Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Prelude to Stories About Expectations and Hopes in China

Two recent articles in The New York Times "Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class" and "Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China" are both worth reading and together highlight some key issues regarding the shift of certain types of jobs from the U.S. to China and the working conditions at factories making products valued by many Americans.

There are so many questions I wanted to address in response. Should the U.S. make an effort to "bring back" these jobs (and if so, how?) or instead focus on growing other types of jobs? When U.S. executives make lowering costs a priority are they willfully ignoring problems faced by factory workers in China? When U.S. consumers make having the latest technology a priority are they too turning a blind eye? Are high turnover rates at factories in China such as Foxconn Technology (a key manufacturing partner for Apple) really notable in a country where high turnover rates can be the norm in many industries? How best to consider long working hours in a country where many workers insist on overtime? What are conditions like at factories that aren't tied to global companies? What are the expectations and goals of factory workers in China?

Thinking about these questions made me realize that there was much more for me to consider and learn. But it also made me realize that there was a lot of context I had when considering some of the latter questions that was likely missing for others, particularly those who haven't had an opportunity to experience China up close. Whether gained through focused research efforts or daily life, much of this context can't be easily captured in a single post.

So, for now I've decided to not directly comment on the articles or the questions above. Instead, through a series of posts I'll try to communicate at least part of the context I've gained that I've found valuable when considering issues such as the expectations for jobs and living conditions held by many in China. Primarily, I plan to do this through sharing some conversations and experiences I've had with a variety of people in China. What can be learned during a meal at a vegetarian restaurant about the scarcity of food experienced as a child by an optimistic young lady now working far from her hometown? What perspectives could be changed after listening to a waitress who couldn't afford to continue her education explain that her only realistic hope for improving her parents' very difficult life will be through the husband she hopes to meet someday? Although the hopes of many in China may at their core have much in common with people in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, the specific expectations for what will fulfill them and the roadblocks in the way can be very different.

Although I don't aim to capture all of China in these posts, the stories I will share can serve as a valuable window into some individual lives in China that highlight a number of key general points. Not only may these stories be eye opening for people outside of China, but based on my previous work I suspect the same will sometimes be true for Chinese as well. As I've discussed before, China's diversity make it particularly challenging to understand (see here) and being part of a culture doesn't necessarily translate to fully understanding the behavior of people in that culture (see here).

Like many of my posts, this will be an experimentation in itself as I explore ways to best communicate what I've learned in and from China. My goal won't be to tell you what to think but instead to stimulate. In that spirit, I'd genuinely appreciate your thoughts and feedback via comments or email (for emails I assume that I can share the content without identifying you unless a request is made otherwise). Whether it's what caught your attention, a question, a different perspective, a story of your own, or something else you wish to share, your responses will be truly welcomed and considered. The more I hear back, the more I'll be encouraged.

The first set of posts will be about a young lady I met in Shanghai when I first traveled to mainland China in 2005 as a tourist. I suspect some of the experiences I'll share left a particularly deep impression on me because they were part of my first direct exposure to China. And none of them may have happened if I hadn't been so eager to get out of the heat.

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