My rubber sandals squeak on the factory floor as I lean over to watch the worker’s deft movements. He scans the product, swings a mechanical arm over to screw in a tiny screw, and passes the whole thing on to the next station. Then he does it again. And again.
I’ve already moved on, to another worker in another white smock. This is my first time seeing how the product I’ve worked on for a year and a half is made, and I’m gaining an appreciation for the coordination and engineering required in the manufacturing industry. From supplying parts, building the machines and fixtures, and designing the process, everything aims to make a quality product at the lowest cost.
While some stations whir with robots, I’m surprised by just how much is manual, down to the guy winding and shoving cables in boxes. The factory workers are the spine of this operation.
I feel surreptitious glances from many of the workers, mirroring my curiosity. I want to know what brings them here, how many products they’ve helped assemble, what they do in their free time, what their families are like, where they live – but even without the language barrier I’d probably be too shy to ask.
Familiar guilt creeps in. I think of the table laid out with snacks for us in the cushy conference room upstairs, while they sit on stools for longs shifts. I wish I could express my appreciation for their part in making this product a reality, however mundane it might feel to them.
My primary task here is firmware support to help verify the hardware, but I fill in wherever needed, which seems to be the way things operate. I soon learn that getting things done is all about knowing the right people.
Heading to and from the line involves passing through multiple security stations in my yellow smock, scanning my badge, pressing my thumbprint, and passing over my registered laptop with a sticker over the camera. One of the metal detectors always goes off, so everyone is wanded down, front and back.
Our work days are at least 12 hours long, but during that time there are stretches where I just stand uselessly and observe, other times where I’m able to wander the surrounding area.
A steady stream of scooters and motorbikes and buses flow through the streets around the factory. The motorbike taxis with attached umbrellas seem an awfully intimate way to catch a ride, straddling the seat behind the driver. The sidewalks are sometimes blocked by rubble or advertisements, forcing pedestrians to brave a chorus of honks in the street. Since individuals can’t afford televisions, shopkeepers set up rows of brightly colored plastic chairs in front of an outdoor TV where people gather to watch dramas.
Deeper into the town, the endless alleyways of shops begin to blur together: cell phones, clothing, fans, cell phones, bags, cell phones… Same with the food stands. Joe, Mimi, and I eat at one of the many dessert restaurants that feature suspended, swinging benches lined with fake flowers. They all seem to have the same menu but different names. It feels great to be cooled by the plastic overhead fan and a rose milk tea.
The factory offers us a catered buffet-style “Western” lunch that’s basically the Chinese version of American Chinese food, fried rice and chow mein and meats in sauces. If we don’t like the day’s selection, we head to the little Muslim-owned noodle place across the street. It’s clean and has pictures of the food on the wall so we can point to order. A heaping bowl of hand-pulled or shaved noodles, with some meat and veggies and chili sauce, costs the equivalent of $1 USD.
At the nice chain bakery down the street, I load up an entire tray for less than $5 USD, and at the grocery store I buy everything from pear flavored sausage to individually packaged chicken feet. The store employees laugh at my naive exclamations over their food, and Mimi overhears them wondering who I am.
It’s not just the grocery cashiers that take note – everywhere I go, I stand out. What I see of Guangdong Province is ethnically homogeneous to the extreme, almost entirely Han Chinese. (I do see some beggars from other ethnic groups in the city, which isn’t reassuring.)
I am 5 foot 8 inches tall with bushy brown hair and American clothes, all combining to make me feel like a hulking monster. Walking down the street elicits honking and turned heads and I’m half afraid of causing an accident. Whereas in the cities people speak a little English and say a friendly “Hi!”, in this smaller town everyone just stares. All I can do in return is attempt a smile and nod, or simply stare at my shoes in shame.
It’s only when I return home that I realize just how much in China was different – I had accepted so many things as normal, but now I feel the strangeness of home, its clean and quiet streets that I can cross without fearing for my life and all the ethnic diversity I had taken for granted.
Sometimes you have to make a round trip to see just how far you went.