Updated: Dec 8, 2020
June 2008. Sitting in business class definitely gives me the feeling that I own a business. I’ll take a piece of confidence from wherever I can get it at this point. The menu in business class definitely helps matters, as does the glass of sauvignon blanc. I’m flying China Air and I already feel like I am in a different world. I also can’t believe how many hours I will be sitting in this airplane. While my fellow passengers seem to carry the heaviness of “let me get settled in for this interminable journey across the Pacific” — I’m SO LOOKING FORWARD TO THE INTERMINABLE JOURNEY ACROSS THE PACIFIC. I’m going to be alone for how long? With nothing to do but read or watch a movie or sleep? Nowhere I have to be but here. No kids and no computer. It’s like a suspension of time. As we roll down the runway and go wheels up, the stress flows away from me and I — for the first time in a very, very long time — rest.
When I change planes in Taiwan, the calm is ripped away from me. I have to figure out where to go and the signs are not in English. People push by me to catch flights… and we have to go through another security line… and have our carry on bags screened once again. I follow the mass of humanity and hope that I’m heading in the right direction.
I’m not sure what day it is (for my body, which still thinks it’s in Los Angeles) as I get off the plane in Hong Kong. I look for Peter, my interpreter and factory rep, near the Burger King in the airport. We find each other, which is good since my Blackberry doesn’t seem to be set up to make international calls. Or else I’m not using the right code. I’ve been traveling for days it seems, and Peter asks me if I’m hungry. I’m not, as I’ve done nothing but sit on an airplane and eat. Instead of heading to the factory, Peter tells me he’s hungry and would I mind if he ordered something to eat? So we sit at the Burger King in the airport while he eats a hamburger. I’m in my business suit… and my period’s hit me full force… and suddenly I’m very tired and feel like I could use a shower. But I’m in Hong Kong and it’s the start of a business day and we’re about to head to Shenzhen — in mainland China — which is a 2 or 3 hour trek.
Peter finishes his hamburger and we begin our journey to Shenzhen. We take a van service that leaves from the airport. There isn’t a word in English anywhere, so I’m very grateful for Peter. I have no idea how I would get to this factory without him. I get into the van and 5 minutes into the drive I’m sound asleep. I wake up when I hear the van door open. Wow, that was fast! But we’re not anywhere near Shenzhen yet. We’re at a security checkpoint about to enter China. We have to give our passports up for inspection. This is when it hits me that I am entering a Communist country. I’m nervous as the guard looks over my passport. Not sure what I’m worried about, but this is a Communist guard so it seems worthy of my nerves. I’m in a van heading into a country that is known to treat its people in a very severe way and what on Earth could I do about it if they took me away right now? I’m grateful when the van door closes (after the guard has confirmed that we’re the people in our passports) and we’re on our way.
After three hours — which I have mostly slept through — the van lets us off at a Shenzhen train station. The factory owner is there to drive us to his factory. He doesn’t speak a word of English and so we just nod and smile to each other — something I will do a lot of over the next few days. I’m so aware of being the American who’s having a product made in a country where the labor is cheap. I imagine the factory owner and Peter think I’m a millionaire or something. We’re all holding on to whatever stereotypical image we have of each other to make sense of this awkward situation.
We get into the factory owner’s beat up, Mao-era Jeep. I’m in the backseat. Behind me in the storage area there are lots of materials, rolls of foam and fabric and odd manufacturing kinds of things. We head to the factory as the odd nut or bolt rolls around behind me, and from the front seat wafts the sound of Mandarin being spoken.
It’s a surprise when we stop and I’m told we’re having lunch. The place we’ve come to is like something out of a movie. It’s a wooden hotel or motel or restaurant — I can’t quite tell. There are steps to go up before the entrance, and they are lined with Chinese women in uniforms all smiling at me. They have little white Sound of Music hats on and dresses with white aprons. As we enter we pass tanks of fish. There are more waitstaff inside, and they’re smiling at me as I walk by. We’re taken into a private room for our lunch. I’m asked if I’d like to come choose our lunch from the fish tanks. I first find my way to the bathroom, which I am so happy to see. My husband had warned me to not drink much for a few hours before landing in Hong Kong, as he knew the drive to Shenzhen would present a challenge for a woman who needs to pee every half hour. There are no places to stop along the way. So I hurry to the restroom and when I return from that pit stop, I’m by the fish tanks and there are all kinds of creatures I’d prefer not to eat. Spiny and gooey and very intense. I try to explain that I would prefer something simple and plain. I can’t say I eat shrimp because I can see the shrimp walking around with their huge antennae and legs. We’re a long way from the frozen ones in the bag that have no resemblance to a living creature. So I say I like vegetables and rice and they look at me like I’m crazy.
We end up back in the private room where the factory owner sits eating some kind of appetizer while he watches the black and white television provided in the private rooms. He and I can’t talk to each other anyway, but it’s beyond strange to me to be having my first business lunch in China this way. Peter struggles between trying to make small talk with me and with the factory owner and the compelling soap opera that plays on the TV. It’s very dramatic stuff, as far as I can make out.
Food begins to arrive and I’m presented with so many items that I’m completely unable to stomach. The factory owner devours the shrimp and rips off the head and I can’t tell where the legs are ending up. I do my best to appear gracious but there’s no easy way to handle this situation. “My stomach isn’t feeling too well,” I say, which isn’t entirely a lie. Fuzzy things arrive in small bowls and I’m getting how misleading the whole Chinese restaurant concept in America really is. I don’t see a chow fun in my future anytime soon.
We get to the factory and I meet the factory owner’s wife. Her focus at the factory is on the sewing and design work. So basically all of the samples that I have received, she made. Which means all of the changes that I asked for and that weren’t made, SHE didn’t make. Time to smile and look very pleased to be here.
The entire factory is made up of this office space where the husband and wife work and an open work area for about 75 employees to sew at their workstations. There are bits of fabric and foam stuffing and thread strewn about. The workers look young, but not too young. I was worried about this; with what you hear goes on in China. And while it may be funny to say my product is “for children, made by children” I don’t really want this to be the case. They do look young, but I’m hoping that they are in their late teens and early twenties. The wife and I have a discussion (via Peter) about what doesn’t work for me about the samples, and she says she will make a new sample for me with these changes. She says she’ll have it ready in a few hours. I guess this is why I flew to China.
Peter feels good about the progress we make at the factory and is grateful I made the trip. He explains, “It’s very hard to understand the kind of design changes you wanted by talking about it on the phone. The factory is happy to have this job but mainly they are looking forward to the giant order you will place when you begin selling in Wal-Mart. At this point they are losing money on such a small, 10,000-piece order.” He laughs a little to lighten his bummer message.
“Oh, yes,” I tell him. “I’m looking forward to selling blankyclips at Wal-Mart too!” I let out a little chuckle.
“We want an order for MILLIONS of blankyclips!” he says. And now his laugh is even more committed.
We are both laughing but the two of us have no idea how funny this conversation truly is.