MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Back now with Day to Day. It is the largest migration in human history. China has 130 million migrant workers. Many of them are young women who have left their villages for China's industrial cities, cities like Dongguan near China's southern coast.
Ms. LESLIE CHANG (Author): It's basically chaos. It's just everything you might picture about China to the n-th degree, you know. It's developing really fast. It's really urban. There's a lot of factories. It's very polluted. But kind of the most striking thing when you first go down there is that almost everyone there on the streets is young.
BRAND: That's Leslie T. Chang. She's a former Wall Street Journal reporter. She spent a couple of years reporting in Dongguan for her new book about migrant workers. It's called "Factory Girls." In it, she focuses on two young women. One is a farm girl named Min(ph).
Ms. CHANG: She was a real success story. When I first met her, she had just talked her way off the assembly line into a low-level office job, being a clerk in a factory. And then, over the next two years, she basically moved her way into the purchasing department, and now she's making a lot of money. And, in fact, the last time I talked with her, she was helping her parents buy an apartment in the city near their village, and they're going to open a little shop there. So, yeah, she's done very well.
BRAND: And how old is she?
Ms. CHANG: She's 21.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHANG: Yeah. But that's the thing. I mean, time passes differently in a place like Dongguan, you know, and for us, you know, three years, not much change, right? But for her, it's, you know, she's been about six different people. And it just sort of hit me, well, you know, this is a much more complicated and rich and interesting story than just kind of the grim, worst-case scenarios that we've been hearing about.
BRAND: Yeah, and I think that really struck me because I was expecting, when I opened your book, to read about tales of abuse and exploitation and just misery, basically, from everything that I've read in the papers. And it wasn't like that at all. It was really, I mean, a lot of the stories that you tell are stories of upward mobility and of freedom in a weird way, freedom that these girls discover when they leave their homes.
Ms. CHANG: Absolutely. I didn't want to sugarcoat it. You know, definitely the conditions, especially by our standards, are really, really tough. You know, usually, when these young women and young men go into the factories, the initial job might be, you know, working 14 or 15 hours a day, no days off ever or maybe one day off a month, all sorts of penalties taken out of their salary.
But over time, these conditions generally improve. You know, they'll hear about another factory that's better and jump to that factory. So, if you meet someone when they first arrive in the city and then meet them three months later, their situation can be very, very different. You know, this is a world that people are creating minute by minute.
And they don't really have guidelines. They don't have rules. Basically, the goal is to survive however you can. And yeah, almost everyone I knew in terms of getting a job, they would lie about their qualifications, and then, on the other side, the person hiring you would lie, too, about how much money you were going to make.
I mean, it was just kind of understood that everyone's scamming and trying to get any little advantage they can. While it's a very free world, it's also a very corrupt, dishonest world, and that's pretty poignant when you think about these young people trying to make their way in this world, and these are the lessons that they're learning.
BRAND: What about prostitution? How prevalent is it, and how big a danger is it for these girls when they first come to Dongguan?
Ms. CHANG: It's a huge, huge phenomenon in China, growing hand in hand with economic reform. I did spend some time in Dongguan visiting different karaoke bars, which is where a lot of the prostitution takes place. And what I found from talking to these young women was that they went into prostitution the same way another woman would go into working in a cell-phone factory. Basically, they knew someone who was doing it who could introduce them to their boss.
That was really shocking to me. I thought there was some kind of moral or economic calculation that let these women choose prostitution, but instead, it was just what they knew. And then, once they got in, they realized that, in a way, this is horrible, but in a way, you can make much better money than you would in the factory, and the work hours, at least, are a lot shorter. It's not total exploitation and victimization, but a much more complicated choice that certain people are making.
BRAND: And tell us what happens with Min. You go with her. She goes back to her family for the New Year, the Chinese New Year. It's a really interesting scene because she comes back home, and what struck me was she has the power in that family now, and she's what, 18, 19?
Ms. CHANG: Exactly. That was really striking to me as well. I expected that she would fall back into the traditional Chinese ways of behavior, you know, being the second sister in a large family, doing the dishes and helping out. And it wasn't like that at all, you know. She was, in fact, much less traditional than even I was. You know, I grew up with Chinese parents but in America.
But her expectations were totally different, and the minute she got home, she started telling everyone, you know, throw the garbage here. Don't use these cups. This is dirty. This is backward. We have to get a water dispenser. That's more hygienic. You know, if she didn't want to go visit relatives, she would just not go. So, it was really striking, you know, just that fact that she was making that kind of money and was doing well in the city gave her leverage in her family in her village.
BRAND: And her family, as many rural families, depend upon her salary, correct?
Ms. CHANG: That's right. Both her parents farmed a small plot of land, and most of the food, they consume themselves. The cotton they might sell for a little money. Every year, they might sell a couple of pigs for a little money. But the amount of money that they made on the farm was only a fraction of what Min and her older sister sent home every year.
BRAND: And do these girls think that they will return to their village some day, or when they're out, when they leave, is that it? They go out to the city, and they don't really come back.
Ms. CHANG: I think when they first come out from home, they don't really know what's in store, and they generally say, yeah, I want to go home eventually. And actually, when I first met Min, the first day we met, she said, I want to work in the city for seven years, send money home, and then my debt to my parents will be repaid. And then, I'll go back home and find someone to marry.
As I got to know her, you know, the plan just disappeared and was replaced by new plans, you know, like I want to learn how to drive a car and oh, some of my friends are buying apartments in Dongguan and settling down here, and they want me to do the same thing. And it was interesting how her dreams and expectations changed and were changed by the city.
BRAND: Leslie T. Chang is the author of the new book "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China." Thank you so much.
Ms. CHANG: Thank you.
BRAND: And if you want, you can read a excerpt from "Factory Girls." It's at our website, npr.org.
Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick.
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