The 7 train flooded with natural light as we emerged from underground, and Long Island City’s graffitied rooftops, prewar buildings and brick warehouses come into view. The commute from school to my parents’ garment factory in Queens was a 25-minute bus ride, a transfer and then another 35 minutes on the subway. After stepping off the packed train, I walked down a sidewalk lined with abandoned warehouses, their windows cloudy, cracked and boarded up with pieces of plywood. Unmarked trucks and vans passed once in a while. Three long blocks from the station, a large commercial dumpster sat in front of a pair of dark green double doors. No one went in or out, and there was no way to see inside, but I knew the place. I worked here every day after school and on the weekends. It was my latest punishment.
I used my body as leverage to pull on the metal door. Immediately — even before I was fully in — a gust of stale air lifted the hair off my shoulders and neck and whipped it around my face. Goose bumps ran along my arms and the back of my neck. The door slammed shut behind me with a mechanical thud, the calm outside disappeared, and the sounds of a working factory took over.
A few tall windows brought in natural light while the rest of the warehouse lay in shadow. The sewing machine section, the only area with any direct lighting, was busy with women wearing disposable masks over their mouths, and forearm coverings. The masks protected against the debris and pollutants in the air, and the oversleeves protected their arms from the heat of the lamps.
From where I stood, I could see two rows of sewing tables, each slightly larger than a school desk, illuminated by individual lamps. Lighting was key to speed and safety here. As the women leaned on the pedals at their feet, their bodies lurched forward in a soft concave, meeting the rhythm of rapid stitches at their fingers. Two shades of maroon thread turned at their spool pins. Once in a while, a hand shot out, tugged on a thread and unspooled a spindle. I rarely saw faces, only the tops of their backs, circular spotlights exposing the whiteness of their necks.
The only memory I had of the factory before becoming a worker was on Chinese New Year, the one day of the year my parents closed shop. My mother, my half siblings, Henry and Jill, and I came early in the mornings to stuff gift bags. We formed an assembly line; I was at the head, a reluctant Henry stood next to me, followed by Jill and then my mother. She sat licking the tip of her index finger, peeling crisp twenties and sealing them in red envelopes. It was hard to keep Henry working for more than a few minutes at a time, but Jill, a year younger than him, loved chores and tasks. She tossed a handful of red candy into each plastic bag, one eye always on our mother, seeking assurance and approval.
I remembered the warehouse feeling cavernous, cold and quiet. Our voices carried over the entire space. The vast size made us giddy, nervous. I remembered running from the echoes that lurked in the shadows like waiting ghosts. We raced back to our mother and back to complete our task. A running factory filled with workers was worlds apart from the deserted warehouse where we played Chinese Santa Claus. But from the number of gift bags we put together, I knew there were about 50 regular employees. There was no way to count the people in the factory now, tucked behind and around the machines, moving from one station to another. The enormity of the warehouse intimidated me still.
A long thread landed in the corner of my mouth and I wiped my face with the back of my sleeve. Industrial metal fans strategically placed around the warehouse circulated flat, hot air. The constant turbulence was meant to provide relief, but instead it annoyed and unsettled. Trash, loose thread, plastic, lint and pieces of fabric migrated from the nearby surfaces, crevices and floors, revolving in the air until they caught on something or someone. I looked over to the office, where my mother was most likely doing inventory, planning new projects or handling payroll. Then I headed in the opposite direction. I passed an old, dank fridge next to a small island with an off-white microwave and a commercial-sized rice cooker that could feed all the workers. Past the kitchen was the women’s restroom. A light bulb flickered on and off, and then on again. The smell of ammonia mingled with rice and leftovers hit me as I passed by.
To my left, I paused as an older Chinese man shouted urgently to a younger man, his voice drowned out by the hiss of the steam press they operated. It was a father and son. Or an uncle and nephew. I wasn’t sure which, but they were close enough to my station that I was familiar with their routine. They operated a commercial steamer with an extended hose on a tall rack for garments. Steam rose out of a wide head or out of the large iron resting on the oversized board. Their station was one of the reasons the factory was always hotter and more humid than it was outside. The father manned the machine, the more dangerous job, while the son ran inventory, pulling clothing off the steamer hook or iron press and then quickly folding and packaging them in boxes or clear garment bags on racks. Their speed and intimacy made it look easy, but they were both drenched in sweat.
Up close, they were older than I thought. The older man could have been in his 50s. He lifted a lever and quickly moved out of the way. Steam rose in a white cloud above them and was swiftly picked up by the fans, leaving a metallic humidity in the air. The smell reminded me of the first day we turned the heat on in the winter. The son swooped in and lifted the shirt off the press. Each piece was newly starched and pressed before they left the factory. He worked hastily, turning to lift the next shirt off.
A short, weathered Chinese man hurried by, dumping black trash bags of fabric and thread a few feet from where I stood. It was Mr. Wang, my mother’s eyes and ears. I pulled another loose thread from my lip and picked up my pace.
Hip-hop music was coming from my station as I approached. Six women stood around a long wood table, each holding a bundle of fabric in their hands. The cutting girls, as I liked to call them, shifted and made room for me. I dropped my Jansport book bag on the concrete floor and felt something wrap around my ankle. We stood close to two fans, and they often blew fabric, thread and pieces of paper off the table and onto us. Without glancing down, I used my free leg to kick whatever it was off.
One of the younger women, the jester in the group, was swaying from side to side and humming. She always drew smiles and laughter from the other women. Once in a while, she’d hear a song that got her dancing. Her energy was so contagious, she could get the whole team moving to the same rhythm. I gave her a quick smile as I pulled my hair from my face and up in a ponytail in preparation for my work.
My job was to cut loose thread off half-completed or finished articles of clothing. An unfamiliar mountain of maroon fabric sat at the center of the table. We must have received a new order this morning. I motioned at an older woman at the end of the table with my free hand. If new inventory came in and I was at school, she showed me what to do. She seemed to be the natural leader of the table. She often quieted us if we grew too playful and garnered looks from other workers. She moved slowly, but somehow managed to accomplish tasks nimbly and efficiently.
“Tranquillo,” she said during the first weekend I worked. She put her hand over my scissors and gave them a shake. I was working too fast, giving myself another blister. I wanted the long workday to be over, but she understood something I didn’t — moving faster didn’t make the day go faster. If we finished this project, there would be another. There would always be another project.
“Tranquillo,” she said one final time.
Our group worked on orders as a collective. Some orders took a couple of days while others took weeks or a month to complete. We never knew how many more days, how many bundles of fabric were left, or if there was a deadline. There was a large bin near the table, and as long as that bin was filled, we had work to do. It was our job to keep our heads down, do the work and not ask questions. The rules at the factory weren’t so different from the rules at home.
If we finished this project, there would be another. There would always be another project.
My thread trimmers were exactly where I’d left them. I was the latest member to join the table, so I was left with a pair of scissors no one wanted. They were dull except at the very tip. To use them effectively, I had to snip as hard as I could at just the right angle. Otherwise, the dull blade would require three to four snips. As soon as I picked them up, the inner ring rubbed an open blister between my thumb and index finger. It was impossible to keep the wound clean.
The older woman caught my wave and nodded. The girl next to me shifted to let her in. Like most low-skilled workers here, we were paid by the hour. We stood in the same spot day in and day out. Our projects varied from cutting loose threads to tying knots and bows, to gluing patterns. It was menial, tedious, relentless work. We stood in place, shifting our weight from one foot to the other. Our feet and ankles swelling, necks and shoulders cramping, backs aching. We developed sores, blisters, calluses from the repetitive motions as we trimmed, cut, knotted, and on occasion, glued, tied and folded. We developed lean shoulders, thick calves. The tasks generally took a few seconds to learn but were endless in execution. The only time we looked up or moved was to collect more work. Everyone watched the clock; how quickly we worked was the only bit of control we had. If we could enjoy a song on the radio, it was time we gained back. For three to five minutes, our minds could be elsewhere. We saw it as a form of freedom.
Like any other job, there was a hierarchy at the factory. There was management: my parents, Mr. Wang and an accountant, who did everything from procuring deals to mocking up prototypes as samples to paying the workers. There were the fabric cutters who cut shapes out of yards of raw fabric, the sewers at the sewing station who put the raw pieces together, the women at our table who trimmed, the runners who moved inventory in and around the factory, the steamers and packers who readied the final products and the drivers who picked up supplies and dropped off orders. The Chinese workers, who spoke the same language as the management, had access to more information, competitive pay and, sometimes, the freedom to come and go. One of the unspoken policies was that the more skilled the worker, the fewer limitations there were. For example, the quick-fingered sewers were paid per item instead of per hour. Most pieces paid between half a cent and 5 cents each, and the amount of money each sewer made depended on their speed and the amount of time they wanted to put in. They all competed on the orders that were quickest to finish and paid the most, and sometimes that meant forgoing lunch and bathroom breaks and working overtime and on Sundays. When lucrative projects came in, they worked nonstop, but they also had the freedom to take days off when things were slow. Rumor had it, some of the skilled sewers worked at other sweatshops like independent contractors. There were at least three seats vacant today.
Up close, the older woman was shorter, her body rounder. Her hair was pulled back in a tight, gelled ponytail, like the rest of the women. She had a shiny coat of lip gloss on, but wore no other makeup. In her hand, she brought the shirt she was working on. I nodded as she spoke in Spanish. Whenever I thought I knew what she was saying, the meaning disappeared. Fortunately, our tasks were never complicated, and I could follow her just by watching her hands. It was no different than when I first started elementary school and spent the first few years deciphering what I needed from body language, facial expressions, gestures and pauses.
She turned the Henley shirt until it was facing us and began to cut the loose strings from the sleeves. Then, with expert maneuvering, she used the tips of her clippers to tease the strands of loose thread out from under and around the three buttons along the collar. She made two snips and excess thread fell onto the table. Immediately, the fan picked up the thread and it skated off. I could see that the sewers had used one continuous thread to sew all three buttons for speed, and it was our job to clean up their work. I nodded again, said gracias, and grabbed a stack of shirts to work on.
Each snip dug into the old broken blister on my hand. I clenched my teeth and focused on teasing the maroon thread around the black buttons. The tips of my clippers felt clumsy compared with the demonstration I’d just seen. My hand throbbed and felt hot to the touch. But methodically, I clipped the loose thread from each sleeve and then around the buttons one at a time. After a dozen shirts, I settled in.
I’ve never been very good at waiting. As a toddler, after my mother left me with Nie Nie and Azi, my grandparents, to follow the path to the American dream, I learned to wait for her return. I waited through breaths, meals, baths, fights with my Azi, rides on my bike; I waited until wounds from my scrapes scabbed and healed, until my hair grew long enough for two tight braids, until holes spread in my underwear. As a child, every year stretched longer than the life I had lived, and soon, I could no longer remember what it felt like to have a mother, only what it was like to be without one.
“Ka la, ka la,” they said, soon, soon. They were the soothers — my grandmother, aunts, cousins and even my mother over the static landline. Neighbors and Nie Nie’s friends joined in, balancing their tongues on the roofs of their mouths to make the same sounds until they played on a loop in my head. Ka la, ka la. When the neighborhood boys taunted me because I was fatherless and now motherless, I repeated the words in my mind like a mantra. Ka la, ka la.
No one knew how long it would take for her to return, not even my mother. Time passed as it does, pity turned into stretches of silence, and silence turned into awkwardness and avoidance.
No one knew how long it would take for her to return, not even my mother.
I was the girl without parents; a father dead, a mother who left Wenzhou, China, to start a new life. The waiting for my mother’s failing promise steeped like tea, growing dark and bitter, coloring everything and finding its way into my interactions with others. I took it out on my grandparents, on girls trying to be my friends, on boys who refused to be my friends. I was wild, angry and resentful of the community that took pity on me because ka la had turned into five years and the cadences in their hushed voices now told me my mother would never come.
In 1991, when I was 7 years old, my mother finally reappeared in my life. Azi, Nie Nie and I bathed with water heated from the stove. We carefully combed and parted our hair, dressed in our best outfits and set out before the neighborhood rooster’s first crow. We spent half the morning traveling to the city by boat and then by bus. It was the first time I saw my grandparents disoriented, their eyes darting around the congested streets, loud vendors shouting and hordes of city people moving impatiently with places to go. They looked frail in their oversized clothes, eager expressions and tight handgrips.
The heels of my mother’s 3-inch stilettos, echoing down the long corridor of Wenzhou International Airport, announced her arrival. Somehow after an 18-hour flight, she was wearing pressed business slacks and a perfectly starched white shirt. Her hair was fashionably cropped, dyed and styled, and her face was freshly made up. When she stopped in front of us, and the waiting finally came to an end, I didn’t recognize her. I hid behind Nie Nie’s slacks, shielding myself from the confrontation, from the person for whom I’d waited five long years. Nie Nie yanked me from behind her, told me to greet my mother. “Call her Mother,” she said. I recognized the stranger’s voice from the staticky phone calls we had every two weeks, but I held tightly to Nie Nie’s leg, too overwhelmed by the newness of having a mother to respond.
She had been away long enough to learn to dress well and leave behind her country manners. Azi called it “acting big.” His daughter had made it, and like China’s disillusioned leader, she had made sacrifices for a greater good and was now transformed. It wasn’t customary for adults to be physical, so my mother only exchanged words with her father and reached for her mother’s arm affectionately.
After she spoke to both of them for a few minutes, she squatted down on her heels. Her face, inches from mine, rang a command. You know me, I’m your mother. You know me.
From Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2021 by Anna Qu.