In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang attempts to interweave her own family’s history and migration from China to America with a different migrant story entirely: that of 130 million Chinese youths who leave their families, homes, and schools in the village for unknown factory jobs in the big cities. Chang focuses on two teenage girls, Wu and Chunming, who job-hop relentlessly in the city of Dongguan, always looking for the next big thing: the highest paying factory with the least amount of overtime, a pyramid scheme that destines them for success, a new boyfriend who isn’t a loser (jobless or an “ordinary” bottom-rung factory worker) with whom they can share a mobile phone and perhaps, in time, even an apartment.
It’s a strange world that Chang depicts, one utterly alien to me. These young girls often work 11 hour days, with just a few days off per month, for very little pay, and yet their high-energy, high-drive, non-stop race for success leaves me, the reader, more exhausted than they ever appear to be. They think constantly of money, social status, and self-improvement. In China, a self can be remade overnight. Quit a job at your old factory, start a job at a new factory, get a haircut, get a new boyfriend: none of these is more important than the other on the road to success.
These migrant girls are the basis for the world Westerners live in. They are the ones who assemble the pieces of the clothes and handbags and phones that we can’t live without. Many of them stay their whole lives in a single factory, leaving for a while to get married and have children, and then returning to help support their family, while others strive constantly for something better.
Although the world they enter is one completely unfamiliar to me, their journey out and away from home isn’t. I, too, come from a “village” (literally, Thompsonville, MI), where opportunities are scarce and money is tight. I, too, left that home for a city, and higher education, and a hope of something bigger and better than what I left behind. The pull of home will always be strong. The girls Chang interviews idealize their homes to a certain extent, declaiming the beauty and rural quietude. But they all say “there is nothing to do at home.” Nothing is available to them, either in the way of job prospects or social opportunities. Their only choice is to go out to the city, and once they do, there is virtually no going back. Even the youth who come home to marry often return to the cities to find new work. Many people from different provinces and regions meet in a factory and when they marry, instead of settling in either’s home village, they find a new home in the city where they work.
I can’t help but feel lucky, and undeserving, that by virtue of my foreignness, and my native ability to speak English, I am able to get a job in a highly economically desirable Chinese metropolis, making a modest sum that is still far more than the factory girls’ monthly income. But Chang’s book did illustrate one thing that should lend hope to every “factory girl:” for the enterprising young person bent on making a name for herself, all doors will open with enough persistent shoving.