After the fight, Min's boss became nicer to her. He urged her several times to consider staying; there was even talk of a promotion to factory-floor clerk, though it would not bring an increase in pay. Min resisted. "Your factory is not worth wasting my whole youth here," she told her boss. She signed up for a computer class at a nearby commercial school. When there wasn't an overtime shift, she skipped dinner and took a few hours of lessons in how to type on a keyboard or fill out forms by computer. Most of the factory girls believed they were so poorly educated that taking a class wouldn't help, but Min was different. "Learning is better than not learning," she reasoned.
She phoned home and said she was thinking of quitting her job. Her parents, who farmed a small plot of land and had three younger children still in school, advised against it. "You always want to jump from this place to that place," her father said. Girls should not be so flighty. Stay in one place and save some money, he told her.
Min suspected this was not the best advice. "Don't worry about me," she told her father. "I can take care of myself."
She had two true friends in the factory now, Liang Rong and Huang Jiao'e, who were both a year older than Min. They washed Min's clothes for her on the nights she went to class. Laundry was a constant chore because the workers had only a few changes of clothes. In the humid dark nights after the workday ended, long lines of girls filed back and forth from the dormitory bathrooms carrying buckets of water.
Once you had friends, life in the factory could be fun. On rare evenings off, the three girls would skip dinner and go roller-skating, then return to watch a late movie at the factory. As autumn turned into winter, the cold in the unheated dorms kept the girls awake at night. Min dragged her friends into the yard to play badminton until they were warm enough to fall asleep.
The 2004 lunar new year fell in late January. Workers got only four days off, not enough time to go home and come out again. Min holed up in her dorm and phoned home four times in two days. After the holiday she went to her boss again, and this time he let her leave. Liang Rong and Huang Jiao'e cried when Min told them her news. In a city of strangers, they were the only ones who knew about her departure. They begged her to stay; they believed that conditions at other factories were no better, and that to leave or to stay would be the same in the end. Min did not think so.
She promised she would return for a visit after she got paid at her new job. Min left that same day with a few clothes in a backpack and the two months' wages that the factory owed her. She did not take her towels and bedding with her; those things had cost money, but she couldn't bear the sight of them anymore.
In ten months on the assembly line, Min had sent home three thousand yuan--about $360--and made two true friends.
She should have been scared. But all she knew was that she was free.
In the village where Lu Qingmin was born, almost everyone shared her family name. Ninety households lived there, planting rice, rape, and cotton on small plots of land. Min's family farmed half an acre and ate most of what they grew.
Her future appeared set when she was still a child, and it centered on a tenet of rural life: A family must have a son. Min's parents had four girls before finally giving birth to a boy; in those early years of the government policy limiting families to one child, enforcement was lax in much of the countryside. But five children would bring heavy financial burdens as the economy opened up in the 1980s and the cost of living rose. As the second-oldest child, Min would bear many of those burdens.
Excerpted from Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang Copyright © 2008 by Leslie T. Chang. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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