The best way to understand the city of Dongguan is to walk it. Bank headquarters of mirrored glass tower over street-side shops selling motorcycle parts and plastic pipes and dental services. Roads are ten lanes wide, high-speed highways in place of city streets. Migrants walk along the shoulders carrying suitcases or bedding, while buses and trucks bear down from behind. Everywhere is construction and motion, jackhammers and motorcycles, drills and dust; at street level the noise is deafening. The roads are wide and well paved but there are no pedestrian lights or crosswalks. This is a city built for machines, not people.
The city is divided into thirty-two towns, and each one specializes in manufacturing. Chang’an produces electronic components, Dalang is famous for sweaters, and Houjie makes shoes. Samsung and Pioneer operate plants in Liaobu; Nancheng is home to the world’s largest Nokia mobile-phone factory. All the Nescafé instant coffee that is drunk in China is processed at a plant in downtown Dongguan. Factories are the bus stops and the monuments and the landmarks, and everything exists to serve them.
Even as Chunming plotted her rise in the factory world, in her letters home she struggled to be a good traditional daughter.
Mother, I have knit you a sweater . . . If I weren’t knitting a sweater, I could have used this day to read so many books. But Mother, sometimes I think: I would rather be Mother’s obedient daughter, a filial daughter, and even throw away those books I want so much to read. Mother, I have knit my love for you into this sweater . . . Mother, remember when I was still at home, you always said other people’s daughters knew how to knit sweaters but that I lacked perseverance. But today, do you see that your daughter also knows how to knit?
Remember, your daughter will never be dumber than other people!
The expectations of family weighed on her. Young women from the countryside felt particular pressure from home. If they didn’t progress quickly, their parents would urge them to return home to marry.
I finally got a letter from home . . . Other than Father, who else can write me a letter? Mother did not include even a single line to tell me that she misses me . . . In the last letter, she added on a line telling me not to find a boyfriend outside. Although it was only one line, it made me happy, as if Mother were at my side teaching me.
Inside a Dongguan factory, the sexes were sharply divided. Women worked as clerks and in human resources and sales, and they held most of the jobs on the assembly line; the bosses felt that young women were more diligent and easier to manage. Men monopolized technical jobs like mold design and machine repair. They generally held the top positions in the factory but also the dead-end occupations at the bottom: security guards, cooks, and drivers. Outside the factory, women were waitresses, nannies, hairdressers, and prostitutes. Men worked on construction sites.
According to Chinese tradition, a son was expected to return to his parents’ house with his wife after he married; a son would forever have a home in the village where he was born. Daughters, once grown, would never return home to live—until they married, they didn’t belong anywhere. To some extent, this deep-rooted sexism worked in women’s favor. Many rural parents wanted a grown son to stay close to home, perhaps delivering goods or selling vegetables in the towns near the village. Young men with such uninspiring prospects might simply hun—drift—doing odd jobs, smoking and drinking and gambling away their meager earnings. Young women—less treasured, less coddled—could go far from home and make their own plans. Precisely because they mattered less, they were freer to do what they wanted.
Almost a hundred years ago, my grandfather had been a migrant too. He had left his village, changed his name, and tried to remake himself for the modern age. In his youth, China was emerging from a long, self-imposed isolation to rejoin the world—and so it is again today. My grandfather left home for good when he was sixteen years old—although he probably did not know it then, just as today’s migrants might not know it now. Chuqu, to go out: This is how the story of my family also begins…
When I was growing up in America, my parents rarely talked about the past. There is a mode of exile that dwells on everything that was lost—the twilit boulevards of the capital city, the large house and the servants, the shaded garden with the persimmon trees where we will return one day when the regime falls and we reclaim what is rightfully ours. But the Chinese who fled the Communists seldom indulged in such reveries. Their way was to move forward and make a new life; to linger on loss was pointless. The migrants and immigrants I have known have shared this pragmatism, which seems so deeply ingrained in the Chinese character. The present is everything, and the past recedes.