls, as they are quite young) who leave home now rarely return to farming permanently, as they never knew this life previously. Older generations care for younger children and harvest the fields. However, the rural lifestyle does provide a safety net for workers, and the author postulates that China does not feature the shanty towns prevalent in other developing (or for that matter developed) countries because of this safety net.
--Also in contrast with previous generations of migrant workers, today's do not face the same sort of intimidation from police, or discrimination, because in many towns they are now the overwhelming majority of factory workers.
--Based on working conditions, European- or American-owned factories are most preferred, followed by Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and finally domestic companies.
--Power supply shortages are prominent and often limit working hours
--70,000 people work at the Yue Yuen shoe factory, which makes athletic shoes for several major manufacturers. When Nike and Adidas came under pressure to improve working conditions, they went to an 11-hour workday at the factory, and gave workers Sundays off--but this prompted many workers to quit because they could no longer get enough overtime. I thought this was an interesting microcosm of the problem of imposing developed-world values onto the developing world.
As noted, though, I thought the author's discussion of her family history really dragged, and that ultimately the book would have been better without it. In addition, these parts are more prone to unnecessarily over-the-top language and lame similes like:
"An incident from half a century ago would be recalled differently, with each person's version fixed and distinct--pieces of China they carried with them that had hardened over time, like precious pebbles worn smooth."
"Zhao sat perfectly straight on the couch--as stiff-backed as a young cadet, and arrogant in this knowledge. Silently he pointed to himself, his thumb aiming at his chest like a dagger that has found its target."
"The Cultural Revolution took everything the Chinese people had long held sacred and smashed it to pieces, like an antique vase hurled against the wall."
Nonetheless, the discussion of this class of Chinese women, and the Chinese migrant-worker economy, is interesting and makes this book worth reading.