Where This Meets That
Arms folded and chin resting on one fist, she sits pensively on a stone. At her feet are a cat and a squirrel, and behind her blooms a large blossomed plant.
The scene is lovely enough, but its origin is what captivates me. Whether she waits or longs or mourns is unclear. What lies beyond those Chinese eyes?
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In October 2010, I traveled to China for the first time. My trip came in the wake of the much-publicized “Foxconn suicides” in which some 17 individual Foxconn workers jumped to their deaths over a span of several months.
Foxconn is the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, employing over a million people. Statistics show that Foxconn’s suicide rate is below China’s national average, but of course, Foxconn couldn’t say that, from a PR perspective. Instead, Foxconn set some new precedents that spilled over the electronics industry throughout coastal China.
In addition to increasing its pay rate in the region and asking workers to sign a “no-suicide” pledge, Foxconn also installed netting around all its buildings, aimed at preventing jumpers from reaching death.
I visited numerous factories during my time in China, including a Foxconn subsidiary, and such nets had become commonplace. One extra-fortified factory had thick, taut wire cables over all windows and then nets below.
Many factories have little in the way of obvious creature comforts. Window views display chemical treatment equipment or perhaps the neighboring worker dormitories where another shift’s workers are sleeping in the current shift’s beds.
A couple manufacturers seemed to recognize the value of providing some “lighter” touches to the factory environment. One particularly impressed me with the little things it did to give workers a sense of belonging. For example, it had landscaped its ground level window views with tall, flowering foliage to mask the industrial machinery beyond. It also embraced the creativity of its workforce by dedicating a hallway to artwork made by its employees.
This is where I met the painted Chinese girl.
For some reason this painting resonated with me. I stood before it for a full minute or two before continuing my factory tour. Before I departed later that afternoon, the plant manager pulled me aside and handed me the painting, carefully rolled. He said he had tracked down the artist and told her of my appreciation of her work, and in return, she said she would be honored for him to give it to me as a gift.
Now, despite having bought several amazingly beautiful, handcrafted works of art during that trip, this is the one that feels most “authentic” to me. It came not from a village artisan or other whose hands had spent all day painting patterned works but instead from a factory worker.
If I didn’t know where the painting came from, its rice paper backing might, like the flowering vines outside that factory window, hide the industrial machinery and hyperextended labor shifts that truly grew the faceless artist’s inspiration.
Soon after I returned home, I sought a frame to complement the artist’s faithfulness to her craft, one perhaps similar to the one in her mind’s eye. And it has hung there in our living room ever since.
I occasionally think of those Chinese eyes as portals bridging one world to another, literally half a world away. I know some of what lies behind those eyes, but I can’t help but wonder if those eyes see a world of which the artist herself could only dream.