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Book Review: Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu

August 10, 2021 5 comments
Image of a digital bookcover. A yellow background with scissor open to cut three threads over it. The title of the book is in black. The author's name is in blue.

Summary:
When Anna Qu was in high school, she had her guidance counselor call child protective services because her mother was making her work without pay in the family sweatshop. In her memoir, she explores how her life went from living with her grandparents in China while her widowed mother pursued success in America to the level of division and problems with her mother that led to calling CPS. An exploration of sweatshops, immigration, and difficult relationships with family of origin.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by this book because I thought – wow, what kind of mother brings her child to the US only to turn around and force her to work in a sweatshop? I could wrap my head around a mother owning and running a sweatshop. I could even imagine having your child work in a sweatshop in a different cultural context (due to need, due to cultural expectations, etc…). But the usual immigration story is a desire for your child to have a better life than your own. How does that compute if your own life is owning the sweatshop? I had to find out.

Anna deftly uses this moment in her teen years as the way into telling her life story that is also simultaneously the story of her family, of immigration, of sweatshops, and of what happens when a family member is seemingly randomly selected as the one to be ostracized. Anna felt loved and wanted by her grandparents, but that all changed when she came to the US to join her mother, new stepfather, and two new half-siblings. But this is real life, not a fairy tale, so the change wasn’t instantaneous. To me, one of the most painful scenes of the book is the party the family threw when she arrived from China. Being able to bring a loved one over from China you had to leave behind was a real status marker and cause to be celebrated. How that party went awry and how the relationship with her mother started to fall apart was painful but eloquently told.

Of course because this is a memoir we never truly get to know Anna’s mother’s motivations. But we do get some of her perspective revealed through the case worker, case documents, and what Anna’s grandmother has to say about it. Anna is willing to explore the impact of intergenerational trauma on her mother, without excusing her mother’s actions.

Anna also explores the importance of belonging, and how that being denied outside of the family is even more important when it’s being denied inside of the family. Anna describes her role in her family as:

I was a ghost haunting a family that wanted nothing to do with me, and the loneliness left a tightness in my chest.

location 392

Yet she also explores being othered outside of her family as well. At school she’s different because she spends some time away attending a different school. (Her mother briefly sends her to boarding school in China). She also experiences being different when she goes away to college without any familial support. The fact that she has to advocate for herself, get herself declared independent from her family, that she has to struggle to find a place to go on winter breaks and more, these all serve to show how she doesn’t fit in. I thought this was a great example of ways that society should strive to be more inclusive, as we never know what people’s home lives are like.

Beyond exploring her family trauma, Anna also examines the two-pronged issue of sweatshop labor and workaholism as seen in many immigrant families. From her perspective, this starts out as a necessity and then becomes a way of being even when it’s not a necessity anymore. With regards to sweatshop labor, Anna points out how interesting it is that she could get out because of laws about child labor but somehow this same labor was acceptable among adults. She also talks about how much worse it is for those with no legal recourse, such as those working under the table. What are the societal issues that lead to someone working under the table and how can those be addressed?

There are no easy answers to the difficult questions and problematic situations described in this book. I think a strength of this book is how Anna points out abuse has to be really bad to be resolved in our country – whether talking about home abuse or work abuse – but there’s lot of other abuses that are still abusive that still hurt people’s souls that just keep happening with very little to no intervention. What makes people, workplaces, and cultures abuse some and not others is a central exploration of this book with no easy answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

June 30, 2011 3 comments

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Review:
My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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