Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Town and Country

While I did say that I wasn't "able to put down" Leslie Chang's Factory Girls, clearly I did put it down or else I have been reading at an abnormally slow rate. I made that exclamation ten days ago and I finished the book today. I still want to exclaim about it, though. The slowdown was my doing because I wanted to pretend to be on a break from school and serious reading. When I picked up the book today, though, I was right back immersed in its world again. Couldn't put it down. Really. It is a wonderful book. I recognize that those with personal connections to China and its culture undoubtedly will view the book from a very different angle, with different questions and perhaps personal sensitivities, but I do want to recommend this book to everyone interested in modern China.

The book is non-fiction and is based on the author's interviews with—and daily living with—a number of "factory girls" who, she suggests (but makes no extravagant claims for), typify in many ways the face of the new China, and in particular the face of its young women. The "factory girls" are young women who leave their homes in rural, agricultural China because they feel life there offers them little and because they want to see more of the world than they are likely to experience in villages such as Dajin, the "one-street farming town" that is the home of Min, one of the young women whose lives we follow in some detail.

More than this, though, the women profiled here are driven by a desire to succeed in the wider world. They take risks and push themselves in a way that seems quite foreign to someone like me who spends a lot of time with American college students. True, the desire to succeed of Min, Chunming and others we come to know in the book, often leads them into painful situations, cruel setbacks and even danger, but their attitude is "So I don't know how to do what this job requires? First I sell myself in the interview and then I'll learn on the go." Lying your way to the top is not admirable, nor does it speak very well of the readiness of Chinese businesses to offer to the world products manufactured or services provided by well-qualified workers, but everyone has to start somewhere, and it's not as if the business community in the US has many lessons to teach us right now about ethics and accountability.

Read this book. It offers history, an introduction to the two different universes of rural and urban China, personal stories of interesting and appealing people (underdogs you just have to root for), an unfamiliar (to me) version of exile and the immigrant experience, an unforgettable picture of Chinese business practices and attitudes toward education, and an enlightening—often entertaining, sometimes horrifying—portrait of China on the move in the 21st century.