26 January 2009

Charting their own course

It sounds like faint praise to say that Leslie Chang's FACTORY GIRLS is my favorite book of 2009 so far, so instead I'll say: If I had read FACTORY GIRLS in 2008 when I originally borrowed it, it would have been one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

The advent of cheap manufacturing in China brings thousands of migrant workers to the cities from their ancestral villages. Population experts say most of them eventually return to their homes, but since they do their surveying in those villages they aren't getting the whole picture. For women especially, the opportunity to work in a factory promises independence and an opportunity at self-sufficiency they could never get at home -- but at the cost of long hours and isolation broken up only by temporary friends and mobile-phone messages from home.

Chang, a former overseas correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, spent years talking to and sometimes staying with women in the factory town of Dongguan, where they helped make everything from mobile phone parts to Coach purses. Earning money for themselves for the first time, these women -- many of them barely legal to work, some who never even finished their school diplomas -- can jump from job to job, climbing the employment ladder through a combination of piecemeal higher education, hard work, luck and lying.

I was blown away by Chang's peek into the lives of these women, but more than that, I was impressed by how brave they are. With college rarely an option -- under 15 percent of the Chinese population attends, according to Chang -- "going out," as they call leaving the village for work, can be one of the best and hardest decisions Chinese adults of my generation ever make. I found their lives inspiring rather than pitiable; their determination to learn English, own their own businesses and (through their contributions) make things better for their siblings and parents is remarkable, given how the obstacles in their lives look from our perspective. Chang's willingness to immerse herself in this world is also admirable, given how insular this world is. (You can read more about her writing process at the group blog The China Beat.)

I can't wait to see what Chang writes next, whether it's about China or not. Curiously enough, her husband Peter Hessler is also a journalist who writes about China -- including for the New Yorker -- and I'm looking forward to reading his books as well.

1 comment:

ap said...

"Rivertown" solidified my desire to apply to the Peace Corps. It was terrific. "Oracle Bones" was also great.