Humanity: Lessons From A Chinese Factory
Published in 8.2.2016
“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness & gentleness.”
- Charlie Chaplin, 1940
A visit to the factories in China. I remember my first time. Overseas manufacturing has a bad rap in the West, particularly where conditions are concerned, & I have a spectacularly low tolerance for the sub-humane factory life my imagination was mustering. Since then, every time we go, it’s part business, part reassurance. Though not my first time anymore, this visit was a momentous one. We’re working on a new style for our closet company, ModularClosets.com- a modern, grey finish. And reassured I was, once again.
Suffice it to say, the tempest of intercontinental geopolitics is largely lost on this mini island of bliss; waters of progress kiss gently at its shores. Good citizens arrive on time to make a decent well-earned living. Floor managers greet them with a cheerful "Zǎoshang hǎo!” The scene banishes any preconceived notion. Our party arrives in tandem with a bus full of young Chinese students. Bright eyes wide with wonder at the sheer size & power of raw industry. Mary the Liaison ushers us kindly to the side to let the eager children by. As their teacher smiles at us in passing, an idea crosses her face. Gesturing excitedly with our guide, she turns to us now as translator. The students are on a trip to tour the factory & learn about manufacturing. Would we honor them with a brief talk on our line of expertise? Not one to wax lyrical, I abashedly refuse. Insisting ensues, and my partner graciously agrees on our behalf.
We have some time until we're slotted for our talk, so we make our way about our business there. Each worker greets us excitedly on the floor. That's when I notice a pregnant mother, working diligently alongside her coworkers. Progress notwithstanding, this woman clearly is there because she has to be. Her family; her unborn child depend on it. The thought of her working there sticks with me as we move on, a microcosm of the selfless hardships endured by every country's working class right there before my eyes. And all the while I'm thinking- what can I do for these people?
"Hey!" I turn to see my partner astride a bicycle, beckoning excitedly. He can be a kid sometimes. The bike is hitched to a large container contraption on wheels. Classic scene.
I'm struck with an idea. Would the workers appreciate ice cream & ices on this hot day, I inquire? Mary is ecstatic. And that's how we find ourselves riding around the production floor, doling out refreshing relief to these hard working people. Our people.
The sense of camaraderie one feels is unprecedented. When you're handing over an ice cream bar to a factory worker on a hot day, that’s connection. Maybe it’s the knowledge that they’re enabling my business to flourish & I’m confident they’re being treated with the utmost dignity- a symbiotic relationship that allows both of us to live. We take our leave to gracious applause & a group chant of “ICE CREAM!”
We're ushered into an adjoining conference room. There, we are met with the inquiring eyes of our students-for-a-time. I begin to impart my knowledge with a knowing grin- trusting in your interpreter is a humbling lesson- but the day’s lessons have inspired me to go off the cuff a bit; I'm inspired to talk about humanity. Yes, we’re very different, you & I. But one simple, uncomplicated ideal surpasses any ocean, language or creed: The responsibility to be a good, morally sound person.To treat others with dignity & compassion. The students probably don’t understand me through the translation, but I sense the connection we’d forged from my ice cream escapade they’d witnessed. They get me.
That night, on the train out of town, I watch the setting sun. Jun, the pregnant mother of today, would be returning home just about now to a small surprise we'd arranged- a brand new baby carriage for her soon-to-be newborn.