Once upon a time in America, factories were the bedrock of industrialization. During World War 2, the women who worked in military-bound steel factories revolutionalized how we viewed workforce and women. America, since then, has never been the same.
Fast forward fifty years, this country is still teeming with factories and factory workers. They are no longer the same people that precipitated the industrial revolution. Many of them are immigrants, legal or otherwise, from other countries who have no choice but to work in these “sweatshops” because of their lack of language skills and work experience.
When we first came to this country, my mother also worked in a factory, a carpet factory, an experience that would prove to be short-lived as my warrior-mother had no tolerance for oppressive cultures. She eventually found a way out. However, many women, for various reasons, don’t ever get out of these work situations. The whole debate about immigration also touches on the kind of jobs that immigrants take and allegedly native-born Americans don’t want. Many of my students over the years also work in such factories. It seems that in America today, if you are an unskilled immigrant and lacks language proficiency, factory work will be part of your American rite of passage.
The Sweatshop Teacher
For almost ten years of my working life, I spent my Sundays in Brooklyn Chinatown, teaching Survival English to sweatshop workers. I was invited to teach by a co-worker and good friend who also once worked in the sweatshops. At the time, I had only organized in immigrant communities and did not really have any experience teaching. But I thought I’d give it a shot.
Through my human rights work, I was familiar with the oppressive environments that poor people experienced in the otherwise very wealthy city of New York. Human Rights organizing, after all, was my full time job, one which extended outside my paid hours. It was the nineties, and activism was at its height in New York City, a possible byproduct of the Reagan years. For me, it was a decade of self-expression and exploration, as I was searching for a place in the world, and was finding my new America to be full of contradictions. It was also around the same time when I met a very close and small network of writer friends who were very concerned about the position of Asian American literature in the larger American literary space. So to speak, my plate was full, but still, I woke up early on Sundays to travel by the N train to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which on weekends, was a test on patience.
Brooklyn Chinatown is the younger sister of the notorious Manhattan Chinatown by lightyears. At the time, the Chinatown in Brooklyn seemed like one big secret; nobody knew it was there except the Chinese community that lived around it. The teachers and students would gather in a public high school. I didn’t attend a U.S. high school, much less a public one; suffice to say, it was an eye-opener for me. All my students were Chinese, mostly mothers. Sometimes they would come with their children, especially on registration day. As it turned out, the children were the cultural translators, a big responsibility for young people.
Our goal was to equip these sweatshop workers with enough work-related English so that they could advocate for themselves in their sweatshops. Although I began this blog with an image of the American factory during World War 2, I invite you to reconsider that romantic image and replace it with more harrowing ones, for such was the reality of sweatshop life in New York City. No Rosie the Riveter in Chinatown. The hours were often very long. They got paid by piece, as opposed to by hour. That means if their job was to put holes on buttons, they got paid per button. In fact, if you asked them what kind of job they had, they would tell you very specific parts of a piece of clothing: the hem, the buttons, the sleeves, etc. Nevertheless, my classroom was always full of students. They got early on Sunday even if they had worked the day before and went to class to learn English.
It was my introduction to a career that I have held since: Adult Literacy Education (ALE). English was urgent. What they learned in class on Sunday proved to be useful for Monday. Sometimes, they would bring forms to class, government forms, so that we could look at them and study the words. They asked me questions about the forms that their own children couldn’t translate. I was deeply moved by what these children have to do for their sweatshop mothers. I couldn’t understand how anyone that age could translate a legal document, but I knew there was no other choice.
The Children of the Sweatshop Workers
There were many things that their limited English proficiency couldn’t not bridge. These were the ones I was most curious about. I wanted to know exactly what happened at home, or during the week that I didn’t see them. Who were taking care of the kids, how were they doing in school? Although I grew up in a rather similar situation in Manila, my family always had a host of extended family members who were always there. I never really felt alone. And I also attended a private Catholic school that made sure I wasn’t alone. For these children of Chinatown, it would have been a totally different experience.
Sometimes my students wouldn’t show up in class. When they came the Sunday after, they would tell me where they had been: “Go to Con-necticah,” or “Go to Mas-sachuseh.” They would take the Chinatown buses to these places, and they would do this on a regular basis. At the time, my naivete made me wonder why anyone would travel that far to play Mahjong.
At the end of the year, the program would have a holiday party for everyone. It was a highly elaborate gathering of Chinese foodfest and performances that included the whole family, especially the children. Some of them were college age and would come wearing their respective school sweatshirts. It finally dawned on me why the mothers were going to Connecticut and Massachusetts. They were visiting their kids at MIT, Harvard, and Yale. It would have been so easy to just tell me “My kid goes to Harvard” like any proud parent would, but perhaps they didn’t completely grasp the value of such a brand.
The American Dream
A week ago, I had a pleasure of introducing a writer I have known for ten years at the Asian American Writers Workshop. She came back to New York City from Amsterdam for a book tour of her mega-first novel, Girl in Translation. I met her when I published her work in my anthology, The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City, a book that marked the 100 year presence of Asians in NYC. What I didn’t know about Jean Kwok, the author, was that her mother was a sweatshop worker and she herself spent many years in one. Of course, that Jean went to Harvard was no longer a big surprise, or the fact that she has written a book about the experience.
When Jean presented her wonderful book to a youngish audience at the workshop, my disparate worlds of activism, teaching, and literature merged into a full circle. My friends and I organized the Asian American Writers Workshop around the same time that I was teaching at the sweatshops. To hear Jean’s side of the story brought me back many years. Finally, here was a book that I would have loved to have read with my students in Chinatown. I remember using the text for Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone, because it was the only Chinese American book that dealt with authentic Chinese American experience that didn’t happen in a beauty parlor (e.g. The Joy Luck Club). But even Bone was not reflective enough of the Chinatown experience.
When Jean Kwok signed my copy of her novel, Girl in Translation, she unknowingly gave me the key to a world that for so many years I had longed to know more about. Those were determining years of my young life, when I, an immigrant myself, came face to face with a world that literally changed the direction of my working life. The dreams of those Chinatown mothers became mine.
Related Reading: Jean Kwok’s book, Brooklyn Chinatown, The Asian American Writers Workshop, Rosie the Riveter, Women in War Jobs – Rosie the Riveter (Ad Council), Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), Angry Asian Man Blog,