Travel Journal

Dongguan, China, 5/1-5/5

(Saturday 21 May 2011) by Joanne Chang
Before Mom arrives in China I stop in Dongguan province, halfway between Guangzhou and Shenzen, to visit Mr. Lee and see what "Made in China" is all about. Old family friends from Taiwan, the Lee's started out owning a dry cleaning business in Chicago, used that to start a Chinese shipping/export business, which evolved into furniture design and manufacturing business in Dongguan. I've never seen a factory in China but I'm prepared for something big and industrial, mass production and machinery, assembly-line automation. What I find is something much simpler. At Mr. Lee's, there isn't a machine making your comfy chair in China. There's a person here cutting the fabric, a person there sewing the fabric, a person downstairs building the wooden frame, another one covering the frame and stuffing the insides. Each working individually, diligently, building your chair bit by bit with their hands. Like a craft project. I'm surprised by the amount of manual labor involved, but this is how Mr. Lee's operation works, allowing him to be nimble and responsive. He takes me to his friends' factories including places that manufacture Homedics, wooden furniture for Costco, high-end lighting, weaving shops. Their production lines are more automated, but still very hands-on. So this is how our stuff is made. "Made in China" suddenly feels more personal, more real. And it looks like anything can be made pretty easily, you just need to know who to ask.

During one of our many conversations at the breakfast table, Mr. Lee tells me that the earthquake in Japan was caused by nuclear weapons testing. I hadn't heard such a thing, so that night I get online and start reading all this stuff about how the Japan earthquake, Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina were caused by this thing called HAARP, a technology aimed at controlling weather, global power, and the world's population. That the rains in the Bay Area following Japan were instigated to release nuclear matter into the air, poisoning the crops and the animals, that the food in California is known to be unsafe yet the government has withheld from issuing warnings. This in addition to the morning's news on Bin-Laden and last week's terrorist bombing at a cafe in Marrakech has me questioning the world -- What is going on out there? What can I trust? Are my friends and family going to die of cancer and is San Francisco next on the terrorist and earthquake list? I am overwhelmed by the instability of the world, feeling unsafe, and fearful for the people I love that I cannot be with right now. I am afraid. I talk to George and he calms me, reminds me that I cannot be afraid of something I have no control over. Death & Impermanence - we are all going to die and we don't know when. Deep breath. I close my computer and decide not to read anything on the internet for awhile.

The night before I leave, I find my one of my new sandals torn up by the Lee's dog. My favorite (and only) travel shoes that George brought me in Vietnam, waaaah. Within minutes, Mr. Lee has me off to the mall with a driver and assistant to get new shoes, but there are no such shoes here. Thenwait a minute! He has a factory, he has seamstresses. It's after-hours but the workers live onsite, so he calls in a favor and within 20 minutes my sandal is sewn back together. Magic. The next morning he delivers me to the airport, escorting me all the way to the security line. Ahhh, family. Then I'm off to meet Mom in Shanghai.


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