Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Factory girls

Like every time I travel across many time zones, I spent the last few days waiting for the fog to clear from my brain. In the meantime I finished the book that is mandated reading for all Brown freshmen: Factory girls: from village to city in a changing China by Leslie Chang.

In September the new students will meet in small groups, one of them moderated by me, to discuss this year's book. The goal is to help new students make friends more quickly by giving them a conversation topic when they meet other students for the first time. Before the meeting I will receive a cheat-sheet outlining suggestions. During the summer, the students write an essay about the book, and I will also receive a copy of their essays. I will use them to help the discussion (and also to raise an early red flag if some student shows poor writing skills).

I wonder if the choice of books reflects the character of the university. On previous summers, we read: The places in between by Rory Stewart, about walking across Afghanistan right after the defeat of the Talibans, and The beak of the finch: a story of evolution in our time by Jonathan Weiner, a book that I didn't manage to finish -- on that year I heavily relied on the cheat-sheet! All of those books are about traveling to far away countries, perhaps showing Brown's support of its study-abroad program. Both Afghanistan and China are currently the subject of keen interest, perhaps a sign of Brown's involvment with political affairs.

What could we talk about during our discussion?
- At the most basic level, I could point out that the most common question asked by job interviewers in that book is: "Do you know computers?", and unashamedly take that opportunity to advertise for our CS course for non-majors.
- Another possible direction: why have a formal education? The girls from rural China succeed faster, in terms of money, if they don't waste time in college. They can send large amounts of money back home to their parents instead of being a drain on family finances. They go up the hierarchical ladder at work. If lack of formal education does not prevent professional success, then what is the point?
- The book mentions changing family dynamics: as the girls bring home lots of money, they also start having a say in family affairs. Will Brown students gain higher status in their families after a few months in college, and should they?


In terms of the book itself, unfortunately it bears the mark of journalists-turned-writers. It's a good story, but I cannot say that I got much out of the 500-page book that I had not already understood in the first 100 pages. It did not build to any kind of climax, and the author carefully stayed away from fiction, refusing to say anything about her characters except as a scrupulous reporter, and refusing to pass judgment or express any personal opinion herself. Although the anecdotes are entertaining, they are not fully developped and after a while it becomes tiresome. I am not really recommending it to anyone who does not have a particular interest in the subject. But let's let the book speak for itself: here's an excerpt.

That day Chunming had stumbled on a new method of meeting men. Someone had posted a photograph of a beautiful woman on a matchmaking Web site but listed Chunming's phone number next to it. She wasn't sure if it was a mistake or a prank, but all day long she had been bombarded with phone calls from suitors.
Are you the woman in the picture?
Do you have long hair?
Are you 1.66 meters tall?
After dinner, Chunming went into the living room to watch a television serial about doctors in ancient Korea struggling to aid the residents of a leper colony. Chunming found their humanitarian efforts very moving, but she was constantly interrupted by phone calls from strange men.
"Hello," she would say. "Who is this?"
Listening. Then: "Yes, someone posted that picture and that information but it isn't mine. Only the phone number is mine."
Pause. "Never mind, we can still make friends," she would say in honeyed tones. "Where are you from? What do you do?"
"That woman must be really beautiful," Chunming said as she scrolled through her list of messages and missed calls.
"And yet when you tell them it's not you," I said, "they still go on talking to you."
"So many people in this city are so lonely," Ah Ning said.

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