1 Going Out
When you met a girl from another factory, you quickly took her measure. What year are you? you asked each other, as if speaking not of human beings but of the makes of cars. How much a month? Including room and board? How much for overtime? Then you might ask what province she was from. You never asked her name.
To have a true friend inside the factory was not easy. Girls slept twelve to a room, and in the tight confines of the dorm it was better to keep your secrets. Some girls joined the factory with borrowed ID cards and never told anyone their real names. Some spoke only to those from their home provinces, but that had risks: Gossip traveled quickly from factory to village, and when you went home every auntie and granny would know how much you made and how much you saved and whether you went out with boys.
When you did make a friend, you did everything for her. If a friend quit her job and had nowhere to stay, you shared your bunk despite the risk of a ten-yuan fine, about $1.25, if you got caught. If she worked far away, you would get up early on a rare day off and ride hours on the bus, and at the other end your friend would take leave from work—this time, the fine one hundred yuan—to spend the day with you. You might stay at a factory you didn't like, or quit one you did, because a friend asked you to. Friends wrote letters every week, although the girls who had been out longer considered that childish. They sent messages by mobile phone instead.
Friends fell out often because life was changing so fast. The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone.
The best day of the month was payday. But in a way it was the worst day, too. After you had worked hard for so long, it was infuriating to see how much money had been docked for silly things: being a few minutes late one morning, or taking a half day off for feeling sick, or having to pay extra when the winter uniforms switched to summer ones. On payday, everyone crowded the post office to wire money to their families. Girls who had just come out from home were crazy about sending money back, but the ones who had been out longer laughed at them. Some girls set up savings accounts for themselves, especially if they already had boyfriends. Everyone knew which girls were the best savers and how many thousands they had saved. Everyone knew the worst savers, too, with their lip gloss and silver mobile phones and heart-shaped lockets and their many pairs of high-heeled shoes.
The girls talked constantly of leaving. Workers were required to stay six months, and even then permission to quit was not always granted. The factory held the first two months of every worker's pay; leaving without approval meant losing that money and starting all over somewhere else. That was a fact of factory life you couldn't know from the outside: Getting into a factory was easy. The hard part was getting out.
The only way to find a better job was to quit the one you had. Interviews took time away from work, and a new hire was expected to start right away. Leaving a job was also the best guarantee of getting a new one: The pressing need for a place to eat and sleep was incentive to find work fast. Girls often quit a factory in groups, finding courage in numbers and pledging to join a new factory together, although that usually turned out to be impossible. The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone.
* * *
For a long time Lu Qingmin was alone. Her older sister worked at a factory in Shenzhen, a booming industrial city an hour away by bus. Her friends from home were scattered at factories up and down China's coast, but Min, as her friends called her, was not in touch with them. It was a matter of pride: Because she didn't like the place she was working, she didn't tell anyone where she was. She simply dropped out of sight.
Her factory's name was Carrin Electronics. The Hong Kong-owned company made alarm clocks, calculators, and electronic calendars that displayed the time of day in cities around the world. The factory had looked respectable when Min came for an interview in March 2003: tile buildings, a cement yard, a metal accordion gate that folded shut. It wasn't until she was hired that she was allowed inside. Workers slept twelve to a room in bunks crowded near the toilets; the rooms were dirty and they smelled bad. The food in the canteen was bad, too: A meal consisted of rice, one meat or vegetable dish, and soup, and the soup was watery.
A day on the assembly line stretched from eight in the morning until midnight—thirteen hours on the job plus two breaks for meals—and workers labored every day for weeks on end. Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon they had no overtime, which was their only break. The workers made four hundred yuan a month—the equivalent of fifty dollars—and close to double that with overtime, but the pay was often late. The factory employed a thousand people, mostly women, either teenagers just out from home or married women already past thirty. You could judge the quality of the workplace by who was missing: young women in their twenties, the elite of the factory world. When Min imagined sitting on the assembly line every day for the next ten years, she was filled with dread. She was sixteen years old.
From the moment she entered the factory she wanted to leave, but she pledged to stick it out six months. It would be good to toughen herself up, and her options were limited for now. The legal working age was eighteen, though sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds could work certain jobs for shorter hours. Generally only an employer that freely broke the labor law—"the very blackest factories," Min called them—would hire someone as young as she was.
Her first week on the job, Min turned seventeen. She took a half day off and walked the streets alone, buying some sweets and eating them by herself. She had no idea what people did for fun. Before she had come to the city, she had only a vague notion of what a factory was; dimly, she imagined it as a lively social gathering. "I thought it would be fun to work on the assembly line," she said later. "I thought it would be a lot of people working together, busy, talking, and having fun. I thought it would be very free. But it was not that way at all."
Talking on the job was forbidden and carried a five-yuan fine. Bathroom breaks were limited to ten minutes and required a sign-up list. Min worked in quality control, checking the electronic gadgets as they moved past on the assembly line to make sure buttons worked and plastic pieces joined and batteries hooked up as they should. She was not a model worker. She chattered constantly and sang with the other women on the line. Sitting still made her feel trapped, like a bird in a cage, so she frequently ran to the bathroom just to look out the window at the green mountains that reminded her of home. Dongguan was a factory city set in the lush subtropics, and sometimes it seemed that Min was the only one who noticed. Because of her, the factory passed a rule that limited workers to one bathroom break every four hours; the penalty for violators was five yuan.
After six months Min went to her boss, a man in his twenties, and said she wanted to leave. He refused.
"Your performance on the assembly line is not good," said Min's boss. "Are you blind?"
"Even if I were blind," Min countered, "I would not work under such an ungrateful person as you."
She walked off the line the next day in protest, an act that brought a hundred-yuan fine. The following day, she went to her boss and asked again to leave. His response surprised her: Stay through the lunar new year holiday, which was six months away, and she could quit with the two months' back pay that the factory owed her. Min's boss was gambling that she would stay. Workers flood factory towns like Dongguan after the new year, and competition for jobs then is the toughest.
After the fight, Min's boss became nicer to her. He urged her several times to consider staying; there was even talk of a promotion to factory-floor clerk, though it would not bring an increase in pay. Min resisted. "Your factory is not worth wasting my whole youth here," she told her boss. She signed up for a computer class at a nearby commercial school. When there wasn't an overtime shift, she skipped dinner and took a few hours of lessons in how to type on a keyboard or fill out forms by computer. Most of the factory girls believed they were so poorly educated that taking a class wouldn't help, but Min was different. "Learning is better than not learning," she reasoned.
She phoned home and said she was thinking of quitting her job. Her parents, who farmed a small plot of land and had three younger children still in school, advised against it. "You always want to jump from this place to that place," her father said. Girls should not be so flighty. Stay in one place and save some money, he told her.
Min suspected this was not the best advice. "Don't worry about me," she told her father. "I can take care of myself."
She had two true friends in the factory now, Liang Rong and Huang Jiao'e, who were both a year older than Min. They washed Min's clothes for her on the nights she went to class. Laundry was a constant chore because the workers had only a few changes of clothes. In the humid dark nights after the workday ended, long lines of girls filed back and forth from the dormitory bathrooms carrying buckets of water.
Once you had friends, life in the factory could be fun. On rare evenings off, the three girls would skip dinner and go roller-skating, then return to watch a late movie at the factory. As autumn turned into winter, the cold in the unheated dorms kept the girls awake at night. Min dragged her friends into the yard to play badminton until they were warm enough to fall asleep.
The 2004 lunar new year fell in late January. Workers got only four days off, not enough time to go home and come out again. Min holed up in her dorm and phoned home four times in two days. After the holiday she went to her boss again, and this time he let her leave. Liang Rong and Huang Jiao'e cried when Min told them her news. In a city of strangers, they were the only ones who knew about her departure. They begged her to stay; they believed that conditions at other factories were no better, and that to leave or to stay would be the same in the end. Min did not think so.
She promised she would return for a visit after she got paid at her new job. Min left that same day with a few clothes in a backpack and the two months' wages that the factory owed her. She did not take her towels and bedding with her; those things had cost money, but she couldn't bear the sight of them anymore.
In ten months on the assembly line, Min had sent home three thousand yuan—about $360—and made two true friends.
She should have been scared. But all she knew was that she was free.
* * *
In the village where Lu Qingmin was born, almost everyone shared her family name. Ninety households lived there, planting rice, rape, and cotton on small plots of land. Min's family farmed half an acre and ate most of what they grew.
Her future appeared set when she was still a child, and it centered on a tenet of rural life: A family must have a son. Min's parents had four girls before finally giving birth to a boy; in those early years of the government policy limiting families to one child, enforcement was lax in much of the countryside. But five children would bring heavy financial burdens as the economy opened up in the 1980s and the cost of living rose. As the second-oldest child, Min would bear many of those burdens.
She disliked school and did poorly. As long as she could remember, she was in trouble. She climbed the neighbors' trees to steal their plums; if she was caught she got a beating. Once when her mother ordered her to do chores, Min refused. "There are so many people at home. Why do I have to do it?" Her mother chased her for a quarter mile and hit her with a stick.
She was good at having fun. She learned how to swim and to drive a truck; she loved roller-skating and hid her injuries from her mother. "I have fallen every way there is to fall," Min said. "But you can't think about that." She was her father's favorite. One summer, he rented a truck and she traveled the countryside with him, selling watermelons from their farm. They drove during the day and slept in the truck at night; it became one of Min's fondest memories. Most migrants associated the place they came from with poverty and backwardness, and some were even reluctant to say the name of their village. But long after Min came to the city, she still talked about her hometown as if it were something beautiful.
In the late 1990s, both of Min's parents went out to work to earn money for their children's schooling. Her father worked in a shoe factory on the coast, but poor health drove him back. Later her mother went out for a year. Min boarded at a middle school in a nearby town but returned home every weekend to cook and wash clothes for her father and the younger children.
Almost all the young people in her village had gone out. When Min was still in middle school, her older sister, Guimin, went to work in a factory in Dongguan. Soon after, Min failed the national high school entrance exam and her parents considered having her go out, too. Guimin phoned home and urged them to keep Min in school; Guimin's factory wages, she said, would help cover the tuition. Their parents agreed, and Min enrolled in a two-year vocational high school. That made her one of the most educated people in the village—more educated than Guimin, who had sacrificed her own schooling to help the family.
Guimin came home for the 2003 lunar new year holiday and took Min away with her when she left. Min had one more semester of school, but she wanted to save the tuition and get a jump on the job hunt. She was thrilled to be leaving home; she had never ridden on a train or seen a factory. "I wanted to get out early, learn some things, and see the world," she said.
In Dongguan, Guimin rented a cheap hotel room for Min and found her a job in a Japanese factory that made liquid crystal displays. Min worked there for a month and left. She had never been in a place where she didn't know anyone, and she was so lonely she couldn't bear it. She returned to the hotel and found a job at another factory but didn't take it. Her sister offered to continue paying for the hotel room, but Min felt herself becoming a burden. At a bus station, she spotted a help-wanted flyer for a quality-control job on the assembly line of an electronics factory. She dialed the number on the ad—many were just scams to trick migrants out of their money—and the person who answered the phone gave Min directions to the factory. It was a three-hour bus ride to the southeast tip of Dongguan and Carrin Electronics, the place where Min spent her hard year alone.
The minute she entered the factory grounds, Min realized the place was worse than the Japanese factory she had just left behind. But it was too late to turn back, and she did not want to ask her sister's help again. She was getting used to being on her own—it was better that way.